If you elect me, you can bring your cell phones to class

immigrant students art photo“If you elect me, you can bring your cell phones to class.”

With that, the crowd erupted and I witnessed the power of political temptation in our student government elections. David, a quiet student from Guinea, was delivering his speech to be an Eleventh Grade Senator.

Why did David’s promise get such a big reaction? Because the administration collects students’ phones to minimize distraction.*

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The things are not so easy

immigrant students in schoolIn one of our English as a New Language classrooms,* students were given index cards with the task “Describe yourself in six words,” and then instructed to post the cards on a bulletin board.  The cards said so much: “I miss my friends in Vietnam,” “I want to be a doctor,” “I think more than I speak.”  One was written by Carlos, who came to this country last year from the Dominican Republic: “The things are not so easy.”   Continue reading

Bananas are 4011

bananasWhen I was sixteen, I got a job as a cashier at the local IGA supermarket.  Every fruit had a code used for weighing it, and bananas were the first one I memorized: 4011.  I was proud that I knew things like this.  I liked being useful.

A few years ago I read a book called “The Case Against Adolescence” by Robert Epstein, which said until about 100 years ago, adolescence didn’t exist.  People were children, who then became adults.  After you stopped being a child, you were an adult with responsibility, whether that was getting married and having your own child, working, apprenticing, hunting, joining the army, helping your family with a farm or business or household.  You went from being a child who learned how to be a useful older child, who then became a useful young adult.  Which has recently got me thinking about students who have part-time jobs and what they get from it: Continue reading

Big kids need recess too

playing soccer at school

Last year, our graduation rate was 68% in June, and increased to 73% in August. 

This year, our graduation rate is 60% in June, eight points below last year.

I confess, I would love to have handed diplomas to every student.  For a week or so, I’ve felt as though the dog ate my optimism.  I would like it back,  please.

Yet it’s hard to stay uninspired for long when I come into contact with students, or listen to just about anyone.  The other day, an 11th grade student from another high school in the Bronx called me on my cell phone to ask if she could take geometry in my school over the summer.  I didn’t know her and don’t know how she got my number  but was inspired by her research, resourcefulness, and chutzpah. Continue reading

Clearing the one armed bandits

cleaned school deskThree times a year, our classrooms transform: round tables are replaced with rows of tablet-armed desks during the state testing weeks of January, June, and August.   We call these desks one-armed bandits.

The change from tables to desks is a physically dramatic event.  The classroom turns from an expansive, wide space with 6-7 round tables, to a tightly–packed, orderly box filled with metal and laminate desks.  Continue reading

Drugged with notes

Notes pictureI started my teaching career in September 2000 at Intermediate School 33 in Brooklyn, a school that has since closed.  I was hired to teach 8th grade English at the same time as Sara Milstein, both of us recent college graduates who quickly became friends.

On the first day, we introduced our rules to our students.  “What happens if you break them?” asked a student.  We weren’t sure.

The first several months of our teaching careers were an exercise in containing classroom chaos, and many times, we ended the day in tears.
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Mister, why are you teaching math if you could be a singer?

Sunset Bronx River Parkway by julie narimanYesterday, Mr. W started his trigonometry class by singing.  He sang “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain acapella, in a beautiful tenor vibrato. “It’s the song I used for my American Idol audition,” he told the class.

At their best, this particular group of 11-12th graders are curious and excited about learning.  At their worst, they can be cynical and complaining, and can wear a teacher down.

As Mr. W was singing, though, the students visibly melted, and  smiles broke out.
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Be like Omolaja

immigrant studentsMr. Omolaja is a presence.*

The other day, I was in the cafeteria with Mr. Omolaja, and our radar went to Manuel, a student with  his pants halfway down his thighs.  He was slouching.

Mr. Omolaja gestured for Manuel to come over. Manuel ambled over cowboy-style, the only option for walking given the level of his pants.

Mr. Omolaja gestured to his own belt, which was at his waist.

“Manuel, pull your pants up,” he said.  “Be like Omolaja.” Continue reading

Featured backpack

backpackMiguel,* a 12th grader, has the peacock of backpacks, a thing of color that is wildly beautiful and proud.

Miguel himself is like a peacock, colorful, dynamic, a born leader.  He arrived  in 2012 from Dominican Republic halfway through 9th grade and at that time, used his leadership to lead himself and group of other boys into trouble.

Between 9th and 10th grade, though, he suddenly matured. He started to study, passing the state Algebra exam in 10th grade.**

However, in the 11th grade, he stopped attending school, and started working full-time in a restaurant.  We tried hard to get him to return, with little success.

This year, he suddenly came back with a sense of urgency.   Continue reading

There’s a yellow M&M in stairwell six

yellow M&M“There’s a yellow M&M in stairwell six, on the second floor,” I said to a staff member.  “Could you find a student to clean it up?”

He smiled at me, but nodded.  I could tell he was thinking, “An M&M? Only an M&M?”  We’ve had much worse in our stairwells: milk cartons, used napkins, and my personal un-favorite: ketchup smeared on the banisters.

“Only” an M & M is progress: it means my staff is enlisting students to clean the stairwells throughout the day, which is exactly what I want them to do. Continue reading