The noise in life

Thanksgiving in my upstate home was a crowded and noisy affair.  The old farmhouse I call home is like so many others in the rural countryside: it is big. With one part added to another over the span of nearly 180 years, it can easily accommodate a holiday crowd. This year, that meant 17 people, two dogs, and two cats. While I was driving north from the Bronx on Wednesday evening they were all there, already in a holiday mood.  And while an old farmhouse can accommodate my family, it took some effort, and numerous deep breathes for me to prepare myself for such a crowd when I pulled into the driveway in the darkness of late November.

Our Thanksgiving feast was wonderful.  The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, and throughout the weekend we enjoyed the love we share for one another. After the last of my family departed on Saturday, my youngest son and I were left with the house to ourselves.  The silence was amazing.  Later that day, I sent an email to all who had been together in upstate and wrote:

Andrew and I now share a much quieter home.  Though there are times at family gatherings when you might give anything for ten minutes of quiet, when the silence does come, you miss the noise!

I can say the same for the school I work in and the students I teach. They are a studious group to be sure, but there are times when it seems like there is nothing but conversation going on between them. We joked about it a couple of weeks ago and even came up with a new word.  One student suggested we add to our classroom rules: No conversating!

People like to talk.  I get that, and I can be a bit of a “conversator” myself.  Teenagers can be especially talkative, especially when they haven’t seen each other for several days.  There is a lot of catching up to do.  So I loosened the reins today, the first day back from the Thanksgiving holiday, and tolerated more chatter than I might on any other day. Tomorrow, I can always pull back and say “Whoa!”

I enjoy listening to them talk. To me, it is evidence of the community we have formed.  If they had nothing to say to each other, I would really have to wonder about my skills as a teacher.

One of the projects my students have worked on is a formal interview.  They have to send an email to someone who works in the school requesting time to meet with them and ask them some questions. This is a job search skill they will need.  Additionally, they have to prepare five questions they wish to ask.  Most send their emails to, and prepare their questions for, either me or their Advocacy Counselor.

Back in late September, one of my students requested my time, and we met at my desk.  One of her questions was, “Do you like your students?”  We recently had four-day weekend for Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you remember the four days we had off last week?” I asked her.  She said she did. “Well for me,” I told her, “That was one day too many.”

I really had missed my students, even their chatter, and the music in their headphones that is sometimes too loud. I missed their easily distracted personalities, and their boisterousness in the hallways.  In a few short months it has all become a comforting sound to this teacher in the Bronx.  Like the quiet of my home this past Saturday afternoon, I might enjoy the silence for a bit, but eventually it is the noise in life I crave.

The source of noise this past Thanksgiving

The TSP

Each week now, since the school year started, I begin and end my work with a drive from and to my home in upstate. About 80 miles of the trip are on the Taconic State Parkway – the TSP on road signs – of eastern New York.  It is a beautiful road to drive, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can read more about it here.

The Taconic, as it’s called by frequent drivers, is a road you have to drive. Sharp curves, steep grades, stone walls that serve as unyielding guardrails, and bucolic views that compete for your attention, are all part of the route.  I could take I-87, the New York State Thruway, from upstate to the Bronx, and fall into that semi-conscious state of driving that interstates allow, but I prefer the Taconic.

The TSP demands your attention (though not a toll, as the Thruway does) and trucks are prohibited from traveling on it.  The exits have names, but not numbers, so over the years I have had difficulty giving directions.  I am more apt to describe terrain, road features, or prior exit names, when telling a soon-to-be-guest where (and when) they should exit.  Here’s an example:

“When you see the exit for Near Road, you’re not far.  There will be a parking area and scenic overlook on your right, and then a long downhill just before the exit you want.  Be careful, you’ll pick up speed on the parkway and the exit ramp is sudden and unforgiving.”

Along the Taconic white tail deer are abundant.  They are so inured to the traffic that they graze along the roadside mere feet from cars whizzing by at sixty or more miles an hour.  Even the young, spotted fawns can be seen grazing along the road with their mothers nearby.  It is almost as if they are taught at a young age not to worry about the cars, but it is a bad lesson.

Along the section of the Taconic which I drive twice weekly, I will spot a dead deer almost as frequently as a live one.  The road kill statistics for this route must be shocking. Driving south last weekend I counted a dozen.  Some were twisted into repulsive shapes.  Others had their hind legs pointed straight to the sky, or were laying so far from the road that I wonder if they were thrown that far, or if they managed some final steps before death found them.  It is a slaughter.

But there are many more beautiful sites along the Taconic.  Red-tail hawks are common.  Vistas of farms, fields, and low rounded hills sometimes seem dreamlike. The fall is a time of unbelievable beauty, and once the trees have lost their leaves new or expanded views open up. I often feel as if I am driving through a park and not the densely populated Hudson Valley.  The route reminds me of roads I have driven through the Shenandoah and Great Smokey Mountains.

Along the TSP

My drive on the TSP is also the time when I transition between two worlds.  At home upstate I am surrounded by a rural landscape. Neighbors are not nearby.  The second closest home to mine is at least a thousand feet away.  I often hear the sounds of cows, or a neighbor’s rooster. Mornings in upstate are a thing of beauty as the light of the rising sun first hits the mountains, and then lights up the lower farm fields.  Nights bring so many stars; uncountable when the Milky Way glows above.  At times, the stillness is so deep your ears may ring.

My downstate home stands in contrast. There are the sounds of passing cars and the horns of the Metro North trains.  The sirens of emergency vehicles are frequently heard.  Jet planes taking off from LaGuardia Airport in distant Queens often roar overhead.  And there always seems to be a dog barking somewhere.  It is a crowded, suburban neighborhood with the houses set close to one another.  Looking out the windows of my mother’s home I can count more houses than exist on the entire four miles of the rural road I live in upstate.

