Posts Tagged ‘Bronx Arena High School’

With my life divided between two places, the boundary between upstate and the Bronx is still not determined.  Son, house, friends, banking, mail and offers for a free car wash with an oil change exert an enormous pull on me to my home in rural New York.  My students, Bronx Arena, a job, and a paycheck pull me back to downstate.  Today I skipped school to attend to an appointment I had scheduled months ago in my hometown.

I have to admit that it was fun to play hooky, to have another night of sleep in my own bed, and another morning on the farm, with coffee in the summer room while I looked out on the fields and mountains.  But as the morning progressed my mind kept wandering to my classroom in the Bronx.  What would my students be doing now?  How many were in attendance?  Are they listening to my substitute? Are they working? Do they notice I’m not there?

This afternoon, I received an email from one of my students, and my heart nearly burst.  He wrote:

“wussup bob why you not here today? well im not feeling good anyway so im not really going to do work but hope all is well see you tomorrow”

The student who wrote the email is one of my newer charges.  He is also the oldest in my room and he spent more than a year out of school before deciding to come back.  He has a tough exterior in dress and demeanor, but when you get beyond the tats and street attitude you find an incredible young man.  He is smart, quick, and able.  I liked him the first time we talked, and I think he could go onto college and eventually be a lawyer.

Last week, he was also involved in the tensest moment I have had in Arena 6. He made a comment.  A student next to him took exception to his comment, and then an argument erupted.  The language was foul and angry.  Half of what they said I did not understand.  I was sure a fight was about to happen.

I stood between the two angry students for what seemed an hour, hoping my slim presence would prevent a fight.  Okay, it wasn’t an hour, but maybe twenty minutes.  By then, I had silently signaled one of my students to go and get the Advocacy Councilor, and when she arrived she was able to take one of the students out of the room and the tension ebbed.  By the end of that day I was exhausted.

Arena 6 at work

Arena 6 at work

I know that I don’t teach in a place most people would consider safe.  When I am home in upstate and former colleagues see me, I sense they are glad I am still in one piece.  I often wonder if they think that by this point of the school year in the Bronx, surely I would have been set on fire and thrown down a staircase. I never miss a chance to tell them how wonderful my teaching experience at Bronx Arena has been.  I boast about my students and my school, and how much I love every day of teaching.

So, Monday was the first day of school I have missed. For the most part I have stayed healthy even when a variety of cold and stomach viruses have swept through the classroom and school thinning the ranks of students. The longer you teach, the better you are at warding off such afflictions.  Veteran teachers, I am sure, have highly advanced immune systems.

The  lucky teachers have students like mine.  For them, like me, it is hard to stay away from a day of teaching.  When they are absent from school, they also wonder what their students are doing as each hour of the school day passes.  They will be anxious to get back in the classroom and take charge.  (Good teachers are very possessive of their students.)  If they are really lucky, they will get an email from a student who misses them and it starts with, “wussup.”


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Across the street and one block away from the house where I grew up in Yonkers, there was a three-legged dog named Skippy whose purpose in life was to chase cars. For the better part of each day, he would sit by the curb waiting for one to pass, and then he would run after it as fast as his three legs would let him.  I never saw Skippy catch a car, but the missing hind limb told me that, at least once, he might have come close.

I am thinking about Skippy now, and the home where I was raised, because this past week I made another trip to New York City, staying over at that house (where my mother still lives) to interview with schools in New York City. One of them, Bronx Arena High School, I went to on Wednesday morning for an extended visit.  I sat in with a classroom teacher for almost two hours, and then spent the rest of the morning with the school principal, T. Rex.  At the end of that meeting he offered me a teaching position in his school, and I accepted.

So now, I am feeling somewhat like a dog that chased and caught a car.  My limbs are still attached, but I have the unsettled feeling (Fear? Self-doubt?) that comes at the beginning of any new and big pursuit: What do I do now?

New teaching jobs are scarce in the current economy.  Most school districts in New York have been laying off teachers to meet the budget gaps the long recession has created.  My own school district had to let go of many teachers (I was one of them) last year because of diminished state support for schools.  Thousands of New York teachers are out of work, and as many as 100,000 teachers nationwide aren’t in a classroom.  So I feel lucky to have a job in the fall.

