“It’s all about middle school this year,” Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña told an enthusiastic audience of more than 500 middle school educators attending the UFT’s first Middle School Conference on March 29. “If you do a good job in middle school, you save the world — that’s why it’s become a passion for me.”
What she said resonated with the educators, who came to the Saturday event at union headquarters to deepen their skills and knowledge and interact with colleagues.
Fariña drilled down further: “How many of you teach 7th grade?” As hands shot up, she quipped, “You go straight to heaven!” Focusing on the 7th grade and getting better outcomes for those students in the very middle of middle school is central to her plans for strengthening New York City’s public schools.
To improve high school graduation and college-readiness rates, Fariña said, it is crucial to understand that middle school is the point where young, eager students begin to check out of their education.
If you can figure out how to keep them engaged, she told an audience that needed no convincing, you will have gone a long way toward solving the problem.
She went on to share a variety of strategies, including interactive and interdisciplinary learning, good community partnerships and after-school and summer programs, and taking advantage of the city’s cultural institutions.
For special education teacher Monica Sparrow-Patton of PS/IS 116 in Queens, the chancellor’s remarks hit the nail on the head. “Seventh grade is a crucial, crazy and catchable year,” she said.
Richard Mantell, the UFT vice president for middle schools, opened the conference with humor, playing the ’70s hit song “Stuck in the Middle with You,” and showing a clip of Jan Brady, the middle child of “The Brady Bunch,” as she complained about her older and younger siblings getting all of the attention.
“We now have a chancellor and a mayor who have made middle school the cornerstone of their approach to education,” Mantell said, adding that the social and emotional needs of middle school students are just as important as their academic needs.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew applauded the chancellor for her deep understanding of educational issues and her recognition of how pivotal middle school is. “The chancellor has been putting together her team, and they will allow passion and professionalism to really soar,” he said.
The day began with high energy and stayed that way. “People are excited — there’s a need for this conference,” said Chapter Leader Aqeel Williams of MS 462 in the Bronx.
Williams and the other participants chose from among 11 workshops on a range of topics, including social and emotional learning, reaching English language learners, using Apple technology to transform classroom learning, the DOE’s special education reform, LEGO in the classroom, and the Common Core in literacy and math.
At the LEGO workshop, Maria Rappo, a technology teacher at PS/IS 104 in Brooklyn, praised the way multiple subjects, from science to math to literacy, were combined in the LEGO lessons. “It can be very Common Core-aligned,” she said. But what really grabbed her, she said, was “how helpful this is for emotional learning. You have to listen to your partner and build that skill of paying attention and having respect.”
At the workshop on reaching English language learners, a civil rights lesson was taught using all modalities, including protest songs and posters, fliers and buttons from the March on Washington.
Emily Christensen, an English teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan, said the workshop will help her students. “This is basically a lesson I can take everything she’s given us and teach myself,” she said. It also inspired her, she said, to bring more real things into the classroom and to incorporate social justice into her teaching.