Back to School: Thoughts and Declarations, Part 2

As promised, here’s the second of two posts in which I share the hopes and goals of a few members of my so very talented education network.

What am I thinking about as the school year gets under way? First, I’m grateful the high holy days are in early October, so my kids will be in school for 3.5 uninterrupted weeks. That almost never happens!

More seriously, I hope for what my contributors talk about. That children – not just mine but everyone’s - get a chance to be part of a community of learners where they learn to respect each other and appreciate their differences. That they have access to arts and other enrichment activities; that they have multiple opportunities to be creative – to stretch their bodies and minds and be challenged in areas beyond Math and ELA. That they’re free from bullying and their schools have strong SEL programs and other student supports. That their teachers are open-minded and caring, that they treat each day as a fresh start and each student as having promise and boundless potential.

These are, of course, hopes, goals and declarations for now. We’re, most definitely, not there yet. But every year gives us a chance to get a little closer; I’ll once again be doing my part to bring these wishes closer to reality for all. 

Schools and students inspire and motivate me every day. I’m ecstatic to continue to work towards ensuring educational equity.
— Chris Lopez. Second grade teacher. Tulsa Public Schools.

As a fifth grade literacy and social science teacher of African-American students on Chicago’s south side, culturally relevant learning and themes of social justice are integral to my reading and writing instruction. For my students to authentically engage with multiple high quality texts and digital sources - and meaningfully write and respectfully debate opinion pieces about sensitive subject matter such as racism and violence in the city - it’s critical that we devote the first few weeks together to establishing a community of learners. This means we together create a safe environment where taking risks, embracing confusion, learning from mistakes, and pushing conceptual boundaries can take place. And I believe this process all begins with the teacher and their willingness to make their pedagogy transparent.  By opening up and sharing their methods and practices with their students, teachers also model the type of vulnerability and courage necessary for intellectual growth.

Shawn Reddy. 5th grade literacy and social science teacher. Chicago Public Schools.

For my 6th grade year I have two goals. Try not to get bullied this year. And be able to improve on my worst subject, ELA. If I could accomplish these goals my 6th grade could be better. This school has some cruel people but I’ll make it.
— Ava A. 6th grade. Brooklyn, New York.

For me, the beginning of the school year is about laying a foundation. It’s about helping my students understand that singing is a craft, with many facets, that takes time to learn. You won’t master it in a semester. I use these early days to help students think through why they’re taking lessons. I always ask kids - especially older kids, high schoolers - why they sing. Why do you want to learn to sing? Why not just sing in your room? I’m trying to get them to think about how - through singing, through your body - you can express deep feelings you can’t get at any other way. I don’t tell them this; they need to figure it out for themselves. It takes a while, at least a few lessons.

I also spend the beginning of the year assessing learning styles. Every student is different, and to teach them I need to figure out what works for them emotionally. Some kids you can be tough with; others you have to be gentle with or they’ll collapse in a heap.

All my students are working towards a solo performance - in front of a grand piano and a big audience. It’s just you up there, no microphone, having to command everyone’s attention with your presence and voice. It’s a good life lesson and preparation for the “real world”, even if you don’t pursue singing as a career.

Lara Nie. Opera Singer, Mezzo-Soprano, Voice Teacher. New York, New York.

This year I’m working for the Oakland Promise - a citywide initiative in Oakland that aims to triple the number of college graduates from Oakland’s schools…I’ve never worked on a local policy initiative like this before so I’m hoping for myself what I hope for all students this year: many opportunities for personal growth and building new skills.
— Michelle McNamara. LEE Public Policy Fellow for East Bay College Fund. Oakland, California.

Ahhh, the beginning of the school year: time to buy new shoes, get supplies… and gear up for the endless barrage of fundraisers. At the public school where my older son is starting 2nd grade, there’s the fall festival, the winter festival, the spring festival, not to mention the bake sales, the plant sales, the cookie sales, the auction, the parents’ bar night, and of course, the big ask: the annual fund drive, in which our PTA asks families to pony up hundreds of dollars per student to help fund school enrichment programs.

Ask most parents at my son’s school what they like about it, and you’ll hear them tick off a list of extra-classroom enrichments paid for via these fundraisers: music and arts classes, chess classes, partnerships with cultural organizations, extra recess help. In other words, many things that distinguish the school aren’t really part of the public school system – they’re add-ons the parents have purchased. This opaque, private fundraising system creates and deepens the chasm between the so-called “good” schools and the so-called struggling schools in New York City. It’s a vicious cycle, closely entwined with the real estate cycle.

I’ve seen a lot of good, thought-provoking press about the lack of racial integration that characterizes New York City public schools. But I’d like to hear more about how private money helps fuels these inequalities in an already segregated school system – and hear more about what we can, and should, do about it. Put limits on outside money? Redistribute it? Help struggling schools fundraise? I don’t have answers yet. Maybe another year of bake sales will give me some. 

Carlyn Kolker. Freelance writer. Brooklyn, New York.

Our school program is based on a partnership model. We have a seven-year learning sequence that integrates dance with rigorous journal writing and the PreK-5 curricula. This year, as always, I aspire to work with visionary principals of Title I schools. They’re critical to the program’s long-term success with diverse students, teachers, families and communities.

Dance arts don't generally seem to thrive in NYC elementary public education without a lot of creative problem solving. Our biggest challenge is the year-to-year fundraising we need to do to support our programs. We recently partnered with John Hopkins University School of Education to evaluate our program, which includes a comparison with four schools who will participate in our program post-study. I hope this evaluation finds a quantitative impact on students' overall learning and achievement, as another study did ten years ago. Such measures seem critical to sustaining our vision of helping to improve NYC's public education by providing children with access to interdisciplinary dance arts learning connected with rigorous reflection.

Mark DeGarmo, PhD. Founder, Executive & Artistic Director, Mark DeGarmo Dance. New York, NY.