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.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

pushing integration

New York City must move faster to combat school segregation, lawmakers say

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

Ahead of a city council hearing Thursday where lawmakers are set to grill the de Blasio administration on its plan to boost school diversity, a trio of council members is calling for more aggressive efforts to tackle the city’s stark school segregation.

In the essay below, the councilmen — Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, Brad Lander of Brooklyn, and Daniel Dromm of Queens — note some progress the city has made in the three years since the council’s last major hearing on the issue, but call the city’s approach “still-hesitant.” Read the full essay below.

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools, Step by Insistent Step

Four years ago, the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a chilling report, showing that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. Anyone willing to look already knew our schools were deeply segregated, of course. But we had somehow stopped paying attention. We treated segregation like it was a problem of the South, or of the distant past.

After the report — and prodded also by grassroots organizing, powerful journalism, and the symbolism of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education — we decided to hold a City Council hearing. That hearing stretched on for ten hours. Our conclusion: Separate, still, is not equal. And also: segregated schools cannot teach inclusive, multiracial democracy.

Coming out of that hearing, the Council passed NYC’s School Diversity Accountability Act in the spring of 2015. The Act called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to develop a plan to integrate our schools, and required the DOE to start submitting annual reports on school segregation (the third annual report came out earlier this fall).

Over the past four years, the City has taken some first steps. Forty-two schools (out of 1700) have joined the “Diversity in Admissions” program. A few middle-school districts shifted to “blind rankings,” so the schools could not so simply pick their students based on who they were. In two high profile cases, in Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO, and on the Upper West Side, the DOE changed elementary school district boundaries with an eye to enhancing diversity.    

Even these first steps the city would not have emerged without insistent activism from students, parents, educators, and advocates across the city. And those groups have kept pushing, because there is a deep mismatch between the moral clarity of the issue — our school system rations opportunity based on race, class, and neighborhood — and the slow approach to do something about it.

This past spring (two years after the School Diversity Accountability Act), the DOE released their plan, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. The title gives away the still-hesitant approach. The report does not even use the words “segregation” or “integration,” preferring the anodyne “diversity.” But at least, for the first time, it set concrete numeric targets for reducing the number of students in segregated schools (and increasing the number of integrated ones).

Finally, this fall, we got something a little bigger, when the DOE released their plan for District 1’s elementary schools, a “controlled choice” model that aims to achieve integration across a district. And a conversation is underway about District 15’s middle-schools. These are still small parts of the system — but at least we are beginning to see systemic approaches.

There’s a lot more we must do. At the high-school level, we could make real progress quickly, since students all across the city are assigned in one process. With political will, the city’s specialized and screened schools could be pushed to integrate. For elementary schools, we need new models, since neighborhood-based school zoning in a residentially segregated city guarantees segregated schools. One model is a “school-pairing” approach that has been successful around the country. Another option is to be much deliberate in the neighborhood-wide housing rezonings about education.  

We must also make sure that schools aren’t just integrated by admissions algorithm — but actually do the hard work of culturally-competent education (with diverse teaching staffs), of surfacing implicit bias, of confronting disparities in school discipline. It is no easy task to make sure our schools are genuinely welcoming and affirming places for kids not only of every race, but also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and national origin — but it remains an essential one.  

We’ve made some policy changes over the past four years, but perhaps the best thing that has changed is the emergence of advocacy movement. We’ve been deeply inspired by the growth of IntegrateNYC, the student wing of the school integration movement. Educators, activists, students, and parents from around the city meet together on a regular basis through the NYC Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. These groups are doing the hard work of building integrated schools. And they are pointing out the gaping chasm between our values of equality and inclusion — and our practice of segregation.

So tomorrow, the City Council is holding another hearing, to listen again to those insistent voices. We’ll hear from the DOE about their plan, and push for far more comprehensive change. We’ll hear from students, parents, and teachers about the stark segregation they face in their schools. We’ll hear about some of the bright spots, too, since the power of genuinely integrated schools is truly transformative, and prepares kids for the city and the world they will inherit.

Most important, we will be called, again, to the “fierce urgency of now,” Dr. King’s demand that we look squarely at the injustice and segregation that characterizes our systems — and take real responsibility for changing them.   

Daniel Dromm chairs the New York City Council’s Education Committee. Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres are co-sponsors of the Council’s 2015 School Diversity Accountability Act.