The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungleby Dan Brown (4)
At 22, Dan Brown came to P.S. 85 as an eager fresh faced teacher. He was even assigned his own class: 4-217. Unbeknownst to him, 4-217 was the designated "dumping ground" for all fourth-grade problem cases, and his students would prove to be more challenging than he could ever anticipate. Intent on being a caring, dedicated teacher, but confronted with unruly
At 22, Dan Brown came to P.S. 85 as an eager fresh faced teacher. He was even assigned his own class: 4-217. Unbeknownst to him, 4-217 was the designated "dumping ground" for all fourth-grade problem cases, and his students would prove to be more challenging than he could ever anticipate. Intent on being a caring, dedicated teacher, but confronted with unruly children, absent parents, and a failing administration, Dan was pushed to the limit time and again: he found himself screaming with rage, punching his fist through a blackboard out of sheer frustration, often just waning to give up and walk away. Yet, in this seeming chaos, he slowly learned from the more seasoned teachers at the school and from his own mistakes to discipline, teach and make a difference. The Great Expectation School is the touching story of Class 4-217 and their teacher, Mr. Brown. But more than that, it is the revealing story of a broken educational system and all those struggling within and fighting against it.
The Washington Post
- Arcade Publishing
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the GREAT EXPECTATIONS SCHOOLa rookie year in the new blackboard jungle
By dan brown
ARCADE PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2007 Dan Brown
All right reserved.
From the Floor to the Moon
I thought I had unusual reasons for becoming a public school teacher in the Bronx. Nine months before my left hook to the blackboard, while I was in my final semester studying film at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, professors started encouraging outgoing seniors to drive cabs, bus tables, or do anything possible to keep alive our passion for making art once discharged from our bohemian sanctum of university life. The undergrad movie degree might not wow decent-paying employers in the gritty real world.
Several of my film school pals planned to move to Los Angeles and become personal assistants to talent agents. Others decided not to work their first year out of school, intending to subsist on Netflix, ramen, and a word processor. I wanted to live on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which meant four figures in rent. I needed a job.
A weird month as a clerk for the U.S. Census Bureau in the summer of 2000 taught me that office work brought on either loopiness or depression. I couldn't see myself in sales. Apparently the economy was in the drink. What do you do when you're twenty-two?
Twenty-four hundred of New York City's teachers in 2003 were first-year New York City Teaching Fellows, members of a program initiated under ex-chancellor Harold Levy in 2000 to solve the chronic shortage of teachers in many of the city's toughest schools. Using the program model of Teach for America, the Board of Education agreed to hire college graduates with no academic background in education and quick-certify them with a three-year Transitional B Certificate. The city aimed its extensive subway ad campaign at altruistically minded career-changers. ("Take your next business trip on a yellow bus," was one slogan.) While teaching, Fellows would be enrolled in subsidized night and summer courses for a master's degree in education.
Encouraged by my career-teacher mom and buoyed by the idea of working with New York City children in schools where there was a desperate need for teachers, I applied. If accepted, I had no idea what, where, or how I was going to teach, but I saw a strange allure in requesting a job that no one else would take.
For my personal statement in the application, I wrote about my baseball fanatic dad. When I was six, he took me to my first ball game, a midsummer Phillies-Astros day game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The heat index hit triple digits and Nolan Ryan mowed down the home-team batters, making for an uneventful 2-1 loss for our guys. Crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge on the drive home to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, I decided aloud that I did not like baseball. My father, captain of the 1970 University of Pittsburgh squad, clutched for his breast and started to veer out of our lane. A moment later, he recovered and nodded. "No problem," he croaked. "That's okay." Several years later, I asked if I could join Little League and he became my coach.
The story was meant to illustrate my learned life lessons in patience, family solidarity, and unconditional support. Looking back, it's a reach. A few weeks later, though, I received a letter of acceptance.
My film school friends looked at me as though I'd just enlisted for the war. "Maybe this'll give you good material," my roommate said, eyeing me like a head trauma patient. Indeed, if nothing else, the coming year would at least be interesting.
