First Person

Long lines, few supplies, fearing the boss: One teacher says his Bronx school was ‘just like Poland, 40 years ago’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Tomasz "Tomek" Krzyzostaniak sharing his story

At first blush, the New York City school system and Communist Poland would seem to have little in common. But Tomasz “Tomek” Krzyzostaniak, a Bronx teacher whose family emigrated from Poland in 1991, says his dad saw many similarities between the two— from long lines to a shortage of supplies.

Tomek drew the comparison during Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for New York City teachers. Held in June at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share stories based on the theme “Best (Blank) Ever.”

Here’s Tomek’s story on the Best Bulletin Board Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

When I was thinking about the topic for today, I was thinking a lot about the early years [at my previous school], the beginning, when things were really tough. Everything was new. It was difficult. And I would call my parents and share stories, and my dad would consistently say the same thing. (If you didn’t know, I am Polish. I was born in Poland.)

In his thick Polish accent, my dad would say, “Just like Poland, 40 years ago.”

Now to put that in context, Poland 40 years ago was in their final dictatorial communist regime that was corrupt beyond imagination. So I would talk about, for example, the long lines waiting to pick up the ELA [English Language Arts] test. How many of you here have done that? Wait for 40 minutes. You have to sign a stupid form and all you get is a stupid test back. And I would say, “Just waiting in line.” And he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.”

I would talk about the shortage of supplies, or copiers. “Poland, 40 years ago.” I would talk about favoritism and nepotism. “Poland, 40 years ago.” Same thing.

I would talk about the symbolic walkthroughs — the superintendent is coming! All of a sudden, schools have to have everything in order, just for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

But with all that said, I would talk about the close friends I have, the colleagues that support each other and love each other, helped each other out, and he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.” When times were tough, and you were part of the resistance, you made friends and you did the best you could.

So, with that in mind, my biggest nemesis in the public school system was the dreaded bulletin board.

I hated the dreaded bulletin board, not because of philosophical ideas about bulletin boards — it could be a beautiful thing, sharing our students’ ideas and beliefs. The way the bulletin boards looked, at least in our school, was you could only put up not-actual work, because you had to put up perfect work. Everything had to be spelled exactly right, all the standards had to be there, all the descriptions. The work wasn’t authentic. It was all for show.

They would make you put up this bulletin board, they’d make you stress out over it, come around, and give you feedback: “Oh, I like the color,” or something. That’s it. It didn’t have any meaning, it wasn’t done for the kids. It was done for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

So, with my friends Ruben and another teacher, who we’ll call Sloman, we were over it. So, Sloman and I made a bet on who could create the best bulletin board.

Ruben volunteered to be our judge, and as Ruben would, he created rubrics, thought very closely about what it would take to make this very personal, progressive bulletin board.

[And I] worked so hard on it. Put out my students’ best work on it. My bulletin board was 3-D. It was interactive! Second grade social studies. We made longhouses from the Native American tribes here in the Northeast. They were so cool. They were so beautiful. Kids did such a great job on it.

So the day came, and Ruben came with his clipboard. He looked at my bulletin board first. He made some notes. I think he was impressed by the 3-D nature of it. Unlike anything seen at the school previously.

We went upstairs. I looked at Sloman’s bulletin board. And I didn’t win.

Sloman didn’t have a three-dimensional board, but Ruben’s feedback — which was more feedback than we had received from any administrator ever — talked about transformative skills, authentic work, the level of rigor, a lot of really smart stuff that we missed in my bulletin board.

The Best Bulletin Board Ever, the title, went to Sloman. But after that feedback, after that authentic feedback, I’d like to think that my bulletin boards after that were the best ever.

Tomek Krzyzostaniak is the lower school academic director at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary. Originally from Poland, he has worked as an educator in New York City for 10 years. He started as a second-grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.