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At an election voting site, a pep talk and a work day for teachers

As one of about 700 school buildings to double as a voting site today, M.S. 88 saw democracy in action on its first floor, where Brooklyn voters cycled through hallways and into a gymnasium to fill out their ballots.

But it was business as usual up one flight of stairs, where teachers graded tests and papers, caught up on lesson planning and attended training sessions on reading techniques and new co-teaching models.

On Election Day, schools are closed to students, but have remained open in recent years for teachers for professional development. It’s up to principals to shape the day and each school in the city uses their student-free time a little differently — though the Department of Education offers some hints about what to focus on.

At M.S. 88, a 1,200-student middle school in District 15, Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell said she started the day off with something of a motivational speech.

“The teachers, I wanted them to calm down a little bit,” said Altman Mitchell.

Stress levels were high and teachers were anxious about the negative attention that’s been focused on new teacher evaluations being rolled out citywide this year, Altman Mitchell said. So on a few pink Post-It notes, she jotted down a list of school’s accomplishments to remind her staff of over 100 teachers and administrators about some of the year’s highlights.

There was the $110,000 science grant, and a new pilot course that combines American history with eras of rock and roll music. This month, the school was formally recognized by the Department of Education as an “iZone Ambassador School” for its work at blending technology with in-class instruction to customize lessons for individual students.

Altman Mitchell said that the torrent of changes have been time-consuming for her as a principal, but also useful. A color-coded calendar tacked to a wall in her office showed the dozens of hour-long meetings that she has held with teachers this fall to discuss lesson-planning, instructional strategies and which type of observations they preferred as part of their evaluation.

“But now I have a bunch of best practices that my teachers use,” Altman Mitchell said, ones she didn’t know about before the meetings.

In a sign of just how much time the new teacher evaluations have taken to administer, the DOE extended one deadline for teacher evaluations until after Election Day, and suggested that schools use today to finish up their work.

Upstairs, teachers were just wrapping up a session on co-teaching models. Standing outside in the hallway, Nelia Wolosky, who teaches the Rock and Roll history course, said she had given a presentation earlier in the morning on an English teaching practice called “close reading.”

In a classroom around the corner, Jared Cohen, an eighth-year veteran of the school, was grading papers for students he taught in his blended learning class. The program is part of the city’s School of One program and relies heavily on computer software that tracks student progress on assignments and quizzes in real time.

Each paper Cohen pulled from a stack was entirely different from the one before it, a sign of the different kinds of lessons that students received.

“They all have different homework assignments because they are all at different skill levels,” Cohen said.

Being Election Day, opinions on the mayoral race were easy to come by for the teachers. Cohen, for one, said he wasn’t a single-issue voter who thought only about education when voting for mayor.

“I don’t disagree with everything that Bloomberg did,” Cohen said. “But I’m looking big picture. I’m not just a teacher. I’m a city resident, I’m a human.”

But Cohen said he was supporting de Blasio because he thought he was more in touch with what New York City will need in the coming years, including universal pre-kindergarten programs. Still, Cohen said Bloomberg deserved credit for things he got done during his 12 years in City Hall, including the things that may not have worked.

“If you’re going to swing and miss, at least swing your hardest,” Cohen said. “He did swing his hardest. It’s not a complete miss.”

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