Every summer, teachers from the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx make home visits to incoming sixth graders -- a rare practice that was described in The Times's Metropolitan section on Sunday. Stephen Slater was one of those teachers. Here is his journal about the experience.
Sunday night, Aug. 7
It has been a long summer, jam-packed with new teacher training. Though I already taught last year, at a different school, this won't be the same. On the home visits we make tomorrow, I get to start meeting my future students. I don’t know anything about kids from the Bronx. But I can’t wait to get to know where they are coming from a little bit more.
I was afraid that I would have to spend this week planning a curriculum for students I had never met and didn’t understand. But thanks to the wonderful foresight of our principal, Ken Baum, instead of planning, I’ll be meeting students and their parents in their homes. This is how education should begin, with the student. Once I know them, I can begin to plan ways of learning that will actually grab their attention.
I believe that most misbehavior in classrooms comes from a disconnect between the teacher and the students. If I can get an angle on who my students are, then I just might be able to communicate effectively with them.
Tomorrow it’s my job to set expectations high. When I deliver the student’s first uniform, I will be helping the student and parent set a goal of high academic achievement. Nothing less than the student’s best will do. I will be helping the student and parent set a goal of college attendance.
I’m excited about starting this fall at A.M.S. I am thrilled that my road as a teacher starts as it should, with a handshake and a smile shared with both students and parents. I’m honored to be part of this school that is doing such great work.
Monday night, Aug. 8
A mother of two twin daughters came in to our school to do a role-play showing us how a home visit would unfold. The teacher said, "You won’t be getting into any trouble, will you?" The question was directed at the student, but the mother answered immediately, intercepting whatever answer her daughter might have given: “No, my child won’t be getting into any trouble!”
It happened again, at another home. Another mother, whose son plays football, answered the question for him. “He likes to keep busy," she said. "There’s a lot of things you can do to get into trouble out there. But my child won’t be getting into any trouble.”
I think that for the first time, I recognized the fierceness with which mothers fight for their children. They fight to keep them off the streets. They are fighting for their children’s lives.
Each home showed care and love by setting high expectations for their student. I was surprised how something so intangible as the expectation of success can be so effectively externalized in a uniform. The uniform is crucial because it is a symbol.
We make it clear that we also have expectations for the child. Our expectations are expressed very directly. We are here to help the child prepare for college. In many cases this is beyond what the parents have dreamed for their child.
A mother told us that when she had been in school it had not been clear that she would go to college. She ended up not going to college, but rather bringing her son into the world. I looked at her son, and told him, “You’re going to college.” This may have been the first time that he heard that. And he believed it. Now it’s not just his mother who is fighting for him. We are too.
The home visits are an extraordinary opportunity to give the students a chance to present themselves before anything has happened. We get to establish a relationship with the student and family before they have had a chance to be tardy or not complete an assignment. Each child gets to present his or her self in exactly the way he or she wishes, as a happy, intelligent, responsible student. This means that we help to set the child’s high expectations. Who would have thought that the simple gesture of a home visit could accomplish such crucial goals? Just a little personal attention is worth more than millions of dollars of funding, or half a dozen school reforms.
Saturday, Sept. 3
Thursday is the first day of school. I’m not ready. I lean back at my desk, staring at the blank walls.
Last year, I worried about how to grab the kids’ attention. I worried that I didn’t have a curriculum. I started with a controversial passage from Karl Marx, something to get under their skin. "Oh, this is not going to be the usual class,” they mumbled. I fingered the podium, looked at the bare walls. They stared back at me. The students would enter, ask each other: “Does this guy know how to teach? He doesn’t have a thing on his walls! How are we supposed to learn without the charts, and pictures, and slogans?"
This year, having already taught for a year, I’m not worried about the curriculum. I’m not worried about what’s on my walls. I’m worried that the classroom won’t run smoothly. The wiseacres tell you, “It will be two years before you can manage a classroom.” I’m worried that I’ll have to send kids out of the classroom. During my student teaching, I saw this done over and over again. Most days it was multiple times per class. Then the child had to see the dean or the principal. We never saw many of them again. They had to repeat the year.
What’s so cool about this school is that we don’t do that. “We don’t send kids into the hallway. It goes with our commitment to accepting everyone. We got 'em all,” Principal Baum announced during orientation. He draws out the last word in his New York accent: “Aaawwl.” “We don’t kick kids out. We are a community school, and we create community. We’ve got 'em all.”
I relax in my chair. This classroom will be a place where every kid belongs. We’re going to hold on to every child. They won’t slip through; they won’t get sent out. We’ve got 'em all. I’m ready.