Master Class

After fanfare, inside the Bronx classroom of New York’s Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Alhassan Susso, New York's Teacher of the Year, leads a class discussion in his Bronx classroom.

Twelfth graders at the International Community High School in the South Bronx were pumped when they watched their social studies teacher, Alhassan Susso, receive the state’s Teacher of the Year award in September, the first time a New York City educator has received the honor in two decades.

When Susso’s name was announced, 18-year-old Eric Parache and his classmates watching a livestream of the Albany award ceremony erupted in applause. “I feel so lucky to have him as a teacher,” Parache said.

Susso returned to the school two days later, where he was mobbed by students and colleagues who were eager to offer their congratulations. “It was crazy,” Susso recalled. But the fanfare soon passed, and Susso was back to the obscurity of the everyday job he loves.

Curious about how a Teacher of the Year practices his craft, Chalkbeat visited Susso’s class on a recent morning, where he was introducing a new unit on civil rights to a social studies class of roughly two dozen 12th graders, including a few late stragglers. He was posing some big questions on race — what it is and isn’t and who gets to decide.

The topic was one, in the nation’s most segregated school system, that both he and his students had clearly given some thought. When Susso accepted his award, he noted that he taught in the poorest congressional district in the country.

Many of Susso’s students are immigrants, hailing from West Africa, the Dominican Republic, or Yemen among other countries. Having moved to the U.S. from Gambia when he was 16, the teacher has a deep affinity for the hardships and challenges many of them face. Susso’s own immigrant experience has informed his approach in the classroom.

Before leaving Gambia, Susso completed the equivalent of eighth grade and was a top student, despite suffering from a rare eye disease— a condition he hid from everyone, including his teachers and parents, and left him nearly blind.

“I shielded myself from anyone knowing,” he said, “because disability is very stigmatizing in Gambia.”

At one point, when he was 11, he traveled to a hospital, but with few medical resources, the doctors there couldn’t help. To compensate, Susso stayed up late at night to memorize textbooks, whose words he could just make out, so he could follow the next day’s lessons on his school’s blackboard, which he never could see.

Once in the U.S., he settled in Poughkeepsie, moving in with a brother’s family and enrolling in the local high school. Because of his age, he was placed in the 11th grade.

In retrospect, skipping two grades, he said, “was the best thing that could have happened to me.” Because he was so miserable, he doubts he would have graduated if he’d had to make it through all four years.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability,” something he said was also true about his students, many of whom arrive at the school reading far below grade level. “There is not an achievement gap,” he insisted. “There is an opportunity gap.”

Like some of his students, Susso often arrived in class feeling angry, hungry, or exhausted and forever out of place. “I was the only African student,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends.” Sharing a home with his brother’s family proved untenable, and within eight months, Susso was living on his own and having to support himself with after-school jobs in a country he still scarcely knew or understood.

“Based on what I went through,” he said, he tries to provide many “different opportunities for students to feel relaxed and comfortable” in his fourth-floor classroom. “That is the only way,” he said, “that learning can occur.”

His room is lined with inspirational quotes, and he likes to begin each lesson with upbeat music. That morning, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” was playing on Susso’s computer as two boys with basketballs under their arms and a girl in a sweatshirt began to saunter in. The girl was happily mouthing the lyrics — “Take back my life song/Prove I’m alright song” — as she pulled a notebook from her backpack and greeted additional classmates as they entered.

Susso then led the class in a series of affirmations — “I am somebody” and “I will leave my mark on my generation” — which were like a pledge of allegiance to the students’ future selves. Susso then had students begin a “do now” exercise, which asked for written responses to a prompt: “Should citizens follow all laws passed by the government?” He then invited students to turn to an “elbow partner” to discuss what they had written.

Up to this point, the lesson was briskly paced and well-organized but not dramatically different from other classrooms. Where Susso really shined was in the ways he got students to think hard about complex issues and the clear rapport he’d already developed with students so early in the year.

Susso believes this personal connection is critical. He’s been known to visit students’ families in the hospital and stays after class to help them learn “life skills.”

At Susso’s Poughkeepsie high school, the adults weren’t always so supportive. He recalled one incident in a math class, when a teacher asked him to solve a problem on the board. Still hiding his vision problems and unable to see the equation, Susso replied simply, “I don’t know.”

The teacher responded by mocking Susso. “We know the people who are going to drop out of college,” he recalled the teacher saying, “if they even make it there.”

Another teacher took umbrage when Susso wore traditional African garb to class.

“If people want to wear their funny clothes,” the teacher said in front of Susso’s classmates, “they can stay in their country; this is America.”

