In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One] strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a “that’s just the way it is” mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice. When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are off task?

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.

How the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?  

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.