Sunset Park Fifth Graders Hold a Human Rights Fundraiser

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“I have been through a lot in my life. This painting represents a time in my life when I changed and became a new person…It also represents when you are in your deepest pain you still have that place in your heart that tells you there is still HOPE and NEVER GIVE UP.”

As the 2015-2016 school year comes to a close, many students and educators nervously await the release of scores that, according to state and local education departments, tell us our worth as teachers and learners.

But these numbers do not rate us on our humanity and on our ability to love and add beauty to our troubled world.  Official data such as test scores and teacher evaluation ratings cannot capture the spirit of our classrooms. 

In celebrating our meaningful – and largely unsung – work, I wish to highlight an amazing project conceived by a fifth grade class in a Title I public elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  Inspiration for the project, which is called From Artistic Inspiration to Education, came from two main sources: the students’ study of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and stories told to them by their teacher, Maria Diaz, who recently visited an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic.  In promoting Article 26 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to education,” Class 5-502 decided to raise money for the school in the village their teacher visited.

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Here’s what the students of class 502 wrote on their fundraising webpage:

We are so lucky to have a school that provides us with all the educational supplies we need. Buying school supplies and uniforms is a challenge for all of the 13 kids that attend that school and we want to be able to provide those basic supplies for them. 

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To date, the students have raised a little more than $1,375.00.  This week, class 502 is inviting the school community to visit their classroom, which they’ve converted into an art gallery to showcase their UDHR-inspired artwork as well as to provide more information about the school they are supporting.  On Thursday, June 16, the students of class 502 will auction off their paintings.  The silent auction will take place at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn from 3:30 – 7:00 pm (427 38th Street between 4th and 5th Aves.).  Please come (or donate online).  Witnessing the students’ enthusiasm and empathy will give you hope for the future.  Their words of wisdom – whether intentional or not – will also move you.  One student wrote this about her painting: “I enjoyed creating it even though it looks messy and a bunch of curvy lines.  That is what art is all about.  That is what education is all about.”

Here is a sampling of their creations.

house

“I am from the Dominican Republic. A lot of people there are really poor. Ms. Diaz showed us a village called El Aguacate, there are mountains there. Article 25 states that you and your family are entitled to having basic necessities, like a house. This is why I chose to draw a house.”

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“I was inspired to paint Divided Colors because of my love for division in math. It represents how unfair life could be and how some people are divided. For example, children’s education is divided. In the Dominican Republic and in other parts of the world like Yemen kids don’t have the right to a proper education.”

horse

“My piece represents equality for all human beings and animals. If you only have an eye, you can still be friends with someone who has two eyes.”

flowers

“These flowers represent us helping a school in the Dominican Republic. I put the flowers far from each other because the Dominican Republic is another country.”

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bomb

“What inspired me to paint this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because Article 3 says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In a lot of places people don’t have that. Also a lot of people suffer so much. BOOM represents the evils that destroy things and harm innocent people.”

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—”To me a parrot represents all the languages spoken in the world. The colors represent happiness and freedom. In Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it says that, “Everyone should live life with freedom.” Some people see a bird as a sign of freedom and we can all believe that someday we will all have world freedom.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Prioritizing Social & Emotional Learning at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx

Sanise Lebron, an 8th grader at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (C.A.S.A.) Middle School in the Bronx, stands poised and confident before her peers, teachers and principal as she tearfully shares with them the pain she experiences as a fatherless teenager. Watching her in this video by Brooklyn film editor Michael Elliot, I was reminded of one of my first grade girls who – in the middle of a lesson – put her head down and cried.  I do not know what triggered my student’s feelings of despair.  Although I work in a rigid environment that stresses the importance of maximizing instructional time, at the expense of social and emotional learning and snack time, for example, we took a break so that I could address her emotional needs.  Without my prompting, the classroom became quiet and two boys tried to comfort her by offering her their snack.  It turned out that my student was upset because she had no relationship with her father who lived in a different country. Her classmates  – six and seven-years-old – were compassionate and respectful, and I felt successful as a teacher.