However, after four years of studying storytelling in academia, I never counted on a neighborhood of concrete in the Bronx to reveal my world's gutsiest heroes and desperately flawed shortcomers, the craziest violence and strangest surprises, the darkest failures and the most unexpected second chances. What I got was a life-altering tilta-whirl ride, all of it more vivid and twisted than anything I could have concocted in fiction.
Along with over half of my fellow Fellows, I was assigned to teach in the Bronx. On the morning of Saturday, May 17, 2003, a placement fair for specific school assignments at a South Bronx high school began fifteen hours after I handed in my NYU dorm key.
Due at the fair at 8 a.m. and psyched up about the idea of leaving college and beginning a new era, I decided to catch a midnight movie and pull an all-nighter in the Odessa Diner by Tompkins Square with some cherry pie and my notebook. Over lukewarm black coffee, I scribbled in my journal about the crooked path that had led me to this new life chapter.
During winter break of my senior year, my reading specialist mom had enlisted me to help direct twenty second-graders in a child-friendly production of Romeo and Juliet. I spent two days with the kids, riling pint-sized Tybalt and Mercutio for their emotional sword-crossing, coaching Romeo (who gave up a good nine inches to his romantic costar) to act lovesick, and explaining ruefulness to sweatpants-clad Friar Lawrence.
Mrs. Haenick, the drama-novice classroom teacher, thanked me over and over for saving the show. "You've got this way of talking to them!" she told me backstage, beaming with surprised approbation, as if I had just sawed someone in half.
Something clicked in me during those two days: I can work with kids ... and love it.
By 4:30 a.m., my writing had devolved into exhausted drivel and the diner staff was visibly perturbed at my lingering. Bleary-eyed, I stumbled to the street to seek a bunch of Red Bulls. The ghost-town city creeped me out, and I hailed a cab to Grand Central Terminal. I napped against a pillar near the 4-5-6-S exit until a police officer's boot nudged me awake. A subway platform bench became my home for the next three hours while I sang entire Beatles albums to myself to stay conscious.
When the fair opened, I wandered the jam-packed corridor for fifteen minutes, wading through several major traffic fluxes initiated by shouts like, "Eighty-six needs six common branches! They're over there! C.I.S. 170 is taking special ed now!" My mystification at this strange, serious game of "placement fair" manifested in a fear that I was behind in the race; these people were portfolio-carrying professionals and I was some kind of kid impostor, a summer-camp white boy from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Then a beacon of clarity appeared. I found a sign that read "District 10 Placements" with a nearly empty sign-in list. Soon I was summoned into an office by kind-faced Susan Atero, who scanned my résumé for fifteen silent seconds.
"The Mummy Returns ... you worked on that? In Santa Monica, it says?"
"Not that film, the director, Stephen Sommers's, next film. It's called Van Helsing."
"The Mummy Returns is my favorite movie of all time," Susan enthused. "I watch it with my sons almost every week. What is the director like?"
"Stephen's very energetic. He lives and breathes movies," I related, as if he and I were old bowling buddies. The truth was that I had driven out to L.A. for the summer with my cousin, only to find my previously secured internship on the Paramount Pictures studio lot handed over to someone with "a connection." I spent several demoralizing weeks bouncing between the Culver City public library Internet station and Kinko's, hunting for unpaid positions and faxing my résumé all over town. Eventually, an assistant to the coproducer of Van Helsing invited me to hang out several days a week in the production office screening room, photocopying scripts when necessary. Once, for my most auspicious assignment, I arranged a folder of creature concepts for a presentation and, as advised, did not commingle pictures of Dracula with the Winged Beast from Hell. It all came to a dubious end when I had to leave town prematurely after a traffic ticket busted my budget. I met Stephen Sommers once, and I spent most of our three shared minutes confusing him with details about how a robot snapped my picture going through a red light.
I nodded emphatically at Susan. "Van Helsing is going to be spectacular."
"Hmm." Promptly, her smiling mien sobered, and my hope that I could ride Hollywood name-dropping to a quick commitment form disappeared. I was suddenly certain that she knew all about the lame pseudo-employment prominently featured on my résumé.
