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Big Apple winners empower students — in class and remotely

New York Teacher
Laura Blau

Laura Blau, a visual art teacher at Millennium Art Academy in the Bronx, works with her students to create projects tied to their interests.

The most successful teaching strategy of Big Apple award winner Laura Blau, a visual art teacher at Millennium Art Academy in Castle Hill, the Bronx, is empowering students throughout their project-based learning process.

Blau brainstorms with students, discussing everything from content to materials, so they understand what is expected of them. They work together to create projects tied to the students' ideas and interests. Worksheets break down the steps required to successfully complete assignments.

"Students need buy-in," Blau said. "They help me define elements of each rubric."

Carolyn Unterman

Carolyn Unterman of PS 26 on Staten Island says it’s important to be there for her students.

When teaching and learning went remote, Blau had students design their own crossroads, a metaphor for their identity, inspired by a Diego Rivera painting they viewed online. Students could use whatever materials they had at home, including paints, pencils and crayons. The worksheet guided them as they created symbolic work around topics including sexual preference, Mexican-American culture and the Black Lives Matter movement — issues that were personally relevant to her students.

Noelle Mapes
Noelle Mapes of PS 142 in Manhattan gives her students space to develop critical thinking skills and to hone observations about the world around them.

"Students told me the process taught them how to slow down, think and plan," Blau said. "It helped them manage their steps and assess themselves at each step."

Blau is among 19 teachers who received 2020 Big Apple Teaching Awards. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza notified the honorees on June 26 in a Zoom meeting. In the 2020–21 school year, they will serve in the Chancellor's Teacher Advisory Group.

Blau wasn't alone in identifying student empowerment and communication as successful strategies. "It's very important to empower your students and have them take ownership of their learning," said Pedro Dones, a math teacher at MS 363, the Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence, in the Fordham section of the Bronx. "It's where learning comes from working together and you become a facilitator."

Dones gives students three or four rigorous questions to work on. "It's about being OK with some students getting through two questions and others getting all four," he said. "I'm a big fan of less is more and staying in the background."

During remote teaching, Dones supplemented live teaching with videos on YouTube. "I'm a little bit of a fashionista, so in every video I had a different pair of sneakers," he said. "Students wanted to know 'What is he wearing this time?' I had fun with it, and the kids picked up my enthusiasm."

Pedro Dones

Pedro Dones of MS 363 in the Bronx mixes fun and fashion in his YouTube videos, delivering a boost to student engagement.

Noelle Mapes, a 2nd-grade teacher in an integrated co-teaching classroom at PS 142 in Manhattan, said her top strategy is giving students "the space and time to look at something with a critical lens."

She encourages them to consider questions such as, "Who's included? Who's excluded? What's the energy in the room?"

"They have a keen sense of justice and, given the space, can discuss ideas," Mapes said. "They are not bogged down with grown-up expectations."

She had daily check-ins with her students, who discussed the protests after the murder of George Floyd. "They shared what they noticed in their writing and drawing," she said.

At PS 26 on Staten Island, Carolyn Unterman said empowering her 3rd-graders means giving them an "understanding of the work and why it's important."

"I give them the rubrics for writing, in language they can understand," Unterman said. "I'm clear on my expectations, and I give them feedback." That includes taking them through what it means to be successful, as well as "what 4th grade might look like."

Bienvenida Sanchez

Bienvenida Sanchez of PS 108 in Brooklyn makes communicating with her students and their parents a priority.

She held a daily 9 a.m. virtual meeting to get kids engaged and talking and to check on their moods. Unterman also checked in with parents on a regular basis. "It's about being there for students and parents and checking in on their emotional health," she said.

Communication is also the top strategy for Bienvenida Sanchez at PS 108 in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. "To establish communication with the family and make them feel welcome at the school, that's No. 1 for me," said the 2nd-grade teacher. "I give them my phone number to call or text."

When school buildings closed, she talked "to parents every single day, not just once or twice a week. I wanted to make sure they knew how to use computers and programs," she said, and "to establish emotional support."

To read about all the winners, go to the Department of Education website.

Related Topics: Pedagogy, Awards & Honors