This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.
"Is Ganesh an elephant or a man?" Jason Schneider asked his 7th graders.
As they delved into discussion, a new teacher at a turnaround school heard "music" in their words—and a sign that his own year is turning around.
Schneider, who's 53, is one of eight new teachers at the Wexler/Grant Community School, which serves grades K to 8 at 55 Foote St. Wexler-Grant is in the midst of the first year of a "turnaround" effort, an experiment in overhauling a low-performing school.
He came to the job from a different perspective from that of some of his colleagues. A former AIDS organizer, he launched a teaching career at age 40. He worked his way up to become an assistant principal in Greenfield, Mass. When he relocated to New Haven, he decided to return to teaching. To be an administrator in a new city, he reckoned, "you have to learn what's going on in the classroom."
Learn he did.
In the first week on the job, he found out that some methods he used in small-town Massachusetts would not fly in New Haven.
For example, he cut open tennis balls and put them on the bottom of the chairs in his 7th-and-8th-grade social studies classes. He used that trick in Greenfield to eliminate the screeching sound of metal on linoleum.
By Day 4 of school at Wexler, he found those tennis balls flying around the room.
"I was really being tested," Schneider reflected in a classroom visit Tuesday, as the year neared its end.
At the beginning of the year, kids would throw paper and push and shove each other in class.
"They wanted to know how serious I was," he said. "The question was, 'Who's going to run the classroom—you or us?'"
"They wanted it to be them," he recalled. "I knew it was going to be me."
'OH, YOU'RE BACK?'
Schneider said he had been considered one of the best teachers in his Massachusetts school. It wasn't a privileged community; 75 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty. But Greenfield was a small town. In New Haven, a big city by comparison, he encountered a different culture.
"When I came here, I found out I was a mediocre teacher at best," Schneider said.
The kids told him that directly and indirectly, he said. They let him know they needed more structure, more group work, more hands-on activities.
A month into his teaching gig, Schneider realized he had to overhaul his teaching style to suit the new environment.
Whereas in Greenfield he had used a "more relaxed" teaching environment, he found out that to serve New Haven students, "you have to have breathtakingly tight structure" in the classroom.
Schneider said he started out the year erring on the side of being too polite. "Please sit down," he'd tell the class. Kids interpreted that as more of a request than a directive. He said he learned to be more blunt and direct: "Sit down."
Some kids were slow to accept the outsider—a white, Jewish man from out of state with two earrings and a bushy horseshoe mustache—into their classroom. Like the rest of the school district, Wexler consists almost entirely of low-income black and Hispanic students. Schneider said other staffers told him that kids in the school "see adults come and go out of their lives." They don't make an investment in a new adult until they see that adult is going to stick around.
Schneider said that when he returned to the school after Christmas, some students were surprised to see him.
"Oh, you're back?"
He stayed focused on learning how to reach the kids. He stayed at the school—as other teachers do—from 7 a.m. until as late as 8 p.m.
Today, he and the students have found some mutual understanding. "It took us a while to get there, but we got there," he said.
A visit to his classroom Tuesday found the 7th grade brimming with enthusiasm about a lesson on Indian art.
Schneider opened the class with a writing prompt: "Based on our work on India so far, would you like to visit or live in India?"
One students said yes—to find out "how a monsoon affects the country, and do they really worship tigers and elephants?"
Another said yes, because it's "one of the oldest civilizations."
"If I asked you the same thing two weeks ago"—before the class started studying the country—"what would you have said?"
Three students announced they would have said "no."
"I wouldn't have known it was so interesting," offered one student from the back of the room.
"You're making your teacher's heart sing," Schneider remarked.
The rest of the lesson found Schneider attempting to rein in students' chattiness into a directed discussion on the topic.
All but two students had completed their homework that day, he noted. "I'm delighted."
He led the class through a comparative lesson. First, he showed them a few works of American art, including the Whitney Museum of American Art building, which looks like an inverted staircase. How do you know this is American art? he asked.
In their groups, a few students argued about whether the building could be in America, or in any country.
"They're arguing about art—that's music" to a teacher's ear, he said.
He put up a few images of Indian art, including a painting of the Hindu god Ganesh.
"It's an elephant!" exclaimed one student. Another disagreed: It has arms, so it must be a man. The class debated how to tell if a figure is a human or elephant.
A third student piped up from the back: "Is that how they picture God?"
Some students kept debating when they were supposed to be listening to other students talk.
"I appreciate the enthusiasm, but you're going to lean from listening," he cautioned at one point.
Though there were side discussions, Schneider later noted that most of them stayed on topic.
To leave the room, students had to issue a written response to the prompt: "What did you notice as the differences between American and Indian art?"
Schneider said he has spent the year pushing students to give more in-depth answers. This was many students' first social studies class, he said. Some were more used to textbook learning instead of critical thinking.
"That's a surface answer," he told one student as he went around the room. "I want a thoughtful answer."
While he had to expend some energy urging kids to pipe down and stop talking, Schneider walked away from the class excited about the level of discussion. "That's every day," he said.
Kids draw interesting connections, he said. During one class, a student asked him why Jews in America don't live in a Jewish state.
"Religion both brings people together and drives people apart," he recalled replying. "In certain parts of the world, it drives people apart. The United States has a different approach—we try to get along."
AIMING TO RISE AGAIN
Schneider said his goal is to keep honing his classroom skills so he can rise up to a leadership position at the school. He said his two instructional leaders, Principal Sabrina Breland and Assistant Principal Nicole Sanders, have offered feedback as he learns to modify his teaching to Wexler/Grant kids.
"They're blunt. They're direct," he said. "They let you know what their thoughts are in very clear language."
Breland maintains a steady presence in the classrooms, making sure that every Monday, all teachers have the week's lesson plans written up in a folder on the door.
Breland described Schneider as "a wonderful young man who's trying to get it right."
"Eventually, once he gets his roles and responsibilities as a teacher down," she said, she would like him to fill a new role as the lead teacher for the 7th and 8th grades. That was the original plan in hiring him, she said.
Despite his students' initial skepticism, Schneider said he plans to stick around Wexler/Grant. "I love it here," he said. "I've learned so much."
"I have the potential to be an excellent teacher."