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Making the Grade Part IV: New York City’s Schools

April 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JACK NASTASI: All right. Everyone’s opening to 89 …

JOHN MERROW: Sixth grade teacher Jack Nastasi, second grade teacher Dayna Goldberg, fourth grade teacher Renee Cason, and Sarah Costelloe, who teaches fifth grade, are among 323 men and women recruited on an emergency basis into classrooms in some of New York City’s toughest public schools. They teach here, at PS-25 in Brooklyn, identified as an academically distressed school. A total of 12 teaching fellows were assigned to PS-25 in September, but two have since left.

Teaching fellows are also students; they are taking courses at local colleges, working toward Master’s degrees, which the school system is paying for. Most of the teaching fellows here at PS-25 go to class once a week, four hours every Thursday evening at Brooklyn College. They’re taking two classes: one in teaching techniques, the other in classroom management. The question is: What’s the connection between what they’re learning at night and what they do during the day?

MICHELLE McCOLLIN: We began by looking at the various character traits, the characteristics of a good teacher.

JOHN MERROW: Michelle McCollin, who teaches the management class, makes frequent references to her own teaching experience.

MICHELLE McCOLLIN: That’s something I always used to do. The students knew that if I counted to five and got to five, there was detention. Another technique I –

JOHN MERROW: As we discovered, some teaching fellows get more from these classes than others. All rely heavily on their own instincts and ingenuity. Teaching fellow Sarah Costello appreciates the management class.

SARAH COSTELLOE: I’ve only been in my class about three weeks now, but some of the things that I’ve gotten from that – because what that really is – our professor, Michelle McCollin, she was a teacher; she’s done it; she trained other teachers how to be teachers. She gives us realistic tips; she’s been in the classroom.

MICHELLE McCOLLIN: — and collecting data on our students.

JOHN MERROW: But another teaching fellow, Jack Nastasi, would rather be someplace else.

JACK NASTASI: Do I think we should we be taking prerequisite courses at Brooklyn College? Definitely not. They’re a waste of time.

JOHN MERROW: What do you mean?

JACK NASTASI: I mean, these are courses you’re supposed to take before you ever enter a classroom, so I mean, what – I’m in the classroom already eight months and now I’m going to start taking the course? To be honest with you, I’d rather have the time to prepare for my lessons and stuff than be sitting in class on Thursday.

MICHELLE McCOLLIN: You have to establish routines, and that’s something I also would like for us to talk about.

JOHN MERROW: Jack may question the value of the evening classes but in his own classroom he seems to do what the instructor recommends, including praising his students whenever he can.

JACK NASTASI: Good, very good, Chris. Chris was just pointing out that one side of the – on side of the elevation scale they have it in feet and the other side they also tell it in meters. Okay, good, very good, Chris.

JOHN MERROW: I noticed you do two things: you praise the kid, that’s very good, Chris; and then you kind of summarize. Is that deliberate?

JACK NASTASI: I’m going to praise anyone, no matter what answer I get, I usually praise. Then usually I usually take what they say and most of the time there are points that may not be directly to the point so I will usually take what they say and I’ll be like Chris said this, and that means that, and they’ll agree, and then I know that – I take what he said and I add a couple of teaspoons of my own sugar to that cup of coffee, and now we have a wonderful cup of coffee.

JOHN MERROW: Adding a few spoonfuls of sugar to the recipe is something Jack can do, but he cannot create his own menu. The Social Studies curriculum is set by the school district. Yesterday – Genghis Khan – tomorrow – the silk trade; today, feudalism in medieval Japan.

JACK NASTASI: Feudalism [mispronounced by Nastasi] developed in Japan. Does anyone know what feudalism [mispronounced by Nastasi] is?

STUDENT: Feudalism [correctly pronounced].

JACK NASTASI: Feugalism, feudalism – it’s the same thing.

JOHN MERROW: You mispronounced feudalism and one of the kids corrected you.

JACK NASTASI: I’m human. I make mistakes. I’m 23 years old. I got to learn from them; they’ve got to learn from me. I don’t know everything; I’m not claiming to know everything. It doesn’t bother me at all being corrected by a kid.

JOHN MERROW: Like Jack Nastasi, second grade teacher Dayna Goldberg relies on instinct and past experience.

JOHN MERROW: You also have this trick. You kind of wave your hand.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well, we played a game at the beginning of the year. I said, okay, scream as loud as you possibly can – but when I go like this, you have to get as quiet as you possibly can. And we did that a couple of days in a row, so now they know when I go like this, it means quit it.

JOHN MERROW: How did you learn to do that?

DAYNA GOLDBERG: How did I learn to do that? Well I took clarinet lessons a long time and I knew that in music this means to stop. That means to end.

JOHN MERROW: But how did you learn to do it in a classroom? Did you –

DAYNA GOLDBERG: I just thought about it. I just thought of it.

JOHN MERROW: But Dayna also learns value in the training at Brooklyn College.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: That class gets me thinking about things that I can’t repress – and she writes quotes on the board and gets us thinking about ourselves and what we’re feeling about this place and what we’re doing, and it’s a lot of introspection and it’s tough because we don’t want to introspect. I don’t want to. I don’t want to think about it, but it’s helping me. I think it’s helping me get things out that I am not talking about.

JOHN MERROW: Like what?

DAYNA GOLDBERG: There’s just so much going on in how I’m feeling – emotions – frustration and – sadness for the situation that these children are in, and it’s anger for the situation that they’re in, because it’s not the children. They’re reading at a higher level. They know how to spell. They know how to do a lot of things. I’ve said it and I will continue to say it – if you take these kids into any other atmosphere, they will thrive.