"Daniel. What strengths will you bring to an inner-city school?"
I regretted not preparing seriously for this. I took a deep breath, aware that my pause had bloated into a hesitation. "I care about kids and I think one of my greatest strengths is my ability to communicate. [Maybe not right this minute, but ...] I'm confident that I can find a common language of mutual respect with my students. I also think that being a younger man is an asset because of the lack of male teachers and male role models in the community. I'm a collaborator and a fast learner, and I can internalize criticism and feedback from anyone: student, colleague, or administrator." I stopped and another idea sprang to mind. "I'm very excited to become a teacher. I am dedicated to improving myself and doing anything possible to help my students. I'll go the distance." I winced inside at the final melodramatic declaration.
Ms. Atero gave a generic nod. "What are your weaknesses?"
This question is a trap. The key is to twist some kind of strength into sounding like a weakness, like "I overprepare" or "I'm a perfectionist, so I need to work on how I occasionally bend deadlines because I want anything with my name on it to be as well done as possible." At the time, my mind was clouded with fatigue and intimidation from Ms. Atero's transformation from congenial conversant to stone-faced interrogator. I swallowed my rank all-nighter saliva. "I don't know. I might be in over my head."
We stared at each other for a moment. Susan's smile returned like a sunburst. "You're going to see some stuff, but it'll be worth it!" The ominous statement was defused by its joyful dispensation. She said, "I'm going to represent you in District 10 to set up visits to schools that could be a good match for you. You're all set!"
A thrill surged within me as I headed to the school stage to get fingerprinted for my city employee file. Then in my fifth year in New York, I had lived in five different apartments, played pickup basketball at the neighborhood blacktop, knew the subway lines inside out, rocked out at CBGB, bought from street vendors, lingered for hours in the Central Park gazebo beyond Strawberry Fields, and watched the World Trade Center towers fall before my eyes. As I pressed my fingers hard to the inkpad, I felt a swell of pride in going to work for the city I loved.
On June 16, 2003, the incoming Fellows congregated in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for opening ceremonies, where the keynote speaker declared the event the largest assemblage of talent at one time ever to fill this room. A middle school student spoke about how her teacher, a third-year Fellow, had changed her life. When the Fellow and her star student reunited onstage, a school band played "Amazing Grace," and many new teachers cried.
Three days later, I was randomly assigned to Mr. Aaron Rose's first-grade class at P.S. 85 for a "structured observation." The 2002-2003 school year was in its penultimate week, so Fellows were warned that we might see classes conducted more informally than usual. I was glad to be headed into a functioning inner-city classroom and away from the barrage of motivational lectures that had dominated the week up to that point. (A room-shaking applause line: "The young teachers have the fresh ideas! Does that veteran teacher really have thirty years of experience or just one year of experience thirty times!")
I took the D train to 182nd-183rd Street and exited onto the Grand Concourse, a broad throughway with three medians and aggressively honk-happy traffic. I passed the ancient brick Gospel Love Assembly where a morose queue of about twenty waited for a free meal. On a side street, some teens and a naked toddler pranced near a fire hydrant geyser. Small establishments selling carpet, divorce documents, and groceries lined the dogshit-smeared pavement. I was the only white face crossing the Concourse to 184th Street, where airbrushed murals paid homage to deceased neighbors.
I walked through the monolithic school's main entrance, under the stone threshold marked "Public School 85: The Great Expectations School."
I waited in the second-floor Teacher Center resource room with a dozen other new Fellows until Principal Kendra Boyd, a tall woman in her late fifties, enthusiastically greeted us. She spoke to the rookies about P.S. 85's mission for three specific aims: clear expectations, academic rigor, and accountable talk. I figured Mrs. Boyd had to be a brilliant and methodical woman (maybe even an unorthodox genius with that side-ponytail) to run a massive school like this.
Barbara Chatton, the in-house mentor for first-year teachers, also held the floor for a few minutes. Barbara informed us about P.S. 85's strong commitment to supporting new teachers, because they are the future of education and everyone knows how hard it is to be new. I desperately wanted Barbara to be my mentor and Mrs. Boyd to be my principal.
