Log in  |  Search

Archive for February, 2014

How to read a poem (or how to teach)

Li Wenlan is in her second year as a middle school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. In this entry, she recalls analyzing the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” with her 7th-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class. If you are a newer teacher and would like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org!

The education reform movement has an obsessive adherence to rigidly structured lesson plans, bewildering algorithms to quantify teacher effectiveness and the relentless collection and analysis of student data. But in my second year of teaching, I’ve come to realize that a true education is messy — gloriously messy, like a Kandinsky painting.

A true education blossoms at the nexus of wondrous insight, courageous inquiry and dazzling tangents. It eschews the arrogant certainty of algorithms, the military precision of linear thinking and the uninspired conformity of logical progression.

Halfway through my 7th-grade class’s study of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the adolescent Ponyboy runs away with Johnny after the latter accidentally murders a Soc, a member of a rival gang. While sitting in an abandoned church and ruminatively observing a beautiful sunrise, Ponyboy is moved to recite “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a Robert Frost poem about the fleeting nature of life. After his recitation, Ponyboy confesses that he “was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded [him].”

Here was a chance for my students to help out their beloved protagonist by analyzing the poem’s significance.

I began the lesson by modeling a close reading of the first couplet of the poem on a document camera. I highlighted select phrases that stood out and recorded lingering questions and tentative interpretations in the margins to make personal text-to-self connections. Throughout the modeling, I invited my students to weigh in by asking them to contribute possible responses to my questions or to provide alternative interpretations. Then I asked my students to try to close-read the last three couplets of the poem independently.

When my co-teacher and I initially peered over the shoulders of our students, we noticed that many of them were reticent about jotting down their thoughts, understandably nervous about traversing into deep, unknowable territory. But slowly, questions — and interpretations cloaked in the safe, humble guise of questions — began to emerge.

“What did Frost mean when he wrote ‘So Eden sank to grief’?” “When Frost wrote ‘leaf subsides to leaf,’ did he mean that the leaves were dying?” “Isn’t this line similar to this other line about how the flower can only last an hour?”

My co-teacher and I agreed that it was time for our students to share their thoughts and wonderings out loud with each other.

Despite my students’ initial reluctance to delve into challenging poetic terrain, our whole-class discussion unexpectedly became a safe, nonjudgmental haven within which to share ideas. And though I had prepared a set of text-dependent questions that would guide my students to a more symbolic interpretation of the poem, I quickly brushed those aside as my students unwittingly took the lead.

Unburdened by my carefully-laid plans for a scaffolded discussion, students jumped from line to line, couplet to couplet, making unlikely connections amongst disparate phrases, peers’ remarks, and other works of literature. With only the gentlest of teacher guidance, the discussion flowed wherever my students willed it.

“Gold refers to something that’s valuable or precious, so I think Frost is trying to say that nothing good in life can last forever,” offered a student.

“Well, if that’s the case, what are some good things in Ponyboy’s life that don’t last forever?” I asked.

“Maybe the important people in his life. For example, his mom and dad, who died in a car crash,” suggested one student.

“Or maybe he’s relating it to the sunrise and his friendship with Cherry, because even though they see the same sunset, their friendship still can’t last because he’s a Greaser and she’s a Soc,” suggested another.

“But what about the Garden of Eden? What’s that got to do with anything?” a student asked.

“Maybe it refers to a character from the novel that’s grieving?”

Suddenly, another student who had been quietly observing the discussion excitedly chimed in: “I got it! It’s Darry, when Ponyboy runs away! Maybe Darry is the Eden that grieves when he realizes that he has lost Ponyboy!”

“I’d actually like to share a text-to-text connection I’ve made between that ‘So Eden sank to grief’ line and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus,” said a student. “When Icarus dies after flying too close to the sun, Daedalus becomes so heartbroken that he literally sinks to grief because he gives up flying for the rest of his life. This situation is actually pretty similar to both Ponyboy’s and Darry’s that other students mentioned.”

