Archive for October, 2012

As we grow

Bronx Arena is a phase-in school.  Just beginning its second year of existence, it hasn’t yet reached the full enrollment capacity of 200 students.  The goal is to be there by the end of October, and potential new students are being identified, interviewed and enrolled each week. This means that my original class of 13 is now at 17, and will continue to grow.

My first students, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, were almost all new to Bronx Arena, and had to adjust to their new surroundings.  Each of my four added students entered Arena 6 a full month into the school year, and I admire the courage and adaptability they have shown as they take their places in a class that was already established.

All of this brought about an interesting conversation at the end of last week.  One of my students asked if we would be getting any more classmates.  The AC and I assured them that we would, probably as many as would bring us to twenty-five. The news was  disconcerting to some.

In the weeks that they have been together, the students of Arena 6 have established their own, unique group personality.  They are a (mostly) quiet, (usually) hardworking, (almost) always delightful group of learners. They laugh a lot, tease each other in a good-natured way, help each other in their courses, and enjoy being together.

 They have self-identified themselves to me as “a team,” and “family,” and I sense that they are worried the harmony of our classroom might be disrupted by new students who may not know that in Bronx Arena, and especially in Arena 6, we do school a little differently than the normal city high school.

So our conversation moved from knowing that our “family” would grow, to the subject of how we welcomed new “teammates” while preserving our group identity.  I was impressed with what I heard.

It was obvious my students understood the uniqueness of Arena 6, and how much better the learning environment they were now enjoying was from their prior high school experience.  They wanted to keep it that way.  So, they arrived at a consensus.

Each new student that entered our room would be welcomed.  They would also need to know that in Arena 6 we are serious about learning and graduating from high school.  When I introduce a new student to my class they are met with applause.  It isn’t a standing ovation by any means, but it is a nice welcome.

Then, I briefly describe who we are in Arena 6, and my message is as much directed at my existing students as it is the new arrival.  I want my class to know that I know how important our classroom environment is to them. I talk of our accomplishments: we were the first of the eight arenas to have every student earn a credit.  And I speak of our aspirations: we want to earn a lot more.

One of my student’s wrote this message to the class, and took some liberty with my name.

We have fun to be sure, but our purpose is academic success.  If each student in the class continues to be earnest in their academics, our new arrivals will notice. If the students remain friendly and supportive of each other, those who enter Arena 6 will feel welcomed and probably be the same.  My students can preserve the uniqueness of our family by being teachers to those who join us.

Near the end of the school day today, I went into the staff lounge and met a retired teacher who now works as a substitute in our building.  (We share the facility with two other schools.) She asked me how my day had gone and I quickly responded, “I had another great day!”  A teacher from one of the other schools overheard me and asked, “A great day? What school do you work in?”

My message to my students.

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On a whim several weeks ago, while setting out from my home in upstate towards another week of teaching in the Bronx, I stopped at an apple orchard not far from my home. I picked up two half-pecks of apples, one of Fuji’s and one of Honey Crisps, wanting to share the rural harvest with my students in the city.

If you walked into my classroom, one of the first things you would notice is the other apples, two dozen Apple MacBook Pros assembled in groups of six on four sets of tables. Then there is the MacBook I tote around, and also the ones the push-in teachers carry. And that is just my classroom.  No wonder Apple has run neck-and-neck with Exxon Mobil as the most highly valued company in the world.

The access to technology which my students enjoy is an important part of their education at Bronx Arena.  The Apple MacBook is our medium of learning and communicating.  The students do their course work on them, and drop their completed assignments into a documents folder for me to review each night. They produce a fruit of labor, pick it, and present it to me.

When I first offered the upstate apples to my students a few weeks ago, they were a hit.  The staff of BAHS liked them too, perhaps too much, and I came close to posting a note on my desk saying, “These apples are for my students!”  But, a few suggestive comments (to the worst offenders) sufficed, and the pilfering from paid employees stopped.

For several weeks now, I have stopped at the orchard each Sunday as I begin my trip to downstate.  I purchase the apples, mostly Honey Crisps which seem to be favored, and grin to myself as I think about the smiles I will see on my students’ faces on Monday when they see I have brought more apples.

All of these apples bore their own kind of fruit this past week when one of my students presented the first challenge of the new school year.  The student and I had a brief exchange.  It wasn’t anything big, or lasting, but it was a departure from the harmony I have experienced in my classroom so far.  It came and it went.

Later in the day, some of my students met with the AC (Advocacy Counselor) for my room, and the incident came up.  The AC told me afterward that the students supported me, and were upset at the student who had been a part of the earlier tense moment.

AC told me that, at one point during group meeting, a member of the group said that he didn’t understand why I had been disrespected by the student.  She told me he said, “Why would she do that to Mr. H?  He’s so nice to us. He brings us apples. What teacher does that? Shouldn’t we be bringing him apples?”