When the meeting broke, I was directed to the aluminum annex in the parking lot. Inside the "minischool," which houses kindergarten and first-grade classes, the environment was colorful and air-conditioned. Lively bulletin board displays lined the walls. Behind the windows of their classroom doors, teachers gestured exuberantly to rapt audiences of children. I couldn't restrain an excited grin.
I knocked on Mr. Rose's door in the middle of a lesson. "Hi, I'm Dan Brown from the Teaching Fellows."
Mr. Rose was a tall black man with a deep voice. With a genuine smile, he shook my hand firmly and said, "Terrific. Mr. Brown, welcome."
Mr. Brown. Get used to it, I thought.
During "independent work," a complete-the-sentence worksheet on pronouns, I sat with two scowling boys, Theo and Jihard, who refused to write their names. "Jihard, if I were telling you about how much I like Theo's pen, I'd say I like blank pen. I like ..." I waved at Theo and the pen.
Jihard frowned and mumbled, "His pen."
"Yes! Excellent! In that sentence 'his' and 'Theo's' would mean the same thing. 'His' is a pronoun for 'Theo.' Because it's 'his' pen and it's 'Theo's' pen! And Theo, if I were telling you about how much I like ... what's that girl in the black T-shirt's name?"
Jihard interrupted, "That ain't Yollymar! Thas Daniella. She the line leader."
"If I asked you where Daniella bought that black T-shirt, but I didn't know her name, what would I ask?" Theo looked at me blankly and stood up. "Theo, sit down. Fill in the blank for me: Where did ... get that shirt?"
"How I'm supposed to know?" Theo grumbled.
"Where did she get that shirt," Jihard stated. "Yes! 'She' and 'Daniella' mean the same thing. 'She' is a pronoun for 'Daniella!' Jihard, you're a pronoun superstar. Theo, you get an assist." I gave them both five, and they got to work on their sheets. Jihard handed back a perfect paper, and Theo got two correct out of twelve, an improvement over his previously blank page.
When the time came for me to leave Mr. Rose's class, Mafatu and Yollymar presented me with crayon pictures and roly-poly Cory Jones gave me a pencil drawing of the two of us holding hands.
I walked away from P.S. 85 full of excitement and relief. I had witnessed no violence, sexual harassment, or ultra-jaded zombie teachers as I had anticipated from my preconceived image of an inner-city school. If confused Theo and moody Jihard were the "problem kids," the place didn't seem so bad. At least that's what I thought then.
* * *
Along with over seven hundred other Fellows, I was automatically enrolled in Mercy College, a graduate school contracted by the Department of Education to run the Fellows' coursework. Sarah Gerson, a third-grade teacher in Harlem, was my adjunct professor and "Fellow Advisor" for five hours each afternoon.
In the beginning, I kept a low profile at Fellow Advisor sessions, avoiding the group-hug atmosphere cultivated by Sarah and half of the group. I was also the youngest of the twenty-eight new teachers in the room. (The average age of a Teaching Fellow in 2003 was thirty-one.) We drew up unit plans, lesson plans, behavior plans, lists of rules, lists of routines, lists of ideal classroom materials, and lists of "higher-order thinking" questions. We wrote letters to ourselves, statements of our goals, statements of our strengths, and statements of our weaknesses. I distilled my goals into a sentence fragment: "Teach and model accountable character and citizenship while maintaining high expectations for helping students to become stronger problem solvers and self-motivated learners." (The high expectations bit was inspired by my P.S. 85 visit.) We walked on rhetorical eggshells for two hours once, talking about the n-word. There were many mentions of dedication, immersion, passion, and commitment.
Excerpted from the GREAT EXPECTATIONS SCHOOL by dan brown Copyright © 2007 by Dan Brown. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dan Brown is a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A blogger for the Huffington Post, he currently teaches high school English at a charter school and lives in Washington, D.C.
Randi Weingarten is an American labor leader, attorney, educator, and is currently the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Before holding that office, she was the former president the United Federation of Teachers. New York magazine called her one of the most influential people in education in New York State. She currently resides in New York City.
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