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Inspired to lead
by Janella Hinds | December 20, 2012 New York Teacher issue
High school is my spot — it was where I found my inspiration to teach and where the seeds of leadership took root and began to grow. When I reflect on high school at its best, I think of Mr. Larsen, my social studies teacher. At my midsized academic high school on Long Island, Mr. Larsen piqued our intellectual curiosity and prepared us for higher education. Before collaborative learning gained traction in educational discourse, Mr. Larsen practiced it.
In our sophomore and junior years, during a double-class period, my classmates and I delved into history, intent on understanding the fabric of American society. Through quarterly group projects, we demonstrated our mastery of the content. But equally important, we engaged in peer-to-peer education, learned to work together to accomplish a specific goal on deadline and produced a work product with relative independence. We became truly engaged in learning not just because the subject matter was relevant, but because Mr. Larsen supported critical thinking and collaboration. And we achieved.
In the current wave of so-called education reform, especially over the last decade in New York City, my own high school experience, which was replete with competitive AP courses, compelling electives, clubs, the arts and athletics, has become a choice for the few. Under the guise of “school choice,” this administration has promoted multiple small, themed schools that are usually no larger than 400 students in place of large and midsized schools. Under its stewardship, we’ve witnessed the demise of once-thriving district high schools. And the doors closed not just on these schools but on the history of generations of alumni who enjoyed diverse course offerings, played on legendary sports teams and identified with an institution that anchored many neighborhoods. Most hard hit by this approach are high school students in the Bronx and Brooklyn
Vilifying small high schools serves no purpose. These schools serve a specific need and have a place in the mix. But thousands of city high school students would benefit if the Department of Education rechanneled the energy it now expends pushing its new schools initiatives into offering diverse role models, learning opportunities and settings to meet the interests and needs of the full complement of students. These emerging young adults crave greater academic and extracurricular diversity, leadership and social engagement opportunities.
A prime example of what we need to replicate is Brooklyn’s Midwood HS. Its heralded law department has offered courses on constitutional law and the great trials of the 20th century and provides both mentoring and a community service component. In partnership with the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, Midwood law students prepare constitutional arguments and participate in moot court.
Presenting before a panel of “judges” composed of area law students, faculty and attorneys, Midwood students don’t just study law — they live it. In tandem with moot court, competitive mock trial teams vie for victories against their peers at other academic high schools. Over the years, a few Midwood students have had the rare opportunity to visit the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Having guided Midwood’s law department for more than 20 years, law coordinator and Chapter Leader Stu Rothstein can vouch for its positive impact. He noted that five of the students involved in last year’s program are now pursuing law careers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Rothstein says he has seen students undergo a change as they become “enthusiastic about the possibilities.”
I grew up in a family that prized education and community. For 24 years, my dad taught electronics at several New York City public schools, where he served his students and this union with distinction. I witnessed his love for his craft and for his students. Like him, I embrace the tenet expressed by Cornel West: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”
I am a high school social studies teacher in the service of our members and our students. As your new vice president for academic high schools, I welcome the opportunity this column presents to share my perspective and to challenge us to examine our methods and approaches to teaching at the high school level. I will champion our best practices and be an advocate for our students’ growth and development. For me, the journey has been rich and rewarding so far. After all, I’m still in high school, and I love it.