Linda Darling Hammond
Interview With Terri Grasso
Terri Grasso is a science teacher at New York's Urban Academy.
Q: How do you see a teacher's role in our democracy?
I think a lot of people think that teaching is one way that we can contribute to our society, it's one way we can help students become more active and be better participants in our sort of democracy. Whenever I hear about kids that can't pass the reading test and they can't do math and all that sort of thing, I always feel that we need more people to be involved in teaching and helping them become more useful citizens.
Q: How does Urban Academy define its mission?
Well, Urban Academy is a second chance school and so its primary mission is to serve students who are not doing well in traditional learning situations. It is a form of activism because we want our students to be able to look critically at what they're told, so that they can make a reasonable decision based on what they hear or what they read, without just, you know, sucking in stuff and assuming that it's correct because some expert told them that. So that's really what our mission is, that's what our goal is, to get these students to be thinking individuals and not just sheep.
Q: Urban Academy calls itself a community of learners. What does that mean?
Urban Academy is a community with teachers and students in that community. I'd say we're friendly with most of the students, not "friends" with most of the students, but I do have a few students that I definitely consider to be my friends. And we're all sort of working together to help the students learn. The students are working to help themselves learn, they're working to help each other learn, and sometimes they're working to help us learn, and we're working to help them learn and that's understood.
Q: Every school has its own definition of respect. What is Urban Academy's?
Everyone here has to respect each other: it's one of the rules of the school. The school is based on the fact that the students have to respect each other, the teachers have to respect the students, the students have to respect the teachers, and so it completely changes the whole tone of the school. Once the students realize that we do respect them as people and as thinking individuals, it completely changes the way they relate to us.
Q: How does the structure of UA contribute to teachers' ability to work well?
We work really well together first of all. We're not broken down into departments. Some schools are really big, so they have a lot of staff and they break them down into departments and you only talk to people in your department. We don't do it that way 'cause people, many people teach across many different disciplines as well. There are some sort of formal things that we have set up: there's a staff meeting every Wednesday afternoon where we can talk about students, we can talk about school policy. In addition, we have a curriculum meeting after school every other week and at that meeting, usually a teacher brings in a lesson that they've done in one of their classes and says, "This is what I did. This is what happened. What could I have done differently? What do you think about this?" And people sort of discuss it. Sometimes we get ideas for our own classes; we give them ideas, we critique each other's work. In other ways, there's a lot of co-teaching that goes on: you'll find many of our classes are taught by more than one teacher.
Q: How is the administrative structure set up at Urban Academy?
Well, at Urban all of our staff does do administrative work. There is a lot of bureaucratic stuff that goes into running a school and so we take on those jobs, we take on those roles.
Okay, I'm a teacher, why can't I do some administrative work, you know? If it's set up in the schedule that I have time to do that. Why can't we stay after school twice a month to have a conversation about what we do in our classes? I think people work better and are more useful and are more thoughtful and more productive when they are working in a community where they feel that they are accepted and respected and there are people around who care about them. Those things are really important.