Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

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The Makings of a Bad Teacher

 

As prep for a state exam, the teacher created a lesson to review the cause and effects of WWII by having students view an amateur cartoon on YouTube, and then fill out answers to previous state exam questions.  On a different occasion, a teacher was reviewing geometric concepts in prep for the next day’s in-class exam.  However, students were listening to electronic devices, texting, holding side conversations about best lyricists, some had heads down on desks, and one exclaimed after a previously heated exchange with the teacher, “Don’t you sometimes feel like slapping the shit out of_____?”  In a third instance, students were sitting in groups, and then asked to do a do-now of answering questions followed by textbook reading and answering more questions.  The teacher spoke only to give announcements of what to complete in the textbook.

As  a witness to such classrooms, while not pleased and genuinely concerned about the delivery of instruction and the management of classroom dynamics not matching a path leading toward successful evidential learning outcomes, my job is to support teachers where they are into the best they can be.  Consequently, this work does not match the recent outcries of terminating bad teachers.  In this vortex of disconnect, two questions emanate.  Given these examples (and many like them) is this evidence of bad teachers or bad teaching moments?  Going further, is there such a thing as a bad teacher or bad teaching?  Having been a high school teacher and now an educational coach, I am trying to broaden my territory of investigation and support.  But, in the fury of media and politics advocating the eradication of bad teachers, I also have to start asking more clarifying questions.

The problem, in part, is “badness” is collapsed and universalized.  A teacher who chooses not to lesson plan is equated to one diligently struggling in writing and delivering effective lessons.  A teacher who is indifferent to whether all students learn is equated to one genuinely trying to figure out how to manage a class and differentiate instruction (which could be addressed through familiarizing the teacher with different strategies in both classroom management and instructional approaches and modeling them).  A teacher who is trying to practice students collaborating in groups in creating bridges of social interaction and practicing the use of them (as required in the world) is collapsed into the same category of those disinterested in such enterprise.  The point of these examples is that one could see similar outcomes–disengaged disgruntled students, poor instructional delivery, below par student performance–without taking into account the “badness” within context.  Training our eyes less to demonize a person, sharpening them to ascertain other factors in play such as skill and context, can better help us improve the educative experiences struggling teachers can give, and therefore (ideally) improve the learning possibilities of our students.

Perhaps what is needed during this moment of reform amidst calls to fire “bad” teachers based on student test scores, institute merit-based pay, and eliminate  hard-earned tenure–all of these responses to aftershock–is (1) a reexamination of the criteria for defining a “bad teacher,” (2) distinguishing “a bad teacher” from “bad teaching,”  (3) learning and understanding the context and situations that such teaching occurs, and (4) what reform initiatives  match outcomes for improving teaching and learning.  The most immediate solution is to lessen the rhetoric.  The over-sweeping judgments, placements of blame, and generalizations are rampant and fuel hysteria.  They focus our energy and efforts less around understanding the situations and contexts within which some teachers are struggling, and our duty to provide targeted support.  The next is to start asking questions.  What are a teacher’s goals for students, how are they matched with the teacher’s skill set, what is the evidence of effectiveness, and what are places where there is weakness that support can ameliorate?