First Person

The Student Engagement Puzzle

Kate Quarfordt is the founding director of the musical theater program at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

I know you’re going to think I’m making this up, but I swear it actually happened, earlier this week, exactly as follows:

I’m on the D train heading up to the South Bronx, where I teach theater to students in grades 5-12. The commute from Brooklyn is a long one.

Out comes the laptop. I try to work on a draft of an article I’m struggling with. I’m supposed to be writing about making education engaging and relevant for today’s “urban youth.”

At West 4th Street I look up, my eye caught by the bouncy swagger of an attractive young kid with his hair in long thin braids. He’s maybe 13 or 14, wearing those jeans that somehow look baggy and skinny at the same time.

The kid sits down diagonally from me, takes out a Rubik’s Cube and starts working at it feverishly. He’s twisting and flipping it again and again at top speed, moving like he’s hypnotized.

People are glancing up from their iPods at him, mildly curious. The 30-ish guy in the rumpled T-shirt who’d been slouching half-asleep across from him is now sitting bolt upright, riveted.

After a minute or so he lets out a long whistle and asks, “Can you solve it?”

The kid grins and, without hesitating, tosses the Rubik’s Cube to the guy, who catches it.

“Yup,” he says. “Mix it up. I can solve it.”

So the guy scrambles it. He’s about to hand it back, but he hesitates. “Damn,” he says, wistfully. “I haven’t messed with one of these in years. Can I try solving it?”

“Sure,” says the kid. “But I’m getting off at 59th, so…”

The guy starts working furiously.

Now everyone on the train is watching. I try to pry my eyes away and go back to my laptop. But the article can’t hold my interest. I’m magnetized by the blur of the Rubik’s Cube in the guy’s hands.

The kid is, too. I catch his eye as he watches and smile at him. “So, you really know how to solve it?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, whatever. It’s just algorithms.”

“Right,” I say, trying not to let my jaw drop. “Listen, you gotta forgive me, but I’m a teacher so I’m kind of fascinated here. What do you mean, ‘just algorithms’?”

The kid looks at me like he feels a little sorry for me, and explains. “Well, an algorithm is just like a pattern of steps, like a sequence of moves to get you where you want to go.”

It occurs to me at this moment that it’s around noontime. This kid is skipping school.

“So … who taught you these patterns?” I ask.

“My friend,” says the kid. “This dude Lewis. He had a Rubik’s Cube and I thought it was cool, so I bought one and he showed me. It only took me a few days to figure it out.”

“Yeah,” the rumpled guy across from him chimes in, not looking up from the cube in his fast-moving hands. He’s got the red, yellow, green and white sides all matched up now, only orange and blue to go. “It’s just like in computer programming,” he says. “Everyone uses algorithms. And there’s some statistics involved, too, because when you —” he stops violently midsentence, as if he’s been stung by a bee, drops the Rubik’s Cube in his lap and throws his hands up. “Aw, damnit!” he says, “I just HAD to go and hit the asymptote!”

He displays the orange side, marred by a symmetrical pattern of four pesky blue squares, then flips the cube to reveal the same pattern in reverse on the other side.

“Oh snap,” says the kid, nodding sympathetically. “Yeah, the asymptote’s a bitch.”

“Wait a second,” I say. “What do you mean, the asymptote?”

The kid looks at me. “Thought you were a teacher.”

“I teach theater,” I explain.

The kid nods. “So, the asymptote is the curve?” he makes a swoop with his hand. “You know? The curve that keeps getting closer and closer to the line but never hits it?”

An image of the soup-green textbook from my ninth-grade geometry class, which I barely passed, flashes dimly in my memory.

“So what do you do when you hit the asymptote?” I ask. I am completely hooked now, my laptop closed on my knees.

“Well,” says the kid. “You gotta go back to go forward.”

“Like in life,” the guy agrees. He scrambles the cube up again so it’s totally random and hands it back to the kid, who holds it up and says, “Wanna see?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I definitely want to see.”

A few minutes later, we pull into 59th Street, just as the kid solves the whole puzzle. There is a smattering of applause. He says, “See ya, miss,” and gets off the train.

I sit there for a second. Then I open up my laptop.

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.