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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s Afraid of the Project Kids?: The Struggle to Integrate NYC Public Schools

In March, I wrote a blog post that detailed 10 reasons why no student in New York State should take the Common Core English-language arts (ELA) and math tests.  On reflection, I should have added that so-called low test scores are being used by many to label largely minority and Title I schools* as “failing” and therefore undesirable.  Some of these schools are located in gentrifying areas and a number of white and/or relatively affluent, professional parents are rejecting them.  The proposed rezoning of schools in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area has been in the local news lately.  Here’s what one parent at P.S. 8, with a 15% poverty rate, had to say about P.S. 307 (85% poverty rate), which is located across the street from the Farragut Houses public housing complex in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.  This quote is from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 9/22/15.

People who moved into Dumbo and Vinegar Hill “trusted they had an education strategy at least through primary school,” said Teresa Hohl, a P.S. 8 parent. “All of a sudden…they’re now going to be pushed into 307, which is completely underperforming in comparison.” “Rezoning Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools Riles Up Parents,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/15.

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IMG_9015Top left photograph is of P.S. 307.  The top right photograph is of the Farragut Houses opposite P.S. 307. The bottom photo shows P.S. 8’s main entrance.  All photos were taken by me. 

I know that not all Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo parents feel this way.  However, quite a few do and it’s problematic for area schools.  Not only does it hinder efforts to desegregate our schools but such comments imply that the lives of black, brown and low-income students hold less value.  They perpetuate a socioeconomic hierarchy in which white and/or affluent and professional individuals put themselves at the top.  Do they not think that their children could learn from black and Hispanic students? Did this parent ever visit P.S. 307? Did she talk with P.S. 307 parents and educators? Is her assessment of the school based solely on NYS Common Core ELA and math scores, which – as we know – come from highly flawed, unreliable tests that do not come close to painting an accurate picture of how a school functions.  What’s even more troubling is that some of these parents support the opt-out movement.  Yet, they are using the very same test scores they denounce to justify not wanting to send their kids to a school with a large number of low-income students of color.

I know teachers at P.S. 307 and have visited the school. I have heard great things about it under the strong leadership of the former principal, Roberta Davenport. A teacher not affiliated with the school recently told me that she would work for Davenport in a heartbeat.  P.S. 307 is an innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school.  Each classroom has a living environment, and discovery learning is stressed through hands-on experiences.  Additionally, P.S. 307 has partnered with reputable organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and Lutheran Hospital.  SEL (social and emotional learning) topics are included in the school’s curriculum, and a school-based health center is available for students in need of counseling and other services.  P.S. 307 also offers instruction in Mandarin, and violin classes.

As a NYC public school teacher who has only worked in Title I schools, I can tell you that the vast majority of teachers try their best to give each student what he or she needs to grow academically and emotionally. It is not an easy job, and we face many hurdles, but we want to challenge each student at his or her own level regardless of the school’s status (Title I or otherwise).  In my 10 years in the system, I have not witnessed this so-called culture of low expectations.  Therefore, I don’t buy this argument that by enrolling in P.S. 307, which offers a wide range of quality programs and opportunities, the children of white and/or affluent, professional parents will receive a compromised education. Indeed the school’s test scores will remain lower than those at P.S. 8, but didn’t we already establish that the scores are meaningless? In no way should these Common Core test scores be used to judge a school.  Parents need to visit the school, observe the teaching going on in the classroom, talk to parents, and find out how the principal runs the school.

Resistance to the city’s rezoning plan for this part of Brooklyn also include some current P.S. 307 parents who – among other concerns – express fear that the school’s Title I funding will vanish as more higher-income students enroll in the school.  This happened at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights.  No longer a Title I school, the PTO (parent teacher organization), which is comprised largely of white, professional parents, has developed an ambitious fundraising plan to make up for the loss of this funding source.  Initiatives such as the annual fall carnival and Friday movie nights also help to bring the community together.

