We’ve crunched the numbers, and they all add up to one amazing year ahead. In honor of Blue Engine’s fifth first day of school, please join us in welcoming the 2014-15 Blue Engine Teaching Assistants. Meet the full team here.
New York City, NY – January 28, 2014 – President Barack Obama featured New York City-based education nonprofit Blue Engine and student Estiven Rodriguez in his speech at the White House College Opportunity Summit on January 16th. Among a group of college and university presidents and leaders from nonprofits, foundations, and state governments across the country, the President recognized Blue Engine for connecting young people like Estiven, “like Michelle, and like me” with opportunities in higher education.
Two weeks later at the State of the Union, the President again recognized Blue Engine’s “innovative tutoring program” and told the story of Estiven Rodriguez, a senior at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in Manhattan who worked closely with Blue Engine Teaching Assistants (BETAs) throughout high school.
As the President explains, Blue Engine “recruit(s) recent college graduates to work as teaching assistants in public high schools that serve low-income communities, teaming up to help students build the skills they need to enter college ready for college.” With the support of teachers and BETAs, Estiven’s performance soared — from failing Regents Exam scores (63) to “college ready” scores (87) that exempt him from remedial coursework and strongly predict degree completion. He’ll be attending Dickinson College in the Fall on a competitive Posse Foundation scholarship.
Excerpts, transcripts, and videos from both Presidential speeches are available below.
EXCERPT FROM COLLEGE OPPORTUNITY SUMMIT SPEECH
So I’ll end with a great story that I think speaks to this. There’s a former teacher here today named Nick Ehrmann. — Where’s Nick? So here’s Nick right here. — Five years ago, Nick founded a New York City nonprofit called Blue Engine, and they recruit recent college graduates to work as teaching assistants in public high schools that serve low-income communities, teaming up to help students build the skills they need to enter college ready for college.
The first group of students to work with those teaching assistants are seniors now. One of them, Estiven Rodriguez, who also is here today — where is he? There he is. Good-looking, young guy right here. — could not speak a word of English when he moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of nine. Didn’t speak much more English by the time he entered sixth grade.
Today, with the support of a tightly knit school community, he’s one of the top students in his senior class at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, or WHEELS. Last month, he and his classmates put on their WHEELS sweatshirts, unfurled a banner, waved flags and marched down the streets of Washington Heights in New York City through cheering crowds. You would have thought it was the Macy’s parade. But the crowds on the sidewalk were parents and teachers and neighbors. The flags were college pennants. The march was to the post office, where they mailed in their college applications. And Estiven just heard back — this son of a factory worker who didn’t speak much English just six years ago won a competitive scholarship to attend Dickinson College this fall.
So everywhere you go you’ve got stories like Estiven’s and you’ve got stories like Troy’s. But we don’t want these to be the exceptions. We want these to be the rule. That’s what we owe our young people and that’s what we owe this country. We all have a stake in restoring that fundamental American idea that says: It doesn’t matter where you start, what matters is where you end up. And as parents and as teachers, and as business and philanthropic and political leaders — and as citizens — we’ve all got a role to play.
EXCERPT FROM STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS
Estiven Rodriguez couldn’t speak a word of English when he moved to New York City at age 9. But last month, thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications. And this son of a factory worker just found out he’s going to college this fall.
ABOUT BLUE ENGINE
Blue Engine prepares students in low-income communities to succeed in postsecondary education through exposure to rigorous and personalized high school coursework. The organization recruits bright recent college graduates to work as teaching assistants in public high schools serving low-income communities. In partnership with teachers, Blue Engine Teaching Assistants (BETAs) reduce student-to-teacher ratios and help small groups of students like Estiven build the college-ready skills they need to transition successfully into higher education.
During the current academic year, 52 BETAs serve over 1,000 students across five New York City high schools. Last school year, Blue Engine’s partnership with three schools increased college readiness on New York State Regents Examinations (Algebra, Geometry, and English Language Arts) by 61 percent. With 609 college graduates applying to be BETAs from 183 colleges and universities nationwide this past spring, Blue Engine presents service as solution, growing a pipeline of future educators and advocates committed to making a measurable impact in the communities they serve.