I was touched by the story.  And I learned something from it.  If I am to be a teacher at BAHS, where so much of what I learned about teaching in graduate school has been turned upside down, isn’t it appropriate that the role of an apple and a teacher has also been turned on its head?

I think there is a bigger lesson here, beyond MacBooks and Honey Crisps.  Both are good apples to be sure.  But the more important thing is about relationships between teachers and students. This is something I was told more than five years ago by a veteran school administrator.  She was then the principal of my youngest son’s elementary school.  I had a great deal of admiration for the way she touched each student in her school.

When I was considering a career change to teaching, she was the very first person (outside of my family) that I spoke to about my idea.  In the weeks and months, and now years ahead she offered encouragement and advice.  She also told me something I have never forgotten.  She said that the most the important thing in teaching was to build relationships with my students.  “Relationships first. Content second,” she told me.

Farther along in my journey as a teacher those words still guide me. The apple harvest in upstate is nearing an end but, the relationships I build with my students will not.  The goal of all this is to teach my students to teach themselves.  I hope that in bringing apples to my students, they think about what they can bring to the world.  The wonderful principal who first taught me this stands right beside me each day that I teach, and I’m thinking I really ought to bring an apple to her.

Correction:  I realize the apples in this picture are the variety Gala. I brought them in this past week when Honey Crisps were in short supply.

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Arenas

I’ve told a lot of people about my new job at Bronx Arena High School, and some of them are familiar enough with the layout of New York City, to ask, “There’s an arena in the Bronx?”  Many people know that the New York Yankees, the “Bronx Bombers,” play their home games at Yankee Stadium, but aren’t familiar with any other sports venue in the borough.

Here’s the explanation.  Bronx Arena High School is not named for a nearby sports complex, there isn’t any, but for a street in Los Angeles. On Arena Street in southeast L.A. my principal, T. Rex, started a similar school some years ago.  It was called Arena High School.  When the state of California faced a financial crisis many years ago, the school was a casualty of budget cuts.

Fast forward, and my principal, moving from the west coast to the east and now working as an administrator in New York City’s Department of Education, decided he missed being in a school enough to try to sell his bosses on the idea of a similar transfer school in the Bronx.  His proposal was approved, but there was one item still to be decided.  What would the new school be called?

So Bronx Arena High School was a blend of soon-to-be and prior experiences. And rather than Arena Street, the new school is on Story Avenue.

The school is divided into eight arenas.  Each will have a maximum of twenty-five students, and the arenas become the focal point of the students’ day.  Each arena is assigned a generalist teacher to run the room.  I am in charge of Arena 6.  Working closely with each generalist teacher is an advocacy counselor.  Students call them, “My AC.”

In theory, the generalist teacher is in charge of the educational progress of his or her students, and the advocacy counselor responsible for their emotional wellbeing.  Generalist and counselor work very closely.  Their responsibilities go more than hand-in-hand, they are often joined at the hip.

Students at Bronx Arena are expected to check in with their advocacy counselors between 8:15 and 8:30 each school day.  Those who choose to sleep in or take their time getting to school can expect a call from their AC.  First period classes start at 8:30 and run for one hour.  Then, the students move to their arenas for a four-hour block of self-paced work on their courses. The school day closes with a one-hour long third period, and then 45 minutes for lunch.

During arena time, specialist teachers in English, math, sciences and social studies push into the arenas for work with individual students, or with small groups for mini-lessons.  Since I am certified in social studies, I work with my students in each of the four high school social science subjects.

The door to Arena 6, my classroom.

So, this is the view I have of my classroom at any one moment during arena time.  The fifteen students I now have will most likely be working on fifteen different tasks. Some could be working in math, some in earth or life science, some in English and some in social studies.

Within those core subjects, the students could be working on different tasks within a course, or on completely different courses.  My job is to make sure that everyone is doing something that moves them closer to completing the credit requirements for a high school diploma. There may be a specialist teacher in the room, and the AC may also be present.

It may all sound confusing and sometimes it is.  I am still learning the arena model of learning, and have a long way to go before I would consider myself proficient. 

But the students seem to have adapted well and have embraced this type of learning.  Many often comment that they feel less pressure from teachers in this school.  Perhaps they haven’t noticed how much pressure they put on themselves.  And honestly, I am pushing them constantly to stay on task, though with a subtlety that belies the importance of my work.

T. Rex was out of the school this morning for administrative meetings.  When he returned, he made a tour of the school.  He sent out an email this afternoon saying, “When I got back to the building after my morning meeting, I peeked into every classroom and saw nearly every student engaged in their work.  I doubt there is another school in the city where that was happening today.”

It is still early in the school year, and things could change.  Yet I believe that each day of hard work and commitment that my students put in creates a habit of learning.  My students are finding that honest effort leads to positive outcome, and each of them must choose whether they succeed or fail. They are no longer in their “old schools,” where they could fairly pick any of a number of outside forces to blame for their lack of success. They are in the Arena now.

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