As the principal of a high school that serves newcomer English Language Learners, I track many pieces of students data: progress with English, attendance, participation in clubs and sports, grades, test scores, etc.
Yet sometimes, a seemingly insignificant moment teaches me more about my school than any piece of official data.
Last week, I was walking past the cafeteria while my students were eating lunch. I heard the normal sounds of lunchtime: over 300 students talking loudly, the occasional shriek of laughter or flirtation.
And, the smell of oranges. Continue reading
Last week, I wrote about a student who sent an angry email to a teacher during winter break. I talked about my own initial instinct to “jump to punishment” instead of finding out what had happened.
Returning from break, I was reminded of another layer of complexity: the parents’ pressure to punish.
The day we returned from break, I assumed that the student who wrote the email would feel remorseful. We would start off with discussing why the email was a problem, the student would apologize, and all would be well.
Nope: the student returned to school angry, sure that he was “right” to express his feelings in the email.
A student in traditional Albanian dress.
I am the principal of a truly multicultural school: almost all of the students in my school are newcomer immigrants from over 23 countries all over the world.
Three years ago, we started a tradition of having “cultural assemblies” in which students from each culture would lead a school-wide assembly sharing the history, music, dance, dress, and customs of their culture.
This year, we started with the Albanian assembly. Our Albanian population is relatively small, and deeply proud of their culture. My staff had always told me that the Albanian assembly was beautiful but at times, the most challenging to organize: the students are brilliant and dynamic. However, the students also have strong opinions and disagreements about their history and traditions. Continue reading
Student artwork, High School of Language and Innovation.
As our 12th-grade students are applying for colleges, our staff writes recommendations for them. The students email the recommender a “brag sheet” of their accomplishments, goals, and life experiences. I have had the privilege of writing several recommendations this year, and love how much I learn about our students through the process.
One young man, who I see as a leader, described his only accomplishment as “good at sports.” He was totally unaware of his own greatness. I made sure to describe his leadership, such as the times I’ve seen him guiding 9th graders to do the right thing.
One young lady wrote an assertive brag sheet in organized bullet points. Reading it, I remembered how she had volunteered one summer to organize all of our classroom libraries and then ensured that I wrote a letter documenting her community service. This year, she started a dance club, which has become our most well-attended club. I felt appreciation for her ambition and how she has made the school a better place.
One young man, Samuel, * was a surprise to me. Continue reading
This year, my school is focusing on raising the achievement of boys. I’ve learned that supporting boys goes beyond good teaching: we need to show boys more options for how to “be a man.”
Most boys have an idea of what it is to be a man. It’s often a child’s idea of being “hard” or “tough,” “independent.” A principal colleague of mine said he and his staff consciously teach their 9th graders to lose the “tough guy” attitude and just be kids; be students.
This week, I found myself in a conference with a student, Hassan,* and one of my teachers, Matt. Hassan had hit another student who had been calling him a “little boy” and making teasing gestures towards him.
In the past, we might have said, “The next time someone teases you, tell a teacher or administrator.” However, we saw that an 18-year-old boy who sees himself as a man may not want to run to a teacher to solve his problems.
As a teacher, I used to look forward to summer vacation. As a principal, summer is precious work time. While I have a few weeks of vacation that I take here and there, I work for most of the summer. There’s a lot to do: supervising summer school, planning for the following year, hiring teachers.
There’s also a magic to summer school. While long-term planning for the year is intense, things also slow down. I have a tiny staff of 5 teachers and 3 support staff, and I get to work closely with them in a way that would be impossible during the school year with a much larger staff of 40 people.
The best part about summer school: some of the boys who struggled the most during the school year have transformed into fantastic students. Continue reading
My school is a school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners. With recent events at the Mexican border, I have been thinking about the parents of my students and their journeys in coming to the United States with their children. This past week, I had the opportunity to speak with the father of Marcos. * Marcos is a student from Peru who came to the U.S. when he was in the 9th grade.
This past week, Marcos won an award for graduating seniors from the Bronx United Federation of Teachers. Marcos and 30 other students each won a laptop, a wireless printer and a backpack full of supplies, all to set them up for success in their first year of college. At the awards ceremony, I sat next to Marcos’s father and learned more about him. Continue reading
Self-portrait created by a student at the High School of Language and Innovation.
“I don’t like social studies class,” Michael told me. Michael is a 9th-grade student from the Dominican Republic. “The kids at my table speak Arabic too much.”
Looking in on a class in my school, you’ll see groups of students composed of different cultures sitting together. Our school is for English Language Learners from all over the world. Complaints and situations like Michael’s are common, especially in 9th grade when many of the students are recent arrivals to the country meeting different cultures for the first time. We purposefully group students of different cultures together to promote the use of English, which can be tough at first as students are learning the language.
The cafeteria is a different story from the classroom. Continue reading
I walked into a 9th grade art class the other day simply because it looked beautiful. Little tangles of red, teal, yellow, orange, and blue fibers covered each table and the students were gluing the fibers to paper to create a design. I asked one group of students who looked particularly engaged, “Are you enjoying this project?”
The students looked at each other, and seemed about to express enthusiasm—and then one girl shrugged. Following her, the others shrugged as well. They went back to work, fully engrossed—but not able to admit it. The girl who first shrugged seemed mesmerized by a teal fiber, pulling it out as if she had big plans for it.
Awa sobbed in our office. “Can’t you just let me try?” she pleaded.
Awa, an 11th grader who came from Senegal in 9th grade, was begging to take the New York State English Regents exam in January. We told her she’d take it in June when she had completed the coursework for the exam. She left in tears.
When I started our school in 2011,* I thought that the experience of taking a state exam was so valuable that it was worth letting a student try, even if they weren’t 100% prepared. Continue reading