I have heard teachers bristle at the prospect of teaching struggling students out of the mistaken fear that they will have to sacrifice sophisticated intellectual inquiry for mind-numbing, rudimentary mechanics. Though my students’ writing certainly suffers from its fair share of run-on sentences, nonexistent thesis statements and weak explanations of text-based evidence, I still wish those teachers could see my students. I wish they could see how their burgeoning insights and intellectual courage belie their test scores, see how they are able to escape the fetters of low self-esteem to take a chance on their brave ideas, see how they make breathtaking, convincing connections between “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus” or the Bible.

The process of reading a poem is, I’ve come to realize, a lot like teaching. You don’t know where your mind (or your students’ minds) will wander, what questions will emerge or what imaginative insights will blossom, but you let go nevertheless.

And this can lead you to moments of buoyant incandescence, to life-affirming moments when both teacher and student become equally genuine arbiters of knowledge, to unreal, quite bittersweet moments, in fact, when life imitates art and you realize that this very moment is so, so “golden” that it certainly cannot stay.

And yet, it does.

Inequality and you

[This editorial originally appeared in the Feb. 6 edition of the New York Teacher.]

You know how college costs today seem nearly out of reach for all but the most affluent families?

How so many families now are under financial stress and struggling to pay their bills, despite holding down jobs and working hard?

How housing prices in New York City keep climbing faster than wages, forcing more families to move farther out or to the suburbs?

That is income inequality at work.

Bill de Blasio made it the touchstone issue of his mayoral campaign. President Obama focused on it in his State of the Union address. Occupy Wall Street helped us all start talking about it.

The statistics are alarming. Since 1979, the share of total income going to the top-earning U.S. households nearly doubled. In 2012, the top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income. An international study in 2013 found that the widest gaps between rich and poor are found in four countries: Chile, Mexico, Turkey and the United States.

The issue really hits home, though, when we consider how growing inequality hurts ordinary people and narrows the future possibilities for our children.

There are ways to close the income gap, and the president is right that government has a big role to play. Solutions include increasing the minimum wage, closing corporate tax loopholes and strengthening labor laws so that workers who want to unionize can do so.

As a union, our fight for fair contracts acts as a counterweight to the rising tide of inequality. So does our support for other labor campaigns, such as the fight by fast-food workers for decent wages.

Inequality affects us all every day. It is, as President Obama said, the defining issue of our time.

A strike averted

[This editorial originally appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of the New York Teacher.]

More than 1,800 UFT members were poised to strike recently. Picket sites were selected around the city for nurses employed by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, if a new contract was not reached by the Feb. 1 strike deadline. Strike captains were named.

The strike was narrowly averted when the UFT won an agreement to preserve the pensions and health care that the employer had sought to cut. The nurses also won a pay raise.

The victory is a reminder of how necessary unions are.

It isn’t just people who work at public schools, at other government agencies or in private industry who need collective bargaining.

“Employees of large nonprofit organizations need unions, too,” UFT Vice President Anne Goldman said.

VNS is a large and well-established nonprofit that provides in-home nursing care, therapy and hospice care to the frail and elderly.

You might think that such organizations, with nonprofit status and a mission of care-giving, could naturally be counted on to treat employees fairly.

But last fall, VNS abruptly laid off 500 staff, including 300 nurses, after the organization came under state scrutiny for improper Medicaid billings linked to the use of social adult day-care centers. The organization had to repay the government $33.6 million in the settlement.

In the wake of that settlement, VNS told its nurses that it needed to eliminate their pension benefits and require them to pay for their own health care. The nurses, backed by their union, held firm.

Now that a contract has been won, the UFT hopes to turn a page in its relationship with VNS to one of mutual respect.

VNS nurses gained that respect at the bargaining table by standing in solidarity with their union.

Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report

As charter school proponents go to Albany this week to plead their case, let’s examine the realities behind their claims of stretched resources, unique student demand and stellar academic results.

How poor are charter schools?

While charters maintain they have very thin budgets, and some smaller charters in fact operate close to the margin, others are extremely well-funded.

A review of the most recently available public documents showed that as of 2011-12, the schools in six of the city’s most prominent charter chains had a total of more than $65 million in net assets, including nearly $16 million for the charters which are part of the Uncommon Schools Network and more than $13 million for the Success Academy Network.

