Taking a risk

Oumou with a framed copy of her Times piece.

In the last unit of 12th grade English, our students write “100-word stories,” modeled after the New York Times column “Modern Love Stories.” At the end of the unit, each student submits their best story to the New York Times. 

This year, one of our students, Oumou Sow, was published by the Times. Her piece was “Sprinting in Senior Spring.” Here is her story.

How it all started

To be honest, I never took the assignment that seriously. I never thought I’d be the one to get published. 

It all started with my class’s science fair. We were outside in the field for one of the science experiments. My friend and I were hungry and we wanted to eat burek, an Albanian food you can get at the pizzeria. We asked our teacher and of course she said no. I knew we shouldn’t leave in the middle of the science fair, and I had never cut class, but it seemed like such an adventurous thing to do. We were outside, there were lots of kids, no one would notice, and it was the end of our senior year. 

So we still snuck out and ate burek. I felt a little guilty, but we didn’t get caught and I ended up winning the science fair. 

A few days later in English class, I thought, why not write about that experience? I finished the story in 5 minutes. 

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Why I write this blog

Years ago when I started this blog, a colleague asked me why I was writing it. She didn’t understand and for some reason, I felt embarrassed explaining. She kept asking, “But why?” and I kept giving reasons that were like bland, mushy oatmeal: “I like writing”, “It’s just a thing I want to try.” It never occurred to me to say, “Why not write a blog?”

I now have answers to both questions. 

Why do I write this blog? 

  1. I am in awe of my job as a principal, and I want a record of it. 
  2. I write myself out of my worst disappointments. 
  3. I am happiest when I am creating something.
  4. It brings my students to life. 
  5. I want more truth to be available about myself than untruth. 
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Graduation Day

Delivering their speeches, the class of 2022 shined particularly bright at this year’s graduation. 

Elira,* the class president from Albania, talked about “The breakfast club,” when her math teacher would open the classroom early and chat with the students over school muffins and yogurt. 

Adam from Yemen joked about meeting “my first bald teacher,” who was demanding yet caring in pushing his students to write. 

Christina, our valedictorian from Dominican Republic, reflected on the challenges of Calculus. 

Oumou from Senegal was still glowing over getting a piece published in the New York Times, a Modern Love Story, “Sprinting in Senior Spring.” 

On the day of our graduation, the Supreme Court was overturning Roe vs. Wade.

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A job I won’t delegate

At our school this year, we do a “grab and go ” lunch in which students can grab a packaged hot lunch and take it home, or eat it in a classroom. We did this to avoid using the cafeteria due to COVID. To make sure students don’t get hungry earlier in the day, we give them a mid-day snack. 

We discovered early on that some lunches were more popular than others: chicken nuggets and french fries? There would be a frenzy of students and not a single meal would be left over. Fish and green beans? We’d end up with 50 leftovers. (Unfortunately the healthier the lunch, the less popular it is. Luckily we had a teacher who took the leftovers to a food pantry where they were much appreciated.)

To get our lunch quantities right, I assigned myself the job of visiting the cafeteria kitchen every morning. I chat with the staff, learn what they’re serving, and then together, we make a lunch estimate so there’s minimal waste. 

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A bird in the room

It’s been a quiet year to work in a school building: 10 or fewer kids per class seated six feet apart, wearing masks, while the other 2/3 of our students did remote learning from home. No more interruptions or discipline problems. I felt almost like I had an office job, hopping onto Zoom meetings and online classrooms most of the day. 

Before the pandemic, we had a system for responding to discipline or other classroom problems: teachers would send a group text, and an administrator or counselor would respond. However, this year, we hadn’t received a single “need help” text. 

Suddenly, one day in May, I got a text from a teacher, Ms. M. “Can you come to room 304? I need help.” 

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Being the adult

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Street art Mott Haven, Bronx

As I’m hiring for the next school year, I’m starting to see a key teacher quality I hadn’t recognized before: the ability to be an adult around teenagers.

This may sound obvious.  What I mean is that the teacher knows that they are the adult, and that the student is a kid who may not yet possess all of the politeness, life skills, and behaviors they need to be productive and have good relationships.  The teacher knows that as the adult, they have the main responsibility for creating a respectful relationship.

As I’m interviewing teacher candidates, I see two ways of approaching teens:

The first way is the adult/responsible way, and it ranges from a calm neutrality—“Teenagers are teenagers, they have their ups and downs, let’s keep teaching and not take it personally”—to compassion—“It’s tough to be a teenager and we need to guide kids through this time in their life.”

The second way is the victim way, a constant skirmish between the teacher and student: “They’re making it difficult for me to deliver my lesson” or “I’m not letting Student X back into my class until he apologizes.” Continue reading

Just a fun class

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A class of 2019 graduate’s cap.

The High School of Language and Innovation was founded in 2011, and this year was our school’s fifth graduating class, the Class of 2019.

Each graduating class has been unique in its personality.  They have different quirks and different gifts.  As I planned my graduation speech, I thought, “What make this class special?”

Many answers came up, but one word kept rising above all others, a word I didn’t expect.

When I actually stood up to give my speech, I asked the graduates themselves: “What makes you unique as a class?”  Continue reading

The graduation finish line

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Student artwork at the High School of Language and Innovation.

The path to graduation is different for every student, and so is our approach.
For some kids, we race to keep up with them: they excel in every course, so we look for new opportunities and train teachers to lead advanced courses.
For other kids, it’s a matter of holding their hand: we offer extra tutoring and pair them up with classmates who can support them. We encourage them. Sometimes, these students need a lot of support in 9th and 10th grade, and then turn into great students by 12th grade.
Finally, there are a few kids we drag towards graduation. Often, these are students who are academically ready to enter college, but find ways of failing courses at the last minute. It might be the fear of change and leaving high school forever, or maybe just needing some attention. For example, a student who has passed all required exams and courses might do everything they can to fail their last semester of gym.

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No school, no dance?

glow sticks dance.jpgA couple of weeks ago, Sami arrived at our school dance.  Sami is a dynamic 12th grader who is passionate about basketball and Star Wars.  He is a charmer and a social butterfly.  He looked excited at the entrance to the dance, surrounded by his friends, ready to pay his $5 entrance fee.

The only problem was, he had skipped school that day.  In fact, he had skipped many days of school this year: over 30 days.

One of the biggest predictors of student success is attendance.  My school is comprised of 380 students, most of whom are newcomer English Langauge Learners.  Missing even one day of school can throw learning off-course. Continue reading

Anchored to a dream

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Students taking apart a computer in a computer science class at High School of Language and Innovation.

Eldan* is in the 10th grade. He’s charming, originally from Montenegro, and a talented soccer player. However, he frequently comes late to school and until we started to address it, he would often cut classes. We have a few Eldans in every grade: not openly resistant or disrespectful, but also not always able to see the point of school.

This year, I realized that rather than being frustrated by such behavior, I could be curious. Does Eldan see the point of school? Are we communicating that school is a “have to because you have to”? Or are we communicating that school is a “get to” that leads to possibilities?

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