When William Shakespeare wrote, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves,” he could have been referring to the 250 eager-to-learn educators who came to the UFT’s sixth annual Middle Schools Conference at union headquarters on March 30.
Since Shakespeare was the theme of this year’s event, it’s not surprising that participants flocked to the workshop on teaching the Bard in the middle school classroom. The workshop included an exercise in which the participants hurled insults and compliments at each other using phrases coined by the playwright.
“I took this workshop because I thought it would be very hard to teach Shakespeare to middle school students, but I found out it’s actually easy,” said Marisol Vialet, a paraprofessional at the Fordham Academy for the Arts in the Bronx who is going to school to become a teacher. “There are techniques where you can push the students to the words in different ways.”
UFT Vice President for Middle Schools Richard Mantell, who organized the conference, explained he chose a focus on Shakespeare because “the quotes and themes of his writing are as applicable today as they were 500 years ago.”
Besides the session on teaching Shakespeare, there were nine other workshops where members learned strategies they could bring back to their classrooms.
Juan Abreu, a special education teacher at JHS 227 in Brooklyn, said that’s precisely why he attended the conference and took the workshop on how to engage disengaged middle school boys.“I learned that boys’ brains function differently than girls’ do, so it’s not fair to have the same expectations,” he said. “You need to find techniques that they find more engaging — techniques that include movement, teamwork and competition, for example.”
James Petrassi, a paraprofessional at IS 51 on Staten Island, said he does a lot of work in math and science with his students and found the workshop on science exploration in the classroom eye-opening.
“The teachers at my school are very open to input from the paraprofessionals,” Petrassi said, “and I picked up some ideas and strategies that I believe will be helpful.”
The participants started their day with greetings from Bradley Alter, a UFT member representative in the Middle Schools Division, and NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham before hearing from City Councilman Mark Treyger, the chair of the Council’s Education Committee and a former New York City public high school teacher in Brooklyn.“As someone who taught 9th-graders, I have a true appreciation for middle school teachers,” said Treyger, the keynote speaker. “You are in your own right first responders to many social challenges facing children. And you get great support from your union, whose key priority has always been the well-being of those children.”
UFT President Michael Mulgrew, in his address, made mention of the challenges often associated with teaching students of middle school age.
“I had a class of 9th-graders where my job was to get middle school out of the students,” Mulgrew joked. “You guys are the Green Berets of the school system. If you can teach in New York City and in a middle school, you can teach anywhere in the universe.”
Which is why, as Mantell said, middle school educators should heed the words from Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII.” “He said, ‘but I can see his pride Peep through each part of him,’” Mantell said. “Be proud of who you are and all you do.”