Monday, August 27, 2012

Round Four, Fight!

I'm somewhere in the middle of excited, calm, and nervous. Today is the first day of classes for students at my new alternative high school (we're starting a week earlier than traditional NYC public schools).

Fair warning: I wrote this before the school day started. Now, I'm feeling closer to exhausted, but optimistic none-the-less.

Three years ago, I started my first year teaching at a school that was also in it's first year. It was incredible to witness how school culture was set, how policies were developed, and most importantly, how excited everyone was to start "fresh." There was a ridiculous amount of positive energy in the room, bursting at the seams to spark change. Beyond my summer training experience with Teach for America, I had never been in a room where every adult present wanted to work their ass off for the greater good. Unless if one considers investment banking helping the poor. I guess not.

Of course, as a twenty-four year old first-year teacher, I was pretty naive to believe that a group of excited and talented people could come together and make a huge difference. They can, but not without proper leadership, effective support staff, and productive policy. As it turns out, these were the very aspects that eventually led me to leave that school three years in. I wrote about that here.

My new alternative high school is different.

First, it's an alternative charter school (which I admit has it's own philosophical issues). However, before this school came into existence, I had never heard of a charter school that willingly sought to enroll teens with court records and juvenile sentences. I had never heard a charter school allowing kids to submit their own names into the lottery admissions system without a parent/guardian (one of the main criticisms of the charter school system).

Before I joined this school's staff, I was (and perhaps still am for the most part) against the idea of charter schools, but only because they have been in the news for doing pretty terrible things, i.e. weening out students who don't fit their mold. Traditional public schools can't "return to sender," whereas charter schools have their ways of getting around this. There's also a lot of talk about charter schools purposely enrolling less students with special needs, as these students tend to bring state test scores down. So obviously, the decision to join a charter school was tough, but it was an experiment I couldn't pass up.

I've been through about two weeks of training with my new colleagues, and having done this before, I can say with confidence my new school will be different and here's why: we have a full staff of trained case workers dedicated to support our students, in and out of the classroom. They also have the ability to show up to a student's house whenever they want, without having to wait days to file paperwork. So if a student is absent for two or three days, they can just show up.

Instead of hammering out curriculum and testing, our leadership dedicated most of staff training towards understanding our over-age, under-credited student population emotionally and being there to support them as human beings. We learned about what to expect from students who may have had traumatic experiences in their lives. It seems my new gig values the socio-emotional characteristics of children just as much as their academics. Looking at the whole child, rather than a single aspect. I like this.

My apologies to readers who have been messaging me about new posts. August was a busy month, but rest assured, I'm back for round (year) four.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Real McCoy

I recently searched "John Strauss" on Google and was surprised that none of the search results said, "the best teacher I've ever had in high school." In fact, there was barely any information or mention of the John Strauss I wanted to read about, a true rock star of a teacher and a living legend at the high school I graduated from. 

Mr. Strauss was my senior year English teacher. He was not a young, highly motivated, self-proclaimed hotshot. Nor was he part of some national movement claiming its teachers were more effective than others. When I had Mr. Strauss, he was already a veteran teacher, humble and modest. He had a sense of humor and was deeply committed, but most importantly, he had passion. In fact, there's a picture of him in my senior year high school yearbook with a caption that reads, "Mr. Strauss is a perfect example that a passion for teaching can bring enjoyment to classes." When I read that at the tender age of eighteen, I probably didn't understand what that statement really meant. I finally got it when I read it again at twenty-seven with a few years of teaching experience of my own. This guy was the real McCoy.

In school, I typically did not enjoy English class, nor did I enjoy reading books in general. Yet, Mr. Strauss's English class was something I looked forward to every single day. My first memory of Mr. Strauss is of him reenacting a scene from the Greek tragedy Hecuba. Mr. Strauss was hunched over and in despair, reciting lines from the play and channeling Hecuba's sense of loss. I was stunned at how "into it" he was. This happened somewhere around the beginning of the school year and it completely won me over.

Strauss would go on to reenact various scenes from literature in front of the class throughout the year. He helped us all individually connect to the text. We didn't waste time test-prepping for the AP exam in May, yet many of his students scored well year after year. We would instead spend a lot of time as a class discussing texts we were assigned to read. Even if I didn't do the reading, I couldn't help but learn something from the discussions he facilitated. After that, we would reflect on our readings via writing, and he would challenge us to improve our style and thought process. I remember I was trying to squeeze an essay that was six paragraphs into five and he said, "You know six paragraphs are okay, right? Stick with what feels natural." That blew my mind. This wasn't going to be a cookie-cutter, formulaic class. So instead I decided I should just do what the man said: actually learn to write well and coherently. 

I don't ever recall Mr. Strauss printing worksheets with Illinois state standards highlighted at the top. I never even knew what standards were covered in senior year English. I never received a document that summarized which standards I struggled with or mastered. We never took a single multiple-choice test in his class, ever. Shit, I didn't even know what my grade was half the time. 

We, the students, received our feedback from the source. Strauss often conferenced with us one-on-one during our writing assignments. We didn't memorize dictionary definitions of new words. Instead, we developed our vocabulary through our literary discussions. It was kind of hard not to know the meaning of a new word given how much it got thrown around during discussion. If I hadn't read the homework the night before, the classroom discussions sparked so much interest in me that I ended up finishing books well ahead of deadlines. I was usually a pretty good bullshitter during classroom discussions, but in Mr. Strauss's class, I didn't want to be. This, coming from the kid who went to Spark Notes for just about everything. 

Like any veteran, Mr. Strauss had some classroom tricks to keep our attention during discussions. If a student had his/her hand up in the air, he would look him/her right in the eye, but call on someone else. It was confusing, but hilarious. This small, but clever trick kept us on our toes. Of course, we could've reacted to his surprise cold-calling the wrong way, i.e. Strauss did it to call on someone not paying attention, etc. The problem was, we were all participating and paying attention, so it wasn't really a problem. There was nothing to do but play his game. 

Someone could argue we didn't have issues because it was an AP class, but from what I heard, Mr. Strauss was successful and well-respected in every class he taught. He was liked by his colleagues, his students and even by students who never took his class. In fact, my younger brother never had the opportunity to take his class, but Strauss went out of his way to check up on him every so often since I had expressed concern about being so far away from him.  

So with all this talk about teacher evaluations and the corporate-education reform movement, I can't help but worry about him and other teachers like him. I bet if this very same man walked into a new school environment today, he would not be deemed effective by his superiors, regardless of what his students thought of him. He probably wouldn't be the model teacher organizations like Teach for America would present to first-year teachers. He probably wouldn't be the teacher a principal would give kudos to during a morning meeting. Sadly, a teacher like him is probably someone who has retired or is on the verge of retiring, pushed out by those who don't understand, yet control the industry.

Well, I won't forget him. And as I begin my fourth year of teaching, I'm going to try to channel as much of Mr. Strauss as I can in my own classroom. I'm finally getting to a point where I can focus on my students' all-around development, not just curriculum and standards. In reality, that's all fluff compared to how important connecting with someone can be.