First Person

South Bronx Hannukah

“Wait — what? I thought you were Buddhist, Ms. Q,” says Simone, a talented ninth-grade member of the theater program and speech team I coach at my South Bronx school.

“Nope,” I say. “I do a lot of yoga, but that doesn’t automatically make a person a Buddhist. Technically, I’m Jewish.”

Jewish. It’s still weird for me to say this.

“Wow, I had no idea,” says Simone. Then she gestures to the open paperback on the desk in front of her. “What a weird coincidence,” she says.

I’m sitting in a vacated classroom after school with Simone and her sister Sahirah, who are turning Lois Lowry’s classic young adult Holocaust novel “Number the Stars” into a 10-minute theater piece.

The whole situation is remarkable for a few reasons.

Number one, the sisters have taken the initiative to find their own piece of literature to adapt for competitive performance. As part of our speech team’s new student leadership model, responsibility for “cutting” — editing full-length works of fiction, theater and film into short, thematically coherent pieces in which one or two performers can play up to 10 or even 20 different characters — has shifted away from the adult coaches and landed squarely on the kids’ shoulders. Some kids have resisted this transition. Cutting pieces can be really, really hard. But these two girls have launched right in.

Number two, the girls have chosen to take on a story that, as African-American actors, they mostly likely wouldn’t get a chance to perform outside of the highly imaginative world of forensics (an umbrella term that encompasses competitive speech and debate.) Sure, there’s a recent encouraging trend toward so-called “non-traditional casting” in Hollywood and on Broadway, but in the real-world entertainment industry, it’s still unrealistic that two black performers would get to play white girls growing up in 1940’s Copenhagen. For decades, forensics was dominated by mostly white students from mostly private schools, and kids and coaches typically chose roles that aligned with performers’ cultural backgrounds. But as more schools serving diverse populations create forensics teams, there’s been an explosion of intercultural casting possibilities, giving a new generation of performers a chance to step into the shoes of people who are radically different from themselves.

Simone and Sahirah don’t seem the slightest bit fazed by the idea of playing roles that include a Catholic girl and her Jewish friend, the girls’ family members, German soldiers, Jewish refugees, and members of the Danish resistance. It’s clear that despite the cultural and chronological distance separating the performers from their characters, they feel a strong connection. When I ask them why they chose the piece, Simone says, “Why not? It’s a good story.” Point taken.

The third reason I find it fascinating to be working with these girls on this particular story on this particular day is a personal one, and actually represents much more of a coincidence than the girls know. Not only does our work session coincide with the first night of Hanukkah; it also happens to land on the first Jewish holiday in my life that I’ve ever chosen to celebrate in a meaningful way.

I grew up with a Jewish mom and a Methodist dad, both of them compassionate, vibrant, deeply ethical people — and neither of them religious. We always celebrated Christmas for the festive rituals of decorating the tree, baking cookies and giving gifts, but the Christian element of the holiday was absent.

I understood that having a Jewish mom made me “technically” Jewish, but talk of Judaism was as scarce in my childhood as it was in my mom’s. When World War II broke out, my maternal grandmother was forced to abandon a thriving theatrical career in Europe and flee to New York. She and my grandfather eventually settled in Connecticut, bought a Christmas tree, and melded into the WASP landscape. My mom only found out she was Jewish at the age of 16 when she innocently repeated a joke she’d heard from a school friend at the dinner table, not realizing it was anti-Semitic.

Through my teens and early adulthood, I never thought twice about my Jewish heritage. My family life was nurturing and filled with wonder. I didn’t find myself actively missing exposure to religious traditions. But with the birth of our daughter two years ago, my husband and I made a choice to bring her into contact with all elements of her mixed cultural background — the holiday traditions her paternal grandparents carried with them from Sweden, the rich Irish heritage from my Dad’s side, the Christmas wonderland my mother brings to life every year — and yes, my mom’s family’s Jewish roots as well.

Last year we bought a menorah and our downstairs neighbor lit the candles and sang the blessings for us once or twice. This year I’ve decided to make our celebration more resonant, to learn to sing the blessings myself, and to teach them to my daughter.

As I settle into the classroom with Simone and Sahirah now, the walls bright orange in the last of the daylight, I feel a little flush of excitement about lighting candles later on with my little girl. But I’m also nagged at by an uncomfortable sense of disconnect. How can I embrace the ritual meaningfully when I have such a limited knowledge of Judaism? And how can I make the leap toward teaching my daughter to understand her Jewish heritage when my own connection to it feels so tenuous?

The girls take out the first draft of the script they’ve started piecing together and I find myself shaking my head at the uncanny intersections of art and life. Here we are, a white woman from Connecticut and two black teens from the South Bronx in a classroom together, each of us stepping into the space between the imaginary and the real in order to learn what it means — either for a few brief moments or for a lifetime — to become Jewish.

Over the course of the next two hours, the realities of the South Bronx recede and the three of us lose ourselves in the story of two young girls from different cultures, one struggling to save the life of the other, in a war-torn country half a world away.

At one point, as we’re looking for a way to bring the new script to a close, we decide to read the last chapter of the novel together silently to ourselves. For about 15 minutes, there is total stillness. A feeling of suspension fills the classroom.

I have read other books about the Holocaust. Some have moved me deeply. But I’ve never felt that the stories fully belonged to me.

Sitting with these young performers now, imagining them taking on the characters’ realities as their own, I feel a strong internal shift. For the first time I can remember, the disembodied, fragmented stories from my family’s past begin to solidify, revealing themselves in tangible details in my mind.

I can vividly imagine the dislocating pain my grandmother must have felt at being ripped away from her artistic career and never again achieving theatrical success. I feel the shame and bewilderment my mom must have experienced learning the truth about her background in such a jarring way. I see the faces of my great-uncle’s children who were killed in a concentration camp and then rarely spoken of again. I wonder if someone in my extended family might know the full story of what happened to them, and I realize that I don’t know whom to call.

When the girls and I finish reading and look up at each other, I have to work hard to remember where I am.

Simone breaks the silence. “This is not the same book that I read in sixth grade,” she says quietly, wiping at her eyes. “I swear, the only reason I read this book then was because I was supposed to, because that’s what good students do. I took a test on it and then I forgot the whole thing. Now I’m sitting here and I feel like these characters are me. Like I’ve become them or they’ve become me, or … I don’t know. You know?”

I look at her and say, “Yes.”

This piece also appears at the Huffington Post. The students featured in this article agreed to let Quarfordt share their stories; the views expressed here are her own and not those of her school’s administration.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.