Since Teach For America alumnus Nick Ehrmann founded the organization in 2009, Blue Engine has been recognized as one of the nation’s most promising social innovations by leading social impact funders including AmeriCorps, Blue Ridge Foundation New York, Robin Hood, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Echoing Green, PropelNext (of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation), Tiger Foundation, Edwin Gould Foundation, Heckscher Foundation for Children, Barclays Capital Foundation, Select Equity Foundation and Coatue Foundation, among others.
Founded by Principal Brett Kimmel, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) opened its doors in September 2006 in response to the community’s lack of excellent college-preparatory public secondary schools. A member of Outward Bound’s Expeditionary Learning network, WHEELS is rated as an “A” school by the Department of Education and was recognized as a “Transformational School” by Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp in her book A Chance to Make History (2011). The approximately 650 students are 98% Latino and all qualify under federal guidelines for free and reduced lunch. 100% of WHEELS students apply to and are accepted to college.
Emily Brenes, Communications Associate
Blue Engine, Inc.
There is a crisis in education—record numbers of students are entering college and dropping out before ever earning a degree. 41% of students from low-income families enroll in college each year, but only 8% finish with a degree.
Blue Engine is committed to changing these odds by partnering with public high schools serving low-income communities to prepare students for postsecondary success. Watch this video to learn how — and then share it with everyone you know.
Produced by Hieronymus.
Whether you’ve led a Blue Engine classroom, invested in our model, or helped spread the word about what we do – it all makes our work in NYC public high schools a possibility. We made this video to say THANK YOU to all the people who’ve come together in support of our mission.
From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!
New York City, NY – May 6, 2013 – President Barack Obama recognized Blue Engine as a high impact education nonprofit organization during his Ohio State University commencement address on May 5th. The President focused on the theme of citizenship, noting that Ohio State graduates “serve their country through the Peace Corps, and educate our children through established programs like Teach for America and startups like Blue Engine, often earning little pay for making the biggest impact.”
Blue Engine prepares students in low-income communities to succeed in postsecondary education through exposure to rigorous and personalized high school coursework. Established in 2009, Blue Engine recruits, trains, and supports Blue Engine Teaching Assistants (BETAs) – highly motivated recent college graduates who partner with teachers to help students build the academic and social cognitive skills required to succeed in college-level coursework. The model relies on BETAs leading small-group instruction in “gateway skills” including algebra and writing, an innovation that allows students the opportunity to learn in classrooms marked by dramatically reduced student / teacher ratios. During the current academic year, 39 BETAs serve nearly 800 students across three New York City high schools, using their experience as an entry point into careers in teaching and social change leadership.
“Blue Engine is honored that the President recognizes our work, in particular because it underlines the importance of the issue at hand,” states Founder Nick Ehrmann. “We cannot continue to rubberstamp diplomas and shuttle kids towards higher education without the preparation they need. The biggest open secret in education today is the staggering gap between what it means to be college eligible and college ready.”
Last year, Blue Engine’s partnership with three schools increased college readiness on New York State Regents Examinations (Algebra, Geometry, and English Language Arts) by 186 percent. This year, 580 college graduates applied to Blue Engine from 183 colleges and universities nationwide. This 87 percent surge from 2012 is evidence of a growing interest in combining service opportunities with high-impact “tutorial” pathways to careers in education. Blue Engine presents service as solution, growing a pipeline of future educators and advocates committed to making a measurable impact in the communities they serve.
Check it out at the 6 minute mark below!
About Blue Engine
Blue Engine partners with public high schools serving low-income communities to increase academic rigor in the classroom and prepare dramatically greater numbers of students for postsecondary success. Since Teach For America alumnus Nick Ehrmann founded the organization in 2009, Blue Engine has been recognized as one of the nation’s most promising social innovations by leading social impact funders including Blue Ridge Foundation New York, Robin Hood, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Echoing Green, PropelNext (a venture of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation), the Heckscher Foundation for Children, and the Edwin Gould Foundation, among others.
Emily Brenes, Communications Associate
Blue Engine, Inc.