JOHN MERROW: Renee Cason, who teaches fourth grade, questions the relevance of the evening classes.

JOHN MERROW: Are you learning management techniques there?

RENEE CASON: Yes, I’m learning management theory in Brooklyn College.

JOHN MERROW: (laughing) You smile – theory – what does that mean?

RENEE CASON: I find what I want in class – first of all, I don’t think my professors or my teachers have a clue in what I’m dealing with in this particular school and with this particular group of children. The children are very needy – a lot of them need my attention – they don’t understand rules.

JOHN MERROW: Despite her criticism of the Brooklyn College classes, Renee, just like Jack and Dayna, tries to do what the instructor recommends – reinforce positive behavior.

RENEE CASON: Excellent; Very good. So we have to make a drawing – a drawing is an illustration.

RENEE CASON: I’m trying to reinforce, you know, you’re doing a good job, that you’re trying – that rewards them, which makes them feel good about themselves.

RENEE CASON: Pencils down. Pencils down or I break them. Can you put the books down, Brian? Thank you. For those who are confused, it’s math.

JOHN MERROW: Then there were other times, Renee, when you said, for those of you who are confused, this is math – in a sarcastic tone. Put your pencils down or I’ll break them.

RENEE CASON: I’m sarcastic; that’s how I deal with this. Maybe it’s a young thing, but that works for me.

RENEE CASON: We’re all – we’re all here – we’re here…

JOHN MERROW: Are you having what you’d call a tough year?

RENEE CASON: I’m having a nightmare. I hate this year – whatever. I hate it. I particularly hate this year. I hate that I chose to be in this school – I mean, I hate a lot of things about this year.

JOHN MERROW: You hate this year. Do you like these kids?

RENEE CASON: Do I like these kids? I like every single child one on one; I don’t like them as a group. Collectively, I don’t like this class – I don’t relate to 18 of these children screaming at me – I mean, needing my attention – not following rules. I don’t relate to that, so I don’t like them collectively.

RENEE CASON: Miguel, sit down, Miguel.

RENEE CASON: I was at Brooklyn College and my professor told me that she didn’t think I belonged in teaching, so she was telling me in a nutshell that she didn’t believe that I – she thinks — because I don’t have the sympathy or empathy that she did – and also that maybe I shouldn’t be around children. But when she said like I don’t have the sympathy or empathy, I’m like – I can’t possibly — I am putting a lot of energy in and not getting much back.

When you say I shouldn’t be around children, I don’t think that’s true because in the afternoons when I do stay here, they help me out; they want to hang out with me, so I’m good one on one with children. I had a very idealistic picture about teaching, and now I’m in reality. And to see really what I have to deal with on a daily basis, I wish I had knew this before I even got into it.

JOHN MERROW: Do you think you’ll make it through the year? It’s March.

RENEE CASON: I’m going to finish; I’m just going to finish.

JOHN MERROW: For all the teaching fellows, including Sarah Costelloe, it seems that their real training is not happening at Brooklyn College but on the job.

SARAH COSTELLOE: Do you think …

JOHN MERROW: On this March morning, Sarah Costelloe was teaching her fifth graders a science lesson about water conservation.

SARAH COSTELLOE: How many of you take a shower three times a week – every day – every day – okay, what about you?

STUDENT: Sometimes I take a bubble bath.

SARAH COSTELLOE: Take a bubble bath; let’s think about that. How long does it take to fill up the tub?

STUDENT: Five minutes.

SARAH COSTELLOE: Five minutes? What do you think, Greg? Two or three minutes? You’ve got a small tub.

SARAH COSTELLOE: I gave them an assignment last night to go home and think about what they knew about conserving water, what they wanted to know. And when they came in, I didn’t know they’d have that many questions.

JOHN MERROW: How did you know to do that?


JOHN MERROW: To have a plan but to be flexible?

SARAH COSTELLOE: I figured it out real quickly — when I’m in my classroom if I go in and say I’ve got 45 minutes and this is going to get done – it doesn’t happen like that. There’s a lot of days where you have to go, either the kids are not interested and you say, okay, this lesson, I have to toss it; either I’m doing something wrong – they’re not prepared for it; they’re having an off day…let’s move on to something else – or let’s try this again tomorrow.

JOHN MERROW: So this is learning on the job?

SARAH COSTELLOE: Yeah. Every day.

JOHN MERROW: There were a couple of times where you kind of gently corrected their English.

SARAH COSTELLOE: You said I ain’t –

SARAH COSTELLOE: That’s every day. I have some kids who I can correct them all day long and they don’t get mad; they do it. There’s not enough time – I can’t do grammar every day

JOHN MERROW: Again, how did you learn to do that?

SARAH COSTELLOE: I don’t know. I worked with kids a lot. I do it all the time. I’m sure my parents – they did it to me. I think that’s how I learned; I was corrected a lot.

JOHN MERROW: I’m trying to wonder if it came up in your summer training or in your weekly classes.

SARAH COSTELLOE: No. – at Brooklyn College now – even being in the class – it’s nothing like being in the classroom – 15 kids – their personalities and my personality – it’s nothing like – until you get in there – grammar – I came in there trying to do lessons about adjectives and pronouns – skills every day – and it gets too old.

SARAH COSTELLOE: Do you have an answer?

JOHN MERROW: You look like you’re having fun.

SARAH COSTELLOE: I am. I am – when I go home at the end of the day, I’m exhausted by it – or I complain about it. But I am having fun.

JOHN MERROW: Ahead on the school calendar are city and state standardized tests in math, science, and reading…seven days of testing in April and May that can determine who gets promoted. Teachers believe that how their students perform on these standardized tests reflects directly on their teaching, and so as springtime approaches, pressure is mounting.