There have been other moments when we’ve had to suspend instruction to address an accusation or incident where the majority of students felt an injustice had occurred. Yes, my first graders know the meaning of the word injustice.  It is not part of the ReadyGEN curriculum; it is part of my own curriculum to improve humanity.  During the shares, there’s only one voice.  Whoever is holding Pete the Cat (I learned this from another teacher) gets to talk.  Pete is then passed on to the next individual who wishes to talk.

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Pete the Cat is an important member of our classroom community.  He’s perched atop the SmartBoard along with models of the Watts Towers that my first graders created collaboratively during a unit on public art (not part of ReadyGEN). 

I recently spoke with Michael Elliot about the good work C.A.S.A.’s principal, Jamaal A. Bowman, is doing to cultivate a school community in which middle school students feel valued and safe to express themselves; their fears, their triumphs, their regrets, their joy. In his principal’s message, Bowman writes,

Our student and staff culture is rooted in love, support, being responsible, and improving what we do each and every day. We have counseling and mediation services for students, and follow a progressive discipline model to support students behaviorally. We have a community circle meeting every Friday in which we reinforce our positive school culture through inspirational videos and speeches, public apologies, and student-to-student and staff-to-student shout outs.

Michael Elliot had the opportunity to observe one of C.A.S.A.’s community circles and he wrote about the powerful experience in You Can’t Measure This, an article co-authored by Kemala Karmen, Deputy Director and Co-founder of NYCpublic.org, which appeared on Huffpost Education’s The Blog on April 7, 2015.  Elliot writes,

I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.

Please watch the amazing Sanise Lebron.  In this era of standardization and excessive testing and accountability, Jamaal Bowman’s commitment to teaching the whole child is laudable.  His work restores my faith in the true meaning of public education.

-Katie

 

Doin’ Core Curriculum Our Way (cue the Laverne & Shirley theme song)

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The purpose of this reflection (Danielson 4a) is to further highlight the maddening waste of resources and lack of common sense that I’m seeing on a daily basis as a result of corporate education reform and its Common Core troika of nationalized learning standards, scripted curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Last week, Pearson’s ReadyGEN program, a “recommended” NYC Department of Education ELA (English-language arts) curriculum, particularly irked me.

In complying with the ReadyGEN script, my 5th grade co-teacher and I were instructed to read to students chapter seven of Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor and push-in to my colleague’s class during the literacy block.  The chapter’s title – Fourteen Dead Robins – intrigued me. Rubbing my hands together in excitement, I imagined a powerful, real world conversation we’d have with our students about the health effects of DDT and people’s unwillingness – due to fear – to speak out against injustices.

Instead, the ReadyGEN reading skill assigned to chapter seven was craft and structure, specifically analyzing figurative language and word choice.  We did attempt to practice this skill with our students using the ReadyGEN Student Materials workbook, but quickly decided to pull the plug on the task because we found few examples of figurative language, and we felt that the chosen ReadyGEN skill was ill-fitting in light of the chapter’s content.  It was as if the people who created ReadyGEN had randomly selected reading skills without first considering the content of the individual chapters. Chapter four’s reading skill was main idea and details while in chapter six – the previous day’s lesson – the students practiced cause and effect. Shockingly – given the NYC DOE’s constant use of Common Core-aligned – the standards themselves are not even cited in the ReadyGEN Teacher’s Guide, which is still in the pre-publication stage.

Below are the alternative questions that my colleague created midway into ReadyGEN’s chapter seven lesson. The students first discussed the questions in small groups, while we circulated, and then worked individually to respond to them in writing. We felt that this was a more suitable (and more meaningful) task that better reflected the main idea of chapter seven.

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The next day, ReadyGEN never saw the light of day.  Instead, I led a lesson about cancer clusters that are appearing in farming regions of Argentina as a result of the country’s increased use of pesticides and herbicides.  I was inspired by a Mother Jones article I saw recently on Twitter.  The high-interest, real world content in this article tied in nicely with Rachel’s reaction to the effects of DDT as seen in chapter seven. The SmartBoard presentation I created included many visuals – photographs, graphs, charts – to aide students in digesting the challenging content. Genetically-modified and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready were among the vocabulary terms in the lesson.  Students were engaged and moved by the topic.  Below is one English-language learner’s wondering about pesticides.