The tragic ordeal that Manhattan’s P.S. 191 faced over the summer is another example of flawed official data being used by white and/or affluent, professional parents to argue against enrolling in a neighborhood Title I school.  On August 20, Emily Frost of DNAinfo reported that this Upper West Side school was mislabeled “persistently dangerous” by the New York State Education Department.  The story is complex; incident reports were miscoded, for example, and the case was mishandled by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).  You can read more about it here. In fact, the most egregious incident – involving rape and sexual assault by a 22-year-old after-school program staffer- occurred after hours at P.S. 191’s middle school.  For the purposes of this piece, however, I wish to point out that P.S. 191, which draws many low-income students of color from the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, has been fighting a reputation stigma for years and this recent mislabeling adds another roadblock to filling seats at this dynamic elementary school.

I have visited P.S. 191 and know teachers there.  They are dedicated and hard-working and some have enrolled their own kids in the school.  P.S. 191 is a museum magnet school.  It boasts a new technology lab and strong partnerships with local museums.  The arts are prioritized as is project-based learning.  Like P.S. 307, there’s a lot of good things happening at P.S. 191 and official data falls short of telling the whole story.

What I predict will happen in the Brooklyn Height/Dumbo area is that a larger number of white and/or affluent, professional parents will choose to send their children to area charter schools like the International Charter School of New York in downtown Brooklyn and nearby Success Academy Fort Greene.  While minority students attend these charter schools, the perception is that unruly and undesirable behavior that might be exhibited by project kids at local public schools is not an issue at schools like Success Academy that also boast high test scores.  At P.S. 191, for example, there has been a white flight to  Success Academy Upper West.  If, over the next few years, P.S. 307 experiences an influx of higher income students due to the rezoning of Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo, what will happen to the kids who live at the Farragut Houses directly across the street? Will they be rezoned to nearby P.S. 287, which is 90% Hispanic and black? Will the under-enrolled P.S. 287 be seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color while P.S. 307 turns into a largely white, affluent P.S. 8-type school?

School segregation has been a hot topic not just here in New York City, but nationally too.  There has been much discussion of This American Life’s episode 562: The Problem We All Live With (July 31, 2015) in which Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, argues that integration is the key to closing the achieving gap but since 1988, re-segregation has been the trend in U.S. public schools.  In fleshing this out, Hannah-Jones details the accidental and short-lasting integration of Francis Howell High School, a mostly white public school in St. Charles, Missouri.  When Francis Howell parents found out that black students from Normandy High School in St. Louis would be allowed to transfer to their school, they were upset.  Thousands packed into Francis Howell’s gym to hear arguments against the plan.  Francis Howell parents argued that Normandy kids were dangerous and would make the school unsafe and drug-infested. They worried that Normandy kids would lower Francis Howell’s test scores. Had any of these parents been to Normandy High School? Did they know any Normandy parents or teachers? If the Francis Howell parents had gotten to know the Normandy community, would they have been welcoming? Their fears, not surprisingly, proved unwarranted. I wonder how many affluent Brooklyn and Manhattan parents listened to this public radio program and called into question their own prejudices?

Here in New York City, Hannah-Jones – together with Brad Lander, NYC councilman – appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on August 20 to discuss school integration initiatives, specifically “controlled choice,” which is detailed in this New York City Council School Diversity Accountability Act.  More recently, on September 16, Hannah-Jones participated in a panel on school diversity at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I look forward to watching the video of the discussion, which will be posted soon on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Vimeo page.

Education, especially at the elementary school level, is not just about academics.  It is irresponsible of policymakers to distill it down to data such as ELA and math scores and flawed school safety reports.  The goal of educators is to make the world a better place, which includes heightening students’ awareness of the injustices of life. Segregation does a disservice to our students.  Despite growing up in diverse New York City, how many white and/or affluent kids truly know and appreciate what it’s like to live in poverty and to face racism on a daily basis? We live in silos and fail to deeply get to know one another.  How can we create innovative, effective strategies to solve societal ills if we rely on superficial data, preconceived notions and our own self-interests to drive our decision-making?

*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. -U.S. Department of Education

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.

PeteTheCat

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

 

Does Kindergarten-Ready Really Mean Common Core-Ready?

