First Person

After a Successful NaNoWriMo, Now What?

Even though it was just last month, I find myself feeling a little nostalgic for November. December features a much-needed vacation and one of my favorite holidays, but the students and I had an unexpected experience in November that taught me something important: Sometimes the best instruction is no instruction.

A few years ago I stumbled across NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, a contest which challenges participants to crank out a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Whenever that month approaches, I think about making an attempt myself but can never bring myself to commit. This year, looking at the site, I noticed that there was a branch of the contest for students. Although the goal for adults is 50,000 words, the goals for kids are more flexible. Specifically, kids were expected to write approximately a thousand words per grade, making my sixth graders’ goal 6,000 words. I ordered the free materials on the spot.

But then I began growing skeptical that my students would want to get involved. Getting my kids to write anything is usually a challenge. Sometimes I joked to my colleagues that “dentist” was a more accurate title for what I do, because getting the kids to write more than a couple paragraphs is often like pulling teeth.

So I wasn’t expecting much enthusiasm. If my own sixth-grade English teacher had said, “Guess what? I want you to write a 6,000-word novel! And I want you to do it in a month!” I would have thought that she was out of her mind, even though I’ve always liked writing. Despite my misgivings, and the fact that I didn’t really have time to lay the proper groundwork, I decided that that I’d tell my students about NaNoWriMo, accepting up front that it would probably flop. Then I’d have a year to think about why it flopped and how I could better implement it the next time around. (I am not usually this pessimistic, but if the idea of me writing a novel makes me dizzy, imagine how an 11-year-old would feel.)

Happily, and surprisingly, I was wrong. I was wrong about the reception I got from the kids, wrong about the level of commitment I got from most of them, and, regrettably, very wrong about my own ability to meet the adult goal of 50,000 words. After all the years I’d passed it up, I decided to finally participate myself, to set an example for the kids. When I told the students that I, too, would be writing, one of the students burst out, “You can’t write 50,000 words! You have a kid!” He turned out to be right, but I did manage to write about 2,000 words. I sort of hope that they gloated about the fact that they were able to write more than their teacher, and I’m glad that my lack of success didn’t derail anyone.

Even though I’d intended to do the accompanying novel-writing lessons, I found that the kids were completely squirmy and uninterested in anything I had to say. They just wanted to write, and write they did, in the marble composition notebooks I gave them. Initially I’d planned on reserving laptops for them, but the logistics of that, coupled with the fact that this was not the time to also begin formal typing instruction, was a bit overwhelming, in part because I still had the regular curriculum to follow along with a few kids who didn’t want to participate.

So now it’s over, several weeks over, and instead of trying to work out why it flopped, I’m still trying to figure out why it didn’t and what that means for my teaching, how I can channel all that interest and enthusiasm. I learned that when left alone, kids will write. They will write a lot. They will ignore the pleas of their teachers to pay attention to the lesson and scribble furtively on notebooks half concealed under their desks. They will wait patiently in line at the front of the room to record their current word count so I can update the class chart.

Nearly all of the students met the 6,000-word goal. One student met the goal in about 10 days and continued to write until the end of the month. Another student started about 10 days in, met the goal, and started his second novel in December. I loved that none of them stopped when they reached the word count goal; they stopped when they were finished telling their stories, which ranged from fairy tales to action stories with a few crazy capers thrown in.

Knowing what I know about these kids as individuals pointed to a range of motivations and helped me learn a little more about them as people and as writers. Some kids wrote because they’re creative and they like it. Some kids wrote because it gave them a temporary escape from personal challenges. Some kids wrote to tell their true stories in safer, fictional contexts. And some kids wrote to be social. Several kids wanted to write but didn’t want to work alone, so they formed partnerships and worked together towards a 12,000-word goal.

It was a great experience for my students, and for me. Ideally, I wish they could have continued to work on their novels, but time waits for no one, and more important, testing waits for no one.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.