First Person

What motivated my students to memorize Shakespeare: Another teacher saying it was ‘too hard’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sean Davenport, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy For Learning And Social Change

When I was in school, I wasn’t the best student. It wasn’t because I was incapable of learning — I just had no interest in school. My parents, my mother especially, always sent me to the school where I was the only black student in class, or maybe there were one or two in the class. I had no relationships there.

I had to grow up trying to navigate a system where I was an outlier. I didn’t belong and that affected me academically because sometimes I didn’t think I was smart. I didn’t like to read, not because I couldn’t read — I could read. The books they were giving me, I had no interest in. I didn’t want to read that stuff. They didn’t care.

But then I got this book — I think I was in fifth grade. It was the biography of Muhammad Ali. A funny thing happened when I read that book: I think I remembered every word on every page.

That experience changed me a little bit. I still wasn’t a great student, but I had someone I could relate to, someone who made sense to me.

Fast-forward: I’m in college — grad school — and I write this paper about my family. It talked about how I had an aunt who would make us go to church on Sunday morning, but she was always cussing us out on the way to church. She called us all a bunch of names to get us out of that house. Then she’d be singing in the choir.

My professor just loved that paper and for some reason, out of the blue, she said, “Sean, you need to be a teacher.” It didn’t make sense — how are you going to read a paper and tell me I need to be a teacher? And she said, “No, there’s just something about you. I think you really need to be a teacher.”

Well, I graduated, and lo and behold, I started teaching 10th grade English and speech at Theodore Roosevelt High School [now closed] in the Bronx. First day on the job, I go in there and I’m excited. The kids take out their books. I was going to have the kids do a little reading aloud.

A couple of kids went first, and I got to this one kid, he said, “Um, I’m not reading.”

I said, “What do you mean, you’re not reading?”

“I’m not reading.”

So I’m confused now, because I went to a school where you couldn’t tell a teacher that. And here’s this young man telling me, “No. I’m not doing it.”

I don’t know what to do. If I back down, the rest of the kids will say, “I’m not reading.” But a young lady saved me and she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll read.” And she read, and someone else read.

One of the things about Theodore Roosevelt, the English department, we had our own little teacher’s lounge, and a lot of ideas were shared in there. So I went back to my colleagues afterwards and I spoke about this instance where the young man said he wasn’t going to read. One of the teachers said, “Well, don’t let that bother you. A lot of times when they say that, they can’t read.”

I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to know he can’t read? He’s in 10th grade.” Sure enough, you do some research, you do some checking: He couldn’t read.

I started saying, “What kind of system are we in that you get to 10th grade, and you’re sitting in a classroom, and you really can’t read? Is this what I’m really cut out for?”

So I started to find ways of making my class more interesting. Being in the English department, I’d hear the other English teachers recite Shakespeare. So I said, I’m going to make my kids learn Marc Antony’s speech. We were reading “Julius Caesar.”

I thought, “That will give them some confidence.” So I go in and I say, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

The kids are looking at me. And I go on, and I go on. And they’re like, “What the heck is he talking about?” So I’m saying, “You’re going to learn this speech — and not only are you going to learn it, you’re going to memorize it. And you’re going to recite it.”

They gave me a hard time, but I stood fast with it. And one day, a young lady was there to give her speech, and one of the English teachers walked into the room as the one lady was standing up. She struggled through it — got some words, kept trying, and finally, she made it.

And the teacher stopped and said, “Mr. Davenport, you made your kids learn that speech?”

I said, “Yeah. Why?”

And he said, “I think that’s too hard for them.”

He walked out of the room, and the young lady looked at me and said, “What’s he trying to say? Is he trying to say I can’t do this?”

I said, “That’s exactly what he’s trying to say. They don’t think you can do it.”

That was the best teaching tool I ever had. I didn’t have to convince another student in my classroom to learn that speech — because someone who they thought cared about them, who was supposed to care about them, didn’t believe in them.

From then on, I never had another problem with any of my students learning something they were supposed to learn. They might not have all gotten A’s or B’s — but they no longer got D’s and F’s.

So when I come to work every day, and you see my teachers in their classrooms, the one thing I try to instill in them is that these kids matter. They matter to someone.

What I want my kids to get out of school is that they don’t have to be Barack Obama. They just have to be themselves, and if they are the best of who they are, then that’s all right with us.

Sean Davenport is the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy For Learning And Social Change in Harlem. This is a lightly edited version of a story he shared at a Showcase Schools training event. As a Showcase school, Thurgood Marshall Academy welcomes educators from across the city to observe successful teaching practices.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.

going viral

With a late-night tweet, Carranza steps into emotional and divisive Upper West Side desegregation fight

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza greeted families outside Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on his first official school visit.

If there were any doubt that new New York City schools chief Richard Carranza would take a stronger stand on segregation than his predecessor, he shut it down with a tweet overnight.

Just before 1 a.m. Friday morning, Carranza tweeted a viral version of the NY1 video that shows Upper West Side parents angrily pushing back against a city proposal that could result in their children going to middle school with lower-scoring classmates.

Carranza didn’t add any commentary of his own to the message generated automatically by the site that amplified the NY1 video, Raw Story. He didn’t have to for his Twitter followers to see an endorsement of the site’s characterization of the video — “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

Parents and educators began responding as the city stirred awake this morning. Here’s one response from a high school principal:

And another from a middle school math teacher and founder of Educolor, an advocacy group for teachers of color:

Since taking the chancellorship, Carranza has signaled that he believes the education department has a central role to play in desegregating schools — offering a contrast to the chancellor he replaced, Carmen Fariña. She called school diversity a priority but argued that integration efforts should happen “organically” and be driven by school leaders and local communities, not department officials.

One early exchange on Twitter in response to Carranza suggested that any moves to desegregate schools could face resistance — and that he also would have support.

Carranza’s tweet came hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his city budget would include $23 million for “anti-bias training” for school staff, something that some parent activists and some elected officials have been demanding.

It also came hours before he’s scheduled to visit a Harlem middle school, Hamilton Grange, that wouldn’t be part of the academic integration proposal because it is part of District 6, not nearby District 3 where the idea is under consideration.

Such a proposal would likely look different there, because just 28 percent of fifth-graders in District 6 — which includes some parts of Harlem as well as Washington Heights and Inwood — met the state’s standards in math last year, compared to 57 percent in District 3. The gap was similar in reading.