What’s more, this supposed poverty doesn’t prevent some charters from paying very large salaries to their executives, as the Daily News recently reported.  The two Harlem Village Academies run by Deborah Kenny pay her a total of half a million dollars a year;  Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies reported a salary only a few thousand less, while David Levin of KIPP got just under $400,000.  All these salaries are dramatically more than those of the city’s mayor and chancellor, who supervise roughly 1,700 schools.

Charters’ opaque bookkeeping methods make it difficult to figure out how much many schools spend on their vendors, but tax filings by the Success Academy schools suggest that management fees charged by that network totaled $3.5 million of their schools’ per-pupil funds in 2011-12. In 2013, the Success Network requested and received a raise in management fees to 15 percent of the per-pupil funding it receives from the state and city.

The total amount of management fees charged by just four of the city’s charter chains in 2011-12 — Success, Uncommon, Achievement First, and KIPP — was over $12 million.  (see table below)

Charter Chain Financial Data, 2011-12


Network Name Number of NYC Schools with Audits Total Net Assets of Schools Total Management Fees Top Executive Compensation 2010-11
Achievement First





Success Charter Network





Uncommon Schools










Village Academies Network



Not Listed on Audit


Icahn Charters










All of these figures are based on the schools’ own filings; the lack of publicly available audits for many other chains limits information about what other networks are charging.  Meanwhile, charter proponents led by Success Academy have launched a court fight to prevent an independent expert — the State Comptroller — from auditing charters’ and charter management companies’ books.

A study based on 2010-11 by the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that as of 2009-10, co-locating a charter school in a public school building in effect gave the charter about $650 per student more in public funding than district schools spend. Their calculations were based on earlier, lower levels of charter per-pupil funding, however; at current rates, that disparity may now be over $2,000 per student.

Charters also get foundation grants — including from right-wing organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, which has given more than $1 million to Achievement First in recent years. In addition, a look at official filings by many charters — in particular the Success Academy network — show that the schools or chains have boards dominated by hedge funders and other financial interests whose contributions could theoretically absorb any reasonable rent charged for public school space; at a gala in 2013, for example, the Success Network raised more than $7 million in one evening.

How unique are charter waiting lists?

Charters make much of the length of their student waiting lists.  But the reality of New York City schools is that tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.

More than half of the city’s nearly 64,000 eighth graders did not get into their first choice for high school last year and 7,200 — more than 10 percent of the total — did not get into a single school they applied to.  Approximately 20,000 students who take the test each year for the specialized high schools do not get into one of these schools.

The same is true for thousands of elementary school students who apply for slots in competitive middle schools, and for thousands more families who cannot find space in gifted programs or whose kids end up waitlisted for kindergarten in their neighborhood schools.

Students can and do get off waiting lists in district schools, which generally backfill empty spaces in higher grades if and when students transfer out; most charters, in contrast, almost never accept transfer students off their “waitlists” beyond their early grades.

Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?

Student scores plummeted across the city last year when the state introduced new tests based on the Common Core standards. But in reading, charters schools as a whole scored under the citywide average (26.4 citywide average, charters 25.1).

Even highly touted charters had classes with significant problems.  Democracy Prep’s Harlem charter had fewer than 4 percent of 6th-graders proficient in reading and fewer than 12 percent passing math.  Fewer than 12 percent of 5th-graders at KIPP Star College Prep were proficient in math and just 16 percent passed the reading test, while 11 percent of their 7th-graders scored proficient in language arts and 14 percent in math.

These results come despite the fact that, as a group, charter schools serve a smaller proportion of the city’s neediest students, including special ed and English language learners.  A 2012 report by the charters’ own association —  the New York City Charter School Center — showed that on average, charter schools had only 6 percent English language learners, compared with 15 percent in district schools.

A recent IBO study showed that an astonishing 80 percent of special education students who start in charter schools in kindergarten are gone by the third grade.

Student attrition is a particular issue for the Success network, whose schools tend to have far higher student suspension rates than their neighborhood schools; they also see their class cohorts shrink as many poor-performing students leave or are counseled out and not replaced.