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I know of no teacher – including one in Ohio – who is satisfied with ReadyGEN’s ELA program.  The anchor texts (literature) may be authentic, but the reading and writing tasks are not.  Pearson’s ReadyGEN is a poorly and hastily designed test prep program to get students ready for next year’s high-stakes Common Core ELA assessment.  The NYC DOE could have saved a lot of money if they had instead provided schools with just the copies of the anchor texts, class sets of titles such as Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. Sample reading and writing questions and suggested performance tasks could have been posted online. From what I’ve observed, the Student Materials workbook (see below photo) is being used minimally.

I don’t know how much the NYC DOE has spent on producing this program and on providing professional development to teachers.  However, I’m outraged that ReadyGEN has priority over other, more pressing initiatives like ensuring smaller class sizes and providing AIS services to students. The Common Core standards, unfortunately, do not stand alone. As I am experiencing, they are not an innocuous set of student learning objectives that teachers can use to shape their own instruction.  Here in New York State, the adoption of the Common Core has led to the wasteful spending of millions of dollars on the development of inferior math and ELA programs that are scripted and threaten teacher autonomy.  The overarching goal of such curricula is not to inspire students or to address their individual needs, but instead to train them for meaningless high-stakes tests.

Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill

Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

Chapter 4: Love and Limits

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Chapter 4 of A Year At Mission Hill gave me anxiety.  As a teacher of ELLs (English-language learners), some of whom have significant special needs, I pictured myself trying to teach NYS and NYC Common Core curricula (test prep) to the group of special needs students profiled in this short chapter.  One of my biggest challenges is trying to keep my cool in this climate of high stakes testing. The pressure to show progress – via test scores – of our SWDs (students with disabilities) and ELLs while simultaneously giving each student what he/she TRULY needs, both emotionally and academically, is very palpable.  I spend most of each school day trying to loosen the knot in my stomach.

Mission Hill is a K-8 public school in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, MA (note: since filming, the school has relocated to Jamaica Plain).  It is a…

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Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year At Mission Hill

Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

Chapter 3: Making it Real

Dear readers,

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I watched chapter three of A Year At Mission Hill with a heavy heart, almost tearful.  The way in which educators teach and students learn at Mission Hill is exactly what I’ve viscerally yearned for in a school community, long before the words Common Core were ever uttered. Mission Hill is a K-8 public school in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, MA (note: since filming, the school has relocated to Jamaica Plain).

Mission Hill’s staff meets at the end of the summer to develop curricula that support the school’s philosophy; ideals such as kindness, meaningful work and caring for the land are infused into lessons. Together they came up with the first school wide theme of the year: honeybees.  As you will see in this short chapter, students across all grades developed a wide range of important skills centered on this natural science…

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Beginning the School Year: Building a Strong Social and Emotional Foundation

Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill

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Chapter 2: Beginning the Year

Dear readers,

As you will see in chapter two of A Year at Mission Hill, at the beginning of the school year the teachers devote a great deal of time and effort on building the social and emotional foundation for the school year. Mission Hill is a K-8 public school in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston (note: since filming, the school has relocated to Jamaica Plain). The school’s student body – 170 enrolled – is a microcosm of Boston’s diversity.

Fostering creativity and community are cornerstones of the school’s philosophy. Students at Mission Hill are treated as citizens and participate in the decision-making process with regards to their education. They have a REAL voice, and teachers are given the autonomy and freedom to cultivate this type of learning.

After watching chapter two

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Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill

Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

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Dear readers,

A Year at Mission Hill is an exciting 10-part video series that captures the stories of a single K-8 school community in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, MA (Note: since filming, the school has moved to Jamaica Plain). Each week we will post one short chapter from the internet series followed by a question for you to answer in a letter to Bill Gates.

We want Mr. Gates to know what a TRULY successful public school looks like, and how his funding of corporate education reform is threatening the powerful teaching and meaningful learning that is taking place at this dynamic Boston public school. Ultimately, we are calling into question corporate education reform’s claim that schools are “failing.”

Chapter 1: Why We’re Here

http://www.ayearatmissionhill.com/index.php/chapter1

After watching chapter 1, what struck you most about the school environment at Mission Hill? How does it compare to the climate at your…

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