Yet Susso said he and this teacher eventually became extremely close. “He got to know me as person,” Susso said. “He saw how hard I was willing to work.” By year’s end, the teacher was having students interview immigrants around Poughkeepsie and collected their stories in a bound book for the school community to share.

Still, Susso was often carrying a heavy weight, as he knows his students frequently do as well. Back in Gambia, a beloved sister contracted Hepatitis B, and the family worked to get her a visa to travel to the U.S. for treatment. But the visa was denied. Four months later, she died.

In the years immediately after, Susso became determined to go to law school to become an immigration lawyer so he could help families avoid the fate his had endured. Many of his students now, he said, worry about their legal status and that of their families.

In college, a counselor suggested that if Susso really wanted to “empower young people,” he should become a teacher instead.

Susso followed this advice and fulfilled part of his student-teaching requirement at International Community High School in the Bronx. The principal was so impressed, she promised him a job once he got his master’s degree. At age 34, he has now been teaching at the school for more than five years.

Bespectacled and darting about the classroom in brown pants, a beige dress shirt and navy-and-pink tie, he probed his students’ views with good-natured insistence.

When he called on one student who hadn’t volunteered to speak up, she moaned, “Noooo!” And he replied with a coaxing and enthusiastic “Yessss!”

Perla Novas, who is from the Dominican Republic, said she particularly liked how Susso is funny and lets students “talk a little bit” instead of demanding silence. “He cares about us and talks about values and why we should strive to be a better person,” she said. “Not a lot of teachers do that.”

Parache, the student who had watched Susso win his award in class and who is also Dominican, argued that citizens had a special responsibility to follow “all the laws,” because, he said, “when you become a citizen, you take a vow, you make a promise, to be good.”

“So what if the government passed a law that said ‘All Dominicans are to be deported next week,’” Susso inquired. “You said we’re supposed to follow all the laws.”

A female classmate chimed up, “But it’s not just ‘all the laws,'” she objected. “We also have rights.”

“So a law can be unconstitutional?” Susso asked, before sneaking in a review of some key terms and historical concepts, such as the 14th Amendment, the three-fifths compromise (in which slaves were counted as a fraction of a human being), “myth” and “segregation,” which he asked note-taking students to define or explain.

Susso then handed out sheets that contained a historical account of a Chinese family traveling through the American South in the 1950s, beginning to tie their debate to the unit ahead. Susso asked where such a family might sit — at the front or back of a bus — given the era’s Jim Crow laws enforcing racial separation.

“The middle?” one student asked.

Susso laughed, noting there was “no middle” in those days. Some students insisted Chinese passengers would be considered “colored”; others maintained they’d pass as “white.” Susso then had students take turns reading out loud from the passage. The Chinese passengers, it turned out, had been instructed to ride with whites but felt more kinship with blacks and so insisted on sitting at the back.

One student, Nicole Mendez, noted how Susso always went  “very deep into a topic” and was “very good at explaining things,” she said.

Susso again played music — this time a segment from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” — as students sought out new partners to discuss what they’d written about the 1950s story.  Susso said he always provided a two-minute break about halfway through the class, just to make it more inviting. About 60 seconds later, the class was again attentive and focused.

What would happen, Susso asked, if he woke up one day on the wrong side of the bed, “and decided I am now white,” he wondered. Could he do that as the Chinese family had? Why or why not?

A discussion ensued about how Susso and students perceived race in each other and themselves — whether they were “brown,” “black,” “cinnamon,” or “pink.”

Susso asked where “the best place to see segregation” was at their high school.

One girl called out, “The lunch room!” Students nodded knowingly, as they described the self-sorting that went on. “I hang with the Dominicans,” one girl, who indicated she was mixed-race, said.

Bringing the conversation back to the American south, Susso asked who got to decide what race someone was.

“The whites determined where people sat,” one girl said, which then led to the formulation of a more general precept: “The ones with the privilege get to decide.”

Another student countered that race was just “a myth,” utilizing the vocabulary word from earlier in the lesson, and that race didn’t refer to any biological difference. But, she added, “Myths can be powerful.”

Students then summed up what they’d learned in a final individual writing assignment, their “exit ticket,” which he could review later. As the students studiously finished up, a woman’s voice blared over the loudspeaker. “Period one is now over.”

In just 45 minutes, Susso had gracefully and expertly moved his students through several different exercises: reading, writing, and deep class discussions, and provided some music and fun besides.

“He’s an immigrant like us,” Perla Novas said, as she gathered up her books to head to her next class. “He asks questions that make us think.”


First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

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

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

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

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

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

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

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

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

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

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.