Class notes

McCourt on his teaching days at a Staten Island vocational school

Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday, spent three decades teaching in the New York City schools before becoming an internationally renowned author.

McCourt began his career in 1958 in a vocational school, and moved on to Stuyvesant High School in 1972. Administrators at Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the Bronx and William E. Grady Vocational High School in Brooklyn turned him away because his Irish accent was too thick.

During his first few months at Ralph R. McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island, McCourt felt caught between two models of teaching. There were the old-timers, he wrote, who were veterans of World War II and considered students “the enemy.” Then were the new teachers, who had read John Dewey and wanted to meet the students’ “felt needs.” Uncomfortable with both strategies, McCourt taught in his own idiosyncratic style, to mixed reviews.

From his second book, ‘Tis:

They don’t want to read and they don’t want to write. They say, Aw, Mr. McCourt, all these English teachers want us to write about dumb things like our summer vacation or the story of our life. Boring. Every year since our first grade we write the story of our life and teachers just give us a check mark and they say, Very Nice.

In the English classes they’re cowed by the mid-term test with its multiple choice questions on spelling, vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension. When I hand out the tests in Economic Citizenship there is muttering. There are hard words against Miss Mudd and how her ship should hit a rock and she should become fish food. I tell them, Do your best, and I’ll be reasonable with report card grades, but there is a coldness and resentment in the room as if I had betrayed them by forcing this test on them.

Miss Mudd saves me. While my classes are taking the mid-term test I explore the closets at the back of the room and find them stuffed with old grammar books, newspapers, Regents exams and hundreds of pages of uncorrected student compositions going back to 1942. I’m about to dump everything in the trash till I start reading the old compositions. The boys back then yearned to fight, to avenge the deaths of brothers, friends, neighbors…

…I pile the crumbling papers on my desk and begin reading to my classes. They sit up. There are familiar names. Hey, that was my father. He was wounded in Africa. Hey, that was my Uncle Sal that was killed in Guam.

When I read the essays aloud there are tears. Boys run from the room to the toilets and return red-eyed. Girls weep openly and console one another.

Dozens of Staten Island and Brooklyn families are named in these papers so brittle we worry they’ll fall apart. We want to save them and the only way is to copy them by hand, the hundreds still stacked in the closets.

No one objects. We are saving the immediate past of immediate families. Everyone has a pen and all through the rest of the term, April till the end of June, they decipher and write. Tears continue and there are outbursts. This is my father when he was fifteen. This is my aunt and she died when she was having a baby.

They are suddenly interested in compositions with the title, My Life, and I want to say, See what you can learn about your fathers and uncles and aunts? Don’t you want to write about your lives for the next generation?

But I let it pass. I don’t want to interfere with a room so quiet Mr. Sorola has to investigate. He walks around the room, looks at what the class is doing and says nothing. I think he’s grateful for the silence.

In June I give everyone a passing grade, thankful I’ve survived my first months of teaching in a vocational high school, though I wonder what I would have done without the crumbling compositions.

I might have had to teach.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”