I know many teachers who love to teach, but how many teachers honestly say they love the schools in which they teach?  Inside scoop? Not enough. Schools, especially urban schools, are so often plagued with various levels of frustration. Usually, there is no one character at fault, and no one simple solution. Education is a complex and flawed system—the problems are interconnected.  And yet, despite deep flaws in our system and society, there are schools that find ways to move in a forward direction, creating conditions for teaching and learning to be a joyous and sustainable process.

This year, I took a position teaching 8th and 9th grade English at the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I do believe I find myself in such a place.  As the Thanksgiving holiday passes, I’m feeling thankful to be returning to teach in a school I appreciate in countless ways… So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’ll try to count the ways. 🙂

1.     Location. My school is in my neighborhood. I no longer drive close to two hours a day in NYC traffic.  Goodbye, frustrating bookends to my weekdays.  Hello, fresh air, as I walk home from work.  Eliminating my commute has also opened up my schedule to do more in the afternoons, both within and outside my school.

2.     Community. I am teaching in my own community. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for seven years, which is not so long, but this truly is my home and it feels grounding to serve the students and families in the community where I also live.  The school itself serves pre-K-12 in one building, and it has been in the neighborhood for 20+ years, so the sense of community and connection with the neighborhood is strong.  Many teachers send their children to this school, and a few teachers are former students!  The board of directors of the school is “constituency-based” which means, instead of including mostly outsiders to the school who join mainly to be donors, the board is comprised of representatives from the various groups who have a stake in the school–parents, community members, administrators, teachers and students.  Board meetings are open to all Renaissance teachers to attend.

3.     Diversity. The neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, is one of the most diverse in the world.  I experience rich ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious and socio-economic diversity every day on my block, in my classroom, and in the businesses I frequent as a resident of the area.  This is something I personally love, but in the classroom, it makes for an especially layered learning environment.  Students have so much to learn from each other, and opportunities for global and multi-cultural education arise immediately out of a student-driven classroom.  A Title I school, about 75% of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. We also serve a significant number of students with a range of special needs through inclusion classes.

4.     Meaningful PLC Time for Teachers. I’ve always felt fortunate to work with great teachers, and this school is no exception. In addition to excellent co-teachers, I am part of a true Professional Learning Community that includes English teachers, both general and special educators, in grades 6-12.  (Every teacher is part of a department-based PLC). We meet weekly for 90 minutes on Wednesday mornings, and the agenda is almost entirely teacher-driven.  We use thoughtful protocols for discussing texts, investigating methods and issues, and sharing teaching practices. Every week I come away from that time with new direction or something new to focus on in my teaching.  During this same time, students spend the morning at the nearby YMCA getting additional physical exercise, or in personalized internships.  I think everyone gains from this innovative scheduling. The MS faculty meets monthly after school to discuss students, logistics and make administrative decisions–these meetings are also teacher-driven.

5.     Writers Workshop. English teachers know how difficult it can be to provide regular, meaningful feedback for every student.  Twice per week, I have double blocks of English. In the second block period, two other English teachers arrive to my class to work with individuals or small groups of students on their writing.  We often split the class into 3 groups, each working with about 8-9 students. It takes a bit of additional planning and communication, but the result is that every student can receive plenty of individual feedback on their writing pieces at each stage in the writing process. This is much more feedback and support than I can offer on my own, which is great for students and a relief for me.

6.     Rensizzle Week. Many teachers across the country are implementing “Genius Hour”–Rensizzle is kind of like a “Genius Week!” For an entire week in October, regular classes are cancelled for grades 7-11, and students (and teachers!) have the chance to study and experience one topic in depth in a small group. Students propose topics, teachers see this list and then propose topics based on both student input and their own passions.  The school allocates funds for groups to take trips all over the city to museums, theater, and other sites related to their focus at little or no cost for students.  I had an amazing week leading a group of students to visit urban farms in NYC and study sustainable urban agriculture. How cool is that?!

7.     My Union.  So Renaissance is a school that started as a district school. When it converted to charter in 2000, both teachers and administrators chose to remain in their unions. Thus, after spending the last four years in a non-unionized charter school, I am back in the UFT (NYC’s local AFT affiliate), a union I know well from my first six years teaching in the NYC DOE. I have lots more to say about this (saving for a future post), but for the moment, I appreciate the clarity and stability the union contract provides. Teacher retention at my school is extremely high, and I’m certain that being unionized is one significant factor in that.

8.     Community Partnerships.  There is an administrator with the full time job of developing and managing partnerships with community organizations.  Through her work, we seem to benefit from a number of grant-funded partnerships with arts and other organizations.  This makes for a more vibrant and varied experience for students—and teachers. For example, in the Global Lab partnership in 9th grade, both the Social Studies teacher and I “give up” one period per week of our regular classes, creating a double block called Global Lab. During this time, students rotate through three distinct interdisciplinary cycles throughout the year that explore themes in global studies.  One is problem-based education (students identify, investigate and design solutions to a problem in one of their communities), another is visual arts-based with a visiting teaching artist, and the third uses drama as the medium for exploration.  It’s great collaborative work for both students and teachers, keeping the week interesting and the thinking deep.

9.     My Students.  I’ve always loved getting to know my students and being a part of their lives no matter where it is or the conditions surrounding our work. However, right now I’m thankful for my current students, who have welcomed me into their school, a place many of them have attended since kindergarten and which they know far better than I do. Despite being adolescents and having their share of teen angst, they seem to genuinely like and appreciate their school.  This came through loud and clear during our Thanksgiving feast when 8th graders each got to say what they are thankful for… and I can see why! The fact that most of my students come to me as 8th or 9th graders with positive prior experiences in school creates favorable conditions for us to develop relationships and to focus on learning.

Maybe, as you’re reading this, you are thinking that I’m in the honeymoon phase with my new school. There could be truth in that, but I’ve also been teaching long enough and in enough different NYC schools to know that something is working very well here.  As an experienced teacher with a wide range of interests in the field of education, I’ve been wondering for some time how long I’ll stay in classroom teaching.  I promised myself I’d teach at least ten years, and I have done that.  But I still learn so much from classroom teaching! I don’t know if I’d be complete without it. Will I teach another ten years?  Finding myself in this school has helped me clearly envision a future that includes many more years of classroom teaching.

[Image credit: I took the above photograph at La Finca del Sur, a community farm run by women in the South Bronx.]

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