It is between these two worlds that I travel each week, and the Taconic State Parkway is the road that links them.  Sometimes, I imagine myself as a traveler in space on a journey from one planet to another.  At some point in my journey the pull of gravity from one world ceases and I am drawn in by the gravity of another.  Even after these many weeks of making the trip, I can feel the change come over me as I leave or approach one home or the other.  Upstate and the Bronx.  Two worlds I call home.

After Sandy

The school routine at Bronx Arena resumed on November 5th, a week after the New York City area was hit by the forces of Hurricane Sandy and became New Orleans of the north.  The city’s schools had been closed for five days.  Sandy was no Katrina by any means, but more like Hurricane Irene which plowed into the area around my upstate home in late-August of 2011.  In my home county we are still dealing with Irene and for many the dealing is done.  They have left.

So I was anxious as I drove south towards the city and my mother’s house in the first suburbs to the north.  She had been without power for days, and I had been following the news from afar.  We had winds in upstate, enough to tear some metal roofing off one of my barns, but the lights and the phones stayed on.  Thankfully, so did the internet.

Downstate was a different story.  There was loss of power, heat, lines of communication, and life.  So I was uncomfortable leaving my home that was enjoying all these conveniences, for a “second home” that might not have any of them. Fortunately, power had been restored to my mother’s neighborhood by late Saturday afternoon. Five days of no juice had spoiled everything in the ‘fridge including the orange juice.

I was happy to hear the news from my mother since it meant that I would not be dressing my candle or flashlight.  And there would be heat.  But watching the news stories from afar, I was worried about my students and co-workers.

One of my first impressions as school resumed after a week recovering from the storm was that my students were happy to be back. Students may grumble about school, but it really is a routine in their lives, and they miss it when it is gone.  True, they are most happy to be back with their friends, and the chatter as our first day back began was evidence of this.  Yet, I think it is the sense of purpose – or call it a sense of “this is what I am supposed to be doing” – that also brings them some satisfaction.

I was amazed by how quickly the students were back on task.  I wanted to allow some time for “storm stories,” but we never really did that. Being back with their friends and their teachers, with a sense of purpose, seemed to be all my students wanted.

Just prior to the storm, Arena 6 added seven new students. An eighth joined us a few days after school resumed.  The unanticipated closing of city schools and a nearly 50% increase in my class size have presented challenges.  But we are working hard at retaining our sense of family, and I already see several of the new students buying into the culture of Arena 6.

I am often amazed at the wisdom my students show, and their sense of how important one moment may be.  Shortly after classes resumed, one of them decided we should have an inspirational quote written on the chalk board from time to time.  “Find one,” I told him.  He already had.  He asked me to write it for him. “My chalk board writing is OD,” he said.  Here is what he found.

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.

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.

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.

First reflection

Reflection, thinking about each day, is an important part of my practice, and should be for any teacher.  At the end of a school day, I think back to what went well, and what went not so well.  The purpose of this reflection is to make the next day of teaching better.  My goal is to do more of what worked, and improve upon, or eliminate the things that did not.

Yet, I have been reluctant to write about my first weeks of the school year, and offer my reflection.  The biggest reason is that I don’t want to jinx things.  Most of my superstitions are limited to watching Red Sox games, and I am trying not to let them creep into my new job at Bronx Arena High School.

Here’s the truth.  One month into the school year and I couldn’t be more happy.  Note: I barely refrained from using the word ecstatic.  The experience, so far has been incredibly positive.  Frankly, I am not certain how this school year has gotten off to such a wonderful start, but I think it is the people.

Before the school year began, I had already met the staff I would be working with.  We had a week of training at the end of August, and two days of professional development just before the school year began.  They are a magnificent group of people: passionate, cooperative, intelligent and full of humor.

Collegiality is an important role that all teachers play in a school, but the most important work is done with the students.  Throughout this past summer, I had been wondering about the students I would be working with.  Almost as much, I had wondered how I would do in such a different school setting. As it turns out, most of my students are as new to Bronx Arena High School as I am.

They have come to our school from some other high school where they struggled. That’s why Bronx Arena is called a transfer school.  Rather than quit school entirely, each of my students has chosen to earn the credits needed for graduation in a place that is unfamiliar.  I could see it in their faces on the first days of the year.

They were shy and quiet at first. This was a new school, with new classmates and new teachers.  I used this to my advantage.  I was outgoing, chatty, and friendly.  I wanted them to know that there was only one reason I was in Bronx Arena, and the reason was their success.

Now, less than one month into the year, they have grown comfortable in these new surroundings.  They are chattier in class, but it is wonderful to see them engaging each other. We have developed the strong roots of a classroom culture where respect, hard work, fun, and community define us.

I have come to know my students enough to sense that they, like the staff of BAHS, are magnificent.  Given another chance at earning a Regents diploma, they have shown themselves to be highly motivated, working hard throughout the four hour block they are in my classroom. At times, I have had to insist that they take a break.  They oblige, but only after mild protest.

During a staff meeting today, we were invited to give a “shout out” to something, anything, that was working for us.  I waited a while before offering that everything seemed to be working well in my classroom.  I also offered that I wasn’t quite sure why but mentioned the Advocacy Counselor who worked with my students.

The words were hardly out of mouth when a number of colleagues began knocking on desks (wooden or not) and nearly begging me to keep quiet.  Seems they too did not want to jinx things.  And not many of them were fans of the Boston Red Sox.

Before the school year began, I told family and friends that I really wanted to meet myself when the school year was over.  I suspected that I was beginning an experience that would change me in some big ways.  I sense that it is already happening.  Kids will do that to you, teaching will do that to you, and I couldn’t imagine a better job anywhere.