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Is she kindergarten-ready?

This is an embarrassing but necessary post for me to write. Writing helps me wade through the tangled – often muddy – weeds in my brain, and perhaps what I have to share will be useful to those participating in the early childhood education debate. For me, real personal growth comes with letting down my guard and being completely honest with myself.  So here goes.

Yesterday, I came across the following Tweet by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT):

7/23/14 @rweingarten: Americans know we need to help kids be kindergarten ready #InvestInKids #reclaimit http://t.co/g4rx0KOCCT

With my almost-five-year-old in mind, I pondered the meaning of the term kindergarten readiness. According to this 7/17/14 article published by the First Five Years Fund“An overwhelming majority of Americans from diverse political and demographic backgrounds support federal action on early childhood education,” said First Five Years Fund Executive Director Kris Perry. “They understand its return on investment. They demand that Congress fund programs that meet high-quality standards. And, they want to invest now.” The fund cites – albeit vaguely – the acquisition of “knowledge and skills” as necessary for ensuring kindergarten-readiness.

First today’s education reformers shoved college and career readiness down our throats, and now this? Is anyone else sickened by the return on investment analogy in talking about early childhood education? Where is the humanity? As a public elementary school teacher in New York City, I see firsthand how kindergarten has become first grade. I am a huge proponent of preschool but not for the purpose of preparing kids for an unnaturally “rigorous” kindergarten experience so that they can meet the needs of the Common Core, as demonstrated by its developmentally inappropriate and uninspiring testing program.

My spirited kid, N, will be starting kindergarten in September* and I’m fraught with anxiety, but not because she lacks “knowledge and skills.” On the contrary, N can decode anything from picture books to brochures. She can define the term instrumental (thanks to the Frozen soundtrack), and just yesterday N told me that the co. abbreviation stands for company. Monopoly is N’s favorite board game and her read-alouds, without any prompting from me, include higher order thinking questions.

What tightens the permanent knot in my stomach is the fact that N won’t poop in the potty. Last November she was diagnosed as a stool withholder. She takes Miralax and sees a child psychologist. For the past three years, N attended a private preschool. On average there were eight students and two teachers in her class. In true it-takes-a-village fashion, Ms. D and Ms. J, her teachers for two consecutive years, helped us with the arduous task of potty training N. On more than one occasion, I have given myself an ineffective rating in parenting (do I deserve a score of 1 in the teaching of grit?), and I often fantasize about living life as a Mongolian nomad, cut off from the pressures of the modern world. I envision N pooping off the side of a camel or in the grasslands. That’s all she would know.

In September, N will attend our zoned public school in Brooklyn, NY. There will likely be around 25 students and just one teacher in her full-day kindergarten class. With today’s academic demands, which include the regular administration of assessments to track student progress, combined with growing class sizes, N will not get the individualized attention that she benefited from in preschool. Her teacher will likely not tell her to go to the bathroom. How will the class respond to N when she is squatting in the corner of the room, refusing to participate? Will they tease her when she smells like urine or when a wet spot appears on the back of her pants? Our current public school learning climate does little to accommodate social and emotional learning, which is so critical, particularly in the early years.

We all know that children develop at different rates, however the First Five Years Fund’s report fails to acknowledge our multiple intelligences.  There is no mention of the whole child. The report’s tone is urgent, as if the authors felt pressured to ensure that incoming kindergarteners were ready for a “rigorous” Common Core education. If early childhood education does not include social and emotional learning, authentic and developmentally appropriate instruction as well as opportunities for play, compassion and love, then I don’t consider it high-quality.

*I will delete this post in the near future to spare N from any embarrassment my writing may cause her.

Teaching in Davonte’s Inferno: A Must Read Summer Book

Former New York City public school teacher, Laurel M. Sturt, tells it like it is. Refreshingly, she’s real with us in her no-holds-barred memoir Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years In The New York Public School Gulag, a heart-breaking and humorous exposé of the farcical – and often terrifying and depressing – working conditions in a Bronx public elementary school. Like Sturt, I have substantial experience teaching in a Title I public school located in a low-income New York City neighborhood. Luckily I’ve never worked for tyrannical principals – as was Sturt’s fate – but I did relate to much of what she describes in her book.

