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?
- I am in awe of my job as a principal, and I want a record of it.
- I write myself out of my worst disappointments.
- I am happiest when I am creating something.
- It brings my students to life.
- I want more truth to be available about myself than untruth.
As a principal, I usually operate with generosity. That doesn’t mean my mind isn’t stingy.
A student can enter the school system at any point in the year, September to June. As a Bronx public high school for newcomer immigrants, we take kids in at any time, no matter when they arrive. About half of our students come from an NYC middle school, and the other half arrive throughout the year, days after their planes landed at JFK. We’ll welcome a student whenever they arrive.
On June 1st, I got an email from the Bronx office of enrollment: a student, Makeda,* had just arrived from Panama and was being placed in the 10th grade. I forwarded the email to my school’s New Admit team and wrote, “We have a new student.”
That is what I did.
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.
Student portrait, art class at High School of Language and Innovation
As a school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, our students come from all over the world: Dominican Republic, Yemen, Bangladesh, several countries in Africa, Albania, China, Vietnam, to name a few.
However, we don’t know much about school in our students’ countries. Recently, I decided to simply ask: what was learning like in your country?
I was prompted to do this because our school had visitors last week. A group of new teachers were touring the school to learn best practices for supporting English Language Learners.
As part of the visit, I organized a student panel with two of my teachers. The teachers choose five 9th and 10th graders and ensured they represented several countries: Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Albania. The students had lived in the U.S. anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. Continue reading
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.
Student tracing a sketch in art class.
This week, two girls had a fight in the cafeteria. We found that it had been instigated by other students, and stemmed from unkind posts on social media.
The issue for me wasn’t the fight; we quickly broke up the fight and held a mediation between the students involved that was successful. The issue was that a large number of our 9th and 10th-grade students cheered on the fight.
Earlier in the year, we had spoken to our students about integrity and how it relates to not encouraging a fight. I was disappointed that the students had cheered on the fight until a friend reminded me of “rubbernecking” in traffic: “That’s just what people do. Remember how in traffic, people slow down when there’s a car accident because they want to see the accident. It’s not always because they actually need to slow down, it’s just that human curiosity.” Continue reading
Trees on Pelham Parkway that greet our new students and families.
One of my favorite TV shows is “Undercover Boss.” In the show, the CEO or president of a large company is given a disguise and goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company for several days. From that vantage point, the CEOs are able to see the inner-workings of their company from the ground-up: the good, the bad, the perplexing.
I often create what I call “undercover boss” moments in my work. Of course, I don’t wear a disguise, but when opportunities appear where I can quickly do a task that I normally wouldn’t do, or briefly fill in for an employee, I take it. I gain invaluable insights into my school and a deeper appreciation of the work my staff does on a daily basis. Continue reading
I’m always surprised by how much I learn about our school from our prom. We recently held our prom earlier than most schools due to Ramadan, as we wanted more of our Muslim students to be able to attend.
Our high school is a school for newcomer English Language Learners from all over the world who have been in the USA less than 4 years. The students are excited by the idea of the prom but they don’t have a strong expectation of what it should be so there’s no comparison or disappointment.
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.