My new job at Bronx Arena is more than 150 miles from my home in upstate so there will be no daily commute. My new school is not far from Fordham Prep, the high school I attended years ago. During the school week I’ll bunk out at my mother’s house then, return home on weekends, holidays and school breaks to be with my son.  I’ll be dividing my time between two places that exert big emotional pull.

When I started my late to teaching career I didn’t imagine the path would take me to the Bronx.  I imagined myself in an upstate school, close to a home I would return to after each school day. There would be an ease to it.  Since Wednesday’s job offer I have been asking myself, “How much do you want to be a teacher?”  The answer tells me that I will have to step out of my comfort zone and chase another car.

In graduate school a few years back, I was introduced to the poetry of Taylor Mali, a former teacher.  He has become something of a web video sensation, and is a favorite in the schools which train new teachers.  I got to see him in a live in 2008, and heard him perform “What Teachers Make.”  I’ll be viewing it a lot in the months ahead as I get ready for this new challenge.

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In my last post I talked about three schools I interviewed with in New York City.  One of them, Bronx Arena High School, called me back and asked me to teach a demonstration lesson before a group of students and school staff.  The lesson had to be five to ten minutes in length.  That’s not a lot of time to demonstrate teaching skills, but it can be done.

I’ve taught other demonstration lessons before, in my search for a teaching job.  I find that I am far less nervous about them than the formal interviews. Interviews can be filled with chances to slip up.  The questions usually fall into two categories: tell us about yourself, and tell us what you know about theories of teaching.

If I am asked to describe a challenge I have faced and overcome in life, my first reaction might be, “Just one?”  The theoretical questions require more thought.  Imagine being asked, “Can you describe your pedagogical approach to standardized and summative assessments in a blended classroom as they relate to instructional best practices?”  It makes me want to retreat to the first question and say, “Did I tell you about the time…”

In the interview I’m never sure what questions will be asked.  In a teaching demonstration I know exactly where I want to go and how I plan to get there. If my allotted time is ten minutes, then the trip will have to be short, but no less on target.

So Monday afternoon I walked into Bronx Arena High School with my mini-lesson firmly laid out.  Along with the school’s administrators, school social worker, and a couple of faculty members, there were nine students in the room.  In an interesting twist, two applicants for other teaching positions were also present.

The lesson I prepared I’ve taught before, though never in ten minutes.  It is an analysis of a single sentence in the Declaration of Independence, a sentence I believe sums up the purpose for our country’s existence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After a brief discussion of why the declaration was written, I asked the students to define words like self-evident and unalienable.  Then, I asked them to define Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.  I like this lesson because while the first two words are easily understood and articulated, the personal nature of happiness and the pursuit thereof gets a bit tricky.

In the last minutes of my lesson I asked all in the room (including the school staff) to write down their answer to the question:  What happiness do you want to pursue?  They went right to the task, and I was excited to hear their answers.  I’ve asked the question before, and you can tell a lot about your students from the answers they give.

Many of them wrote of finishing their high school education.  Some wanted to go onto college. They frequently mentioned earning a good salary, with one young woman saying she needed a good income to pay for her wedding.  Even if money can’t buy happiness, happiness is often a lot easier to pursue if you have the means.

One young man wanted to start a business.  I had my own business for many years (I sold it in 2008 when I returned to graduate school) and it did bring me a great deal of happiness. Being a business owner is very rewarding  but, as I cautioned the young man, it takes a lot of work and some weeks there is no guarantee of a paycheck.

As I was wrapping up the discussion, I told of my own pursuit of happiness and how it has changed over the years.  Furthering my education has been a happiness I’ve pursued more than once.  I’ve also given chase to having a family, serving in elected office, and buying a home.

Lately I’ve been pursuing a teaching job, and in the process, pursuing happiness.  I’ve worked in education for three years, one in my own classroom, and I know that it makes me happy.  Still it would be hard to say in an interview, “You have to give me this job! It is my unalienable right!”

In America, we are given life and liberty at the moment we are born. As Jefferson saw it, these rights were unalienable. Also inseparable is our right to pursue happiness.  The actual happiness, as I see it, is something you have to work for.

Pursuing Happiness: Self Portrait (2012) It took me days to get this shot just right!

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