Danielle Chisolm has worked as a paraprofessional at the East River Academy on Rikers Island for seven years. The academy is jointly operated by the Department of Education and the Department of Corrections and enables young people to pursue a high school diploma or GED while they are incarcerated.
What is your current role?
I’ve assisted the mathematics teacher, Victoria Rush, for the past three years. I’ve learned so much from her. The students are learning algebra, geometry or GED math. Ms. Rush helped prepare me in math, and we collaborate on what’s the best way to approach a student’s particular needs in the classroom.
Who are your students?
Ms. Rush and I have four classes with students who are 18 to 21 years old and awaiting trial. We have about 10 to 20 students in a class — it depends on their stay. Some are incarcerated a short time, some for a year. I don’t particularly know what they’re being held for.
What are some of the challenges?
Some of our students have not attended school in some time, and they have varying levels of reading and math ability. The beauty of having students at different levels is that they help each other — they’re peers learning from each other.
How does your day begin?
I begin preparing for the day’s lesson the night before, by reviewing the math topics we will discuss. I arrive before 8 a.m. the next morning to set up the classroom supplies, such as paper, pencils — pens are not allowed — and folders with their assignment materials. I’ll write the day’s lesson on a whiteboard. And I prepare key words with definitions as a way to integrate math and reading. For example, I’ll write “What is a sphere?” They can visualize a sphere, but they need to explain it. As a para, I can work one to one with some students and determine the student’s individual needs. I’ll tailor the lesson to their needs.
What are some of your classroom strategies?
I studied art history at Brooklyn College so I incorporate art with math, for instance by creating posters of an algebraic formula or to illustrate multiplication of decimals. I also create a word wall, with definitions of words in different colors. It reinforces the information they learn. And the use of color makes the class inviting. I hear them say, “This is great.” They feel they’re in school, not in jail.
How do you keep them motivated?
I let them know I expect them to succeed. I tell them that all students have the ability to meet high goals — as long as they set those goals. We help them focus on completing the assignment, and we encourage them with positive feedback. We provide transitional support if they want to continue with the GED or college education after they are released. Some of our students have gone on to four-year colleges, and it’s encouraging to other students.
What have you learned working with students who are incarcerated?
I learned that patience is key. Everyone has concerns about their families, their education and the situation they’re in. They’d like someone to listen to them. And I’m there to listen to them — not to judge them.
Are there a lot of behavioral issues?
The students may act out, but I don’t think it’s any different from a regular classroom, except our classes are smaller. For these students who are 18 and older, attendance is voluntary. They’re at a point where they want to do it. They know why they’re in class.
Your work must be emotionally draining.
It can be. Some students are willing to talk about their situations, and many of them are going through a lot. They’re young and come from so many different walks of life. They want to get back on the right track. I know how much potential they have, and I see that they have it in them to succeed.
How do you avoid taking the job home with you?
By staying focused on the positive. I would like to be a teacher, and that helps keep me focused and motivated. I also enjoy gardening. I grow tomatoes in a community garden near where I live and I’m learning how to cultivate perennials.
What’s a great moment in the classroom?
When you can see the gears moving in a student’s brain: “Now I get it!” or “I remember this from school on the outside.” Also, when I see them helping each other, when they get a concept and pass it on to another student.
— as told to Linda Ocasio