For my own personal growth as a teacher (dare I say ‘professional development’?), Davonte’s Inferno shed more light on the social and emotional problems facing a number of our kids in Title I schools: abuse of all forms, neighborhood violence, and chaotic, unstable homes, the most shocking Sturt calls “houses of horror.” Her scientific research details the ‘toxic stress’ associated with poverty that negatively impacts student learning. Reading it served, in part, as a reminder to offer my students more unconditional love and to provide them with a safe space in which they can speak freely without fearing any judgement on my part. Due to the lack of much needed wraparound services in our public schools and in our neighborhoods, combined with the dearth of individualized instruction as a result of overcrowded classrooms and cuts to academic intervention services, Sturt’s book motivated me to spend a few lunch periods each week with angry fifth grade boys I fret over. We teachers wear many hats.

For the wider audience, not only is Davonte’s Inferno a crucial read for those entrenched in the corporate education reform debate, but it’s also relevant due to recent anti-teacher tenure initiatives such as the Vergara v. California decision and, here in New York City, Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which, among other efforts, has filed a lawsuit in New York to remove “poorly-performing” teachers from the classroom. The lawsuit cites low test scores as “evidence” that New York City students aren’t getting a sound education and claims that “far too many students every year find themselves stuck in classrooms led by ineffective teachers. It’s a problem that affects families in every corner of the state, but the sad truth is that the students who need great teachers the most—those who grow up in low-income communities—are often the least likely to get them.”

Sturt’s book acknowledges that ineffective teachers exist.  In fact, she describes the follies of one teacher who abused the system by faking an injury, among other misdeeds. She also tells on herself when she loses her cool with a student, something that EVERY teacher struggles with.  However, contrary to Campbell Brown’s argument, there are far fewer ineffective teachers in our schools. Similar to what I see at my Brooklyn elementary school, Sturt writes that, “Where I connected with everyone was my desire to help the kids.  I had never been around so many people who loved children as much as I did.”  “As vilified as public school educators had become,” Sturt remarks, many of the teachers in my school were in fact accomplished and committed:  I would have gladly put my own son in their care. Just like in the rest of the system there were, however, a handful of hacks, protected by favoritism, whose incompetence had never been questioned.”  Note ‘handful.’

What education reformers like Campbell Brown fail to fully consider are the exacting conditions in which we work.  In addition to the above-mentioned examples, New York City public school students and teachers are demoralized by excessive, high-stakes testing and the narrowing and standardization of pedagogy and curriculum as a result of the Common Core package and the NYC Department of Education’s application of Danielson’s Framework for Teaching for teacher evaluation purposes.  Some, unfortunately, also face vindictive principals like the four administrators detailed in Davonte’s Inferno: Cruella, Guido, Principal Dearest and Rosemary’s Baby. Countless administrator horror stories have been shared with me and I consider myself lucky to work at my school and to have due process rights as a tenured teacher.  Sadly, the capricious behavior of the principals at Sturt’s school led to the unjust firings of several promising new teachers.

If all stakeholders in public education could be honest with themselves and truly put children – not ego and profit – first, then perhaps we’d experience real progress in addressing the problems in our public schools, namely the achievement gap. Laurel Sturt’s authentic book moves us closer in that direction.

 

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

Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

Chapter 5: The Eye of the Dragon

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As we saw in chapter three of A Year At Mission Hill, knowledge and skills are taught – in part – through school wide themes, which involve the community.  At the beginning of the school year, the students at Mission Hill learned all about honeybees.  In chapter 5, ancient China is the focus of the school’s Long Ago and Far Away theme. 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).

Creative thinking is a cornerstone of Mission Hill’s teaching philosophy.  You will see children painting masks, writing Chinese characters, dancing to live Chinese music and making dumplings. You will hear a teacher discuss with colleagues her students’ difficulty in interpreting proverbs.  Another teacher, fielding questions from a small group of students, instructs a boy to find…

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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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