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‘I wanted to be the teacher that I wished I had’: Why a Brooklyn teacher gave up professional photography for the classroom

Una-Kariim Cross
Una-Kariim Cross
DeMario Palmer

Una-Kariim Cross’ teaching career was supposed to be brief.

But after spending a year as a substitute teacher in Lansing, Michigan, she had a hard time shaking the experience.

“I was already on this pathway to go to graduate school — so I kind of stuck with that plan,” she said. After completing her MFA in photography and honing her craft behind the camera and as a freelance writer, Cross found herself itching to get back in the classroom.

Now, she uses her arts background at the Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Brooklyn, where she teaches language arts, and works to connect students to the local arts community.

“I wished I had a teacher that was invested in me as a young person and a person of color,” she said. “I wanted to be the teacher that I wished I had.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

School: Gotham Professional Arts Academy

Current grade/Subject: High school / Language arts, art criticism

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a print- and image-rich learning lab. There are traditional desks and chairs, but what’s most important is what is on the walls, what students see when they come into this space.

On the border above the chalk/white board is a culmination of images of writers, artists, and educators that have worked in New York and at Gotham Professional Arts Academy. Additionally, there are images from class trips we’ve taken and leaders in the community that my students have met, and art from a recent exhibition at BRIC in Brooklyn. That border gets significant attention from students and guests. It consists of writers: Langston Hughes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., Tupac.

What apps, software or other tools can’t you teach without? Why?

I cannot teach without Digital Schomburg because it has amazing and accessible online exhibitions, historical documents, images and artifacts — from general treasures of the New York Public Library to the African-American migration experience, and more. My absolute favorite is “Ready for a Revolution: Education, Arts, and Aesthetics of the Black Power Movement.”

Using art as a point of entry has really pulled some of my scholars in. The images ignite their curiosity in a way that leads them to autonomous research.

How do you plan your lessons?

Lesson planning always begins with assessment, which allows me to see what skills students have when they are entering a classroom. I’m assessing basic reading comprehension, if they have analytical abilities, and basic writing.

Usually, they’re coming from middle school and they’re just doing basic comprehension. They personalize everything [instead of analyzing the text], and I have to see if they’re still doing that. Or I can have students who are getting it and develop their own critical questions. And that determines whether I can do a short re-teaching mini-lesson or can move on.

What makes an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson, or an ideal moment in the classroom, is over 50 percent student engagement. It’s a lesson or a day where the students are leading, invested, demonstrating learning, and on fire! They are filled with passion and they show it.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

This is likely one of the most challenging moments in the classroom. The most important thing to have in one’s teaching arsenal when confronted with this scenario is to know your scholars. Know what makes them tick, know what you can leverage, know who they are and what their interests are, find out what is causing the lost focus and bring them back.

Depending on the scholar, I can also ask them to re-engage by creating a leadership position, such as facilitating a discussion or even something smaller such as writing names on the board as we prep for discussion.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I have received was from artist, author and former educator Faith Ringgold. I was struggling with the realities of teaching young people whose lives are often in crisis and I was talking to her about it when I visited her studio in Englewood, NJ. She said: “Your job is to teach the children.” I remember that essentially she was saying, ‘No matter what their circumstance is, your responsibility is to educate.’ That always keeps me focused.

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