Sunday, March 30, 2008


When working in NYC Public schools opportunities for unique experiences creep up all the time. This past week three of these said experiences presented themselves. On Wednesday I attended a talk by Jonathan Kozol, legendary educational critic. On Thursday I was able to partake in a learning walk at Bronx Lab High School. Completing the week on Friday I was fortunate enough to be the presenter during a grade level Critical Friends Group meeting.

Kozol, whom was invited to speak at Pace University as part of their annual Distinguished Educators speaker series, was not as angry as I would have thought or hoped from reading several of his previous works. Instead he talked about teacher retention and reminding teachers to be interesting and recognize the spirits in the children that we touch each day. He warned teachers that they dare not steal and rob the children of their childhood in this world of NCLB and standardized testing. Kozol made assertions that in white affluent schools teachers talk about “where a child is right now” and in black and Latino schools where many students are below the poverty line the question shifts to “what the child will be one day.” He went on to claim that teachers are the “frontline in the struggle for democracy.”

What struck me the most about the evening though was the provost of Pace University’s Education Department statement charging, “If you’re not making the world a better place to live than you are just taking up space.” He claimed it was something his grandmother used as a mantra.

The next morning, I entered the school in the Bronx which is housed in the former Evander Childs High School building I was impressed with the classic architecture of the building. Oak molding, marble steps this building looked like what schools in textbooks look like.

Upon entering the building I had to pass through school safety’s metal detectors. We do not have this feature at our high school so my stomach actually got a little butterfly-like walking through the line. I have never had a good experience with the personnel who work with these machines. Maybe there is something with the x-rays that makes them always choose me as the one to hassle, but I digress. The SSA that worked the door were exceptionally pleasant and welcoming. Setting the tone for the entire day the safety agents seemed to understand that the students and adults that enter this building are embarking upon something special.

One of the Co-Directors of the Bronx Lab School gave a welcoming presentation that really shared the history of their small 450 student school. She was quick to share her joy in what the teachers in the Bronx Lab School had created on the 4th floor of the once comprehensive high school.

I visited many classrooms, and during the debrief session was very interested to hear of the partnerships the school had created with several non-profits affording the students several opportunities. Freshmen went on overnight backpacking trips, and seniors had a very “hands on” college office both paid for by grants from non-profits. The staff was young and the culture of the building was positive.

Then came our CFG meeting on Friday; I was nervous to present in front of my colleagues this year because I had really attempted to do something different. I was very attached to the form of the lesson and I wasn’t ready to take criticism. I begrudgingly began showing them student authored WebPages and digital essays that showed off online collaborative groups skills. The teachers on the freshmen team gave comments as to focus and direction which I know are my weaknesses at times. I tend to think big picture and not spend too much time with the details.

I love that our team scheduled a critical friends meeting in lieu of a typical grade level meeting. I am even more impressed that it has sparked a further conversation via email days after the fact. Teachers on my team have been discussing the value of a teaching lesson for enduring understanding vs. teaching for core knowledge standards.

These enriching experiences are what make teaching in NYC so special. Not taking advantage of opportunities, and not learning from the wealth of knowledge within the system would be a waste of resources. This week for me replenished Kozol’s frontline, inspired me that anything can be done with enough grant money, and in the case of my own CFG experience pushes me to teach for enduring understanding rather than broad sweeping E.D. Hirsch type core-content lists.

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