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Melissa Koenig – edu|FOCUS
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Author: Melissa Koenig

Junior High Principal Teaches Every Subject

One Long Island principal spent the 2015-2016 school year getting to know what it is like to be a teacher. William S. Bernhard, the principal of P.J. Gelinas Junior High, took the year to "guest teach" every school subject. Bernhard taught Frisbee in a Physical Education class, taught Aristotle in English, spoke about immigration in Social Studies and even made chicken parmesan in Family and Consumer Sciences. In an interview with Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, Bernhard said that he did this to get to know what issues the junior high students are facing. Before he became the principal, Bernhard taught mathematics at the local high school and at Stony Brook University. “For me, it was about seeing how younger kids learn. Good teaching is good teaching — but there are some methodologies that you need to adjust for adults versus younger children," Bernhard told Newsday. One of these differences is that a teacher does not need to break down subjects as much as he or she would if she were teaching adults because a junior high student's brain has not fully developed. When teaching these subjects, Bernhard asked students what would make the junior high a better place. The biggest complaint he got was that the mashed potatoes served at lunch were not very flavorful. Bernhard did not get to finish his mission, however. Next school year he plans on being able to teach music and foreign language courses. This, just another example of how educators out there go above and beyond to reach their students and make their impact on our next generation. Contrary to what we hear all the time in the news, public school education can work. Check out a video of his efforts here....

New York Regents Chancellor would Opt-Out

Controversies over the Common Core roll-out ultimately led former Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents Merryl Tisch to step down. To create more support for the Board of Regents, Betty Rosa was recently elected to replace Tisch as the chancellor. On her first day as Chancellor, Rosa said, “If I was a parent and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time.” Rosa stepped into office after 200,ooo New York students opted out of taking these standardized tests. Her job now is to bring together the Common Core opponents and supporters. Rosa herself is called a "renegade" because she and five other board members often vote against the majority on divisive issues. For example, she is against teacher evaluations because she, herself was once a special education teacher and a district superintendent. In a recent interview she said, “I’d like to get back to a system that is not one size fits all, a system that really is focused on children’s needs.” Rosa was also endorsed by the New York State Allies for Public Education, which organizes opt-out rallies and information forums, and is an organization The Franklin Foundation considers crucial to ensuring real change in the support for public schools in New York. But Rosa's success depends on how well she will work with others on the board. In the past, she had some issues with former Chancellor Tisch. In 2010, Rosa urged Tisch not to publish test results because she felt that they inaccurately portrayed a marked improvement in student performance. Now, Rosa is going to have to work with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who had said that Common Core tests need to be tweaked, but not change completely. And at the press conference where Rosa was introduced as Tisch's successor, Elia and Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown stressed the changes to this year's tests, including that the tests will be shorter and students will have unlimited time to take them. And Rosa understands that this is going to be a problem.“When you have an institution as large as [the state education department] is and you have changes…you still have to proceed in a way that doesn’t create more turbulence in the field,” she said. “It’s going to be a process." For her first year, Rosa would like to work with the board to discuss how best to proceed....

Safe Spaces Hurt Students: What I Learned from Mr. Conklin

"Safe spaces," or areas where people cannot say things that may be offensive or harmful to others, have become more popular in recent months. And they are quite controversial. The Controversy Over Safe Spaces Advocates of these "safe spaces" claim that people have different experiences and thus may be offended by some conversations.  They also say that it is inappropriate to assume people are either males or females, when many students now identify as transgender. Opponents of these areas say they stifle one's right to free speech and discourage debate on certain issues. They also believe it goes too far. For example, one student wanted to have a memorial to the victims on 9/11, but was not allowed to due to fear that it would lead to Islamophobia. What I Learned from Mr. Conklin I would not be the person with the strong opinions I have if it were not for Mr. Conklin's AP Government class. Every Wednesday we were supposed to talk about a recent news article, but more often than not, it turned into a debate over political issues. One day, someone brought in an article about how religious organizations do not have to guarantee birth control to their employees. This became a heated argument over the role of religion, and women's rights. We discussed how religious organizations have their own beliefs and should not have to comply with government demands, and we discussed the many benefits of the birth control pill. If I never had this discussion, I would never have been able to understand the other point of view. In fact, it solidified my beliefs about the role of religion in society and about the role of government due to this conversation. The important thing is that Mr. Conklin never shut down the conversation to create a "safe space." I'm sure he knew that people were offended, but wanted to use that frustration to have a debate.  In fact, he encouraged people with different views to argue their main points and see if there's a common ground. Since that class, I now need to understand both points of view before I officially decide where I stand on an issue. If Mr. Conklin had decided that we needed a "safe space," where people would not be stereotyped, I never would have learned to understand another point of view. In fact, if people were not okay with the subject, they could just leave the classroom and pretend they needed to use the restroom. So, I agree that people should not make racist or stereotypical comments; however, I also believe that students should be exposed to a range of different views so that they can better understand themselves....

Quotas to Promote Diversity in NYC Schools?

The other day I was reading The New York Times, and I saw an article about the role of gentrification on public schools in low-income New York City neighborhoods. This article stated that the Education Department in New York City is trying to "set aside a percentage of seats for low-income families, English-language learners or students engaged with the child welfare system" so that students can be exposed to a range of different views. Under this program, students would be entered into a raffle system, and if they are picked, they can go to one of these integrated schools. For example, if you are a student with one parent in prison, you will get priority for 10 percent of the seats at Castle Bridge. If you are a student from a low-income family, you will get priority placement for 60 percent of the seats at Castle Bridge. These schools have been gaining popularity among white middle-class New Yorkers due to the school's specialized focus. Brooklyn Arts and Letters, for example, gained popularity due to its humanity curriculum, its science lab and its strong focus on the arts (hence the name). Really, these were emphasized to help these low-income children, but as it became more successful, white middle-class families started to take notice. Personally I believe integrating schools is necessary, but I realize it may not be an easy process. If young people are exposed to a variety of views, they can think more critically about social issues. They will therefore be better able to understand the kinds of problems other people face. This can be very controversial, however. In the 1960's people rebelled against the idea of integration, and sometimes even got violent. More recently, cases against racial quotas have made it to the Supreme Court. The Court decided several times that quotas were unconstitutional. The question is - are forced quotas the right way to go? Are we returning to 60's era techniques to combat an age old problem, and will such an approach yield the kind of results today that it technically didn't during that era? Obviously, this is a very controversial topic and people need to learn more about others' backgrounds to fully understand their views. The quota system, however, may be problematic for Mayor Bill de Blasio. A state already besieged by a variety of tough issues and bad policies related to education, this is one topic that may make matters worse before they get better....

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