How can we level the playing field?

If charter schools are serious about playing an important role in New York City education, they should take four immediate steps to level the playing field between them and district schools, as outlined by UFT President Michael Mulgrew below in an article reprinted from the New York Daily News:

For the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration has singled out charter schools for special treatment, a strategy that embittered many ordinary New York City public school parents and children. Here are four steps charter schools should take now to end that divisive relationship:

Serve the neediest kids

State law requires that charters serve the same percentage of poor and special-needs children, along with English-language learners, as their local district schools do. Unfortunately, many charter schools ignore this requirement. Meanwhile, parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been “counseled out” of charters, most of them ending up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores. A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that a shocking 80% of special-needs kids who enroll in city charter schools as kindergartners leave their schools by the third grade.

Be good neighbors

The Bloomberg administration often shoehorned charters into public schools. Because some charters didn’t want their children interacting with public school kids, gymnasiums and cafeterias would be limited to charter students at certain hours. Worst of all, students in dilapidated classrooms with outmoded equipment and few supplies watched with envy as the incoming charters spent small fortunes on renovations, paint jobs, new desks and equipment, books and supplies. If they want to be good neighbors, charters should share the wealth — and make sure all students sharing one school building have the same opportunities and environment.

Open their books

If charter operators truly want a new start, they need to abandon the lawsuit they have filed against the state controller seeking to block his ability to audit their books. Parents and taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going.

Stop treating children as profit centers

Charters receive taxpayer dollars. In addition, many get donations from major hedge funders, have millions of dollars in bank accounts and pay their chief executives — who typically oversee a small group of schools — as much as half a million dollars a year, along with lavish benefits. Charters with such resources need to pay rent, as Mayor de Blasio has suggested. And charters should set realistic salary caps for their executives and appropriate limits on payments to consultants.

Data Sources

Other sources:

 How poor are charter schools?

 How unique are charter waiting lists?

Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?

Learning how to support children in crisis: A collective awareness of classroom stressors

nau_edwizePatrick Nau, a teacher at PS 369 in the Bronx, has completed his training with the Institute for Understanding Behavior, a consortium of the New York City Department of Education and the UFT. The institute trains entire school staffs in using strategies that help foster social, emotional and academic growth in students. Eight schools have signed up for the training. Patrick is writing a series of blog posts about his experience and the lessons he hopes to bring into the classroom. Read Patrick’s first post »

The four-day training of the Institute for Understanding Behavior asks you to take stock of yourself and your school community. Each day, for six hours, we were asked to think with sincerity about our school’s successes and where our school needs to make changes. We rehearsed how we would deal with stressful situations. And we shared with the other participants what behaviors really irk us and what we do to help ourselves remain calm.

My co-workers and I realized a few things: mainly that our staff — as do most educators — knows what we are supposed to do. We know that in stressful situations we need to support student needs and understand the correlation between their needs and behaviors, use positive language, avoid power struggles. We know what environmental conditions cause children to struggle with behavior.

The trainers suggested that teachers ask themselves four key questions before responding to a child’s behavior: What am I feeling? What does the student feel, need or want? How can I change the environment? What is the best response?

In the heat of the moment, I sometimes struggle to pause before reacting. I need to not panic during a stressful situation — even if there is fighting — take a deep breath and quickly assess the situation before trying to address it.

My colleagues and I also found the Life Space Interview to be a helpful tool. In a nutshell, the Life Space Interview is a way to engage a struggling student, one-on-one, to understand what is frustrating him or her, to understand the behavior correlated to how the child feels, discuss and practice alternatives, and ultimately reintroduce the child into the class.

But ultimately all of this led to more questions. How do we find time to use these strategies when you have a full class of other students? What do you do when multiple students are having difficulty at the same time?

During the training, my colleagues and I found ourselves frequently in discussions about applying what we were learning to our particular school and staff. We kept returning to one key question: Will everyone buy into the program and implement it in earnest? How do we implement the components and strategies of the IUB training with consistency across the entire school community?

For the IUB strategies to be implemented effectively, all staff needs to develop a collective awareness of how to handle stressful situations.