“In order to be an effective doctor, you need to be a teacher.”
These words came from an admissions officer at New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) who spoke to a group of twenty-three tenth- and eleventh- grade students from Bronx Leadership Academy II (BLA2) last week. Hearing them prompted me to reflect in a new way on the relationship between two of the most important things in my life: medicine and teaching.
When I received the call from the NJMS Dean of Admissions in December relaying my acceptance, I was ecstatic. Within a matter of seconds, our conversation veered – as they always seem to do when you’re a teacher – toward my students. I told the Dean how one of my students waits for me after class to ask about what she can do to become a doctor. I told him how big my students’ dreams are, yet how little they know about what they need to do to achieve their goals – things like learning to come to class on time and developing good study habits. His response was inviting. He asked, “Why don’t you bring them for a tour?”
With the support of my fellow BETA, I followed through. We asked interested students in our geometry classes to write a paragraph about why they would benefit from a trip to NJMS. We received a range of responses that left me extremely excited to give my students the opportunity to leave the Bronx, get a glimpse of life after college, and really understand what it takes to be college-ready.
One student wrote about wanting to be an oncologist since her sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was very young. Another shared that his mother had been a nurse in Bosnia for 18 years, and he found what she did in the health care field to be interesting. Others were still unsure about their intended fields of study, but wanted to see student life at the graduate school level.
When we arrived in Newark (after a subway ride, a PATH train, and an NJMS shuttle!), we toured the school, spoke with a group of first-year medical students, and heard a presentation on dentistry from the Dean of Admissions at the dental school. The highlight of the trip for many was viewing a cadaver in the anatomy laboratory. The medical student leading the tour held up a human heart and gave a mini-lesson on its structure, and how one would observe signs of disease. I was impressed by our students’ articulate responses to his questions, replying with facts like “the aorta brings oxygenated blood to the body.” Our visit to the anatomy lab also prompted interesting discussion on the process and ethics of donating a body to science.
The day ended with a Q&A session with a panel of medical students from various backgrounds, who outlined the timelines of their medical careers. The students were shocked to realize it could take up to seven years after graduating from college to become a certain type of doctor. They asked the medical students thoughtful questions, like “how can manage raising a family and going to medical school?” One medical student ended with a take-home point: “If you want to do this, it will be difficult. But you have to set your mind to it, and it will be well worth it.” On the train back to the city, I was pleased to see that my students were returning with a more complete awareness of the importance of academics and a growth mindset on the long road through the medical field, and into higher education in general.
In a few months, I will be moving on to medical school myself. There’s no question that my time as a BETA has hugely impacted the way I’ll approach my future career. As a BETA, I am fighting cycles of inequality in New York City. And as a doctor I hope to do the same. Everyday I witness broad public health issues at work in the Bronx, from a student asking why they should invest in healthier foods when they can get a free soda to constant sick days setting a student behind in class.
And while my pre-med background has proved surprisingly helpful as I navigate these types of situations, I’m realizing more and more that to be a doctor, you do need to be a teacher. As an Emergency Medical Technician, I put my instructional communication skills to work every time I sensitively articulate for patients why they need to be brought to the hospital.
And just like my students, my patients surprise me every day. My time at Blue Engine has tested and strengthened my ability to suspend judgment and connect with all types of people on a human level. I have formed close relationships with students of backgrounds very different from mine, not unlike the relationships I hope to form with the patients I will someday treat. Thanks to my students, I am committed to never being limited by preconceived notions about patients, never underestimating their conditions, and always listening – truly listening – to their stories.
It was 4 am on the morning of my Blue Engine interview in New York, and I was wide awake. Propped atop a mountain of impossibly white hotel pillows, I shifted my eyes methodically between the flashing lights of Times Square out my window and the sickly, post-midnight glow of my computer monitor. On it sat a half-finished final paper that was due at 9 am. For the next five hours, I stared at the blinking of the (mostly stationary) cursor until it became too much to handle, then turned back to the skyline, where I felt my anxiety pains double.
The next day I would be interviewing for a job in a city I knew almost nothing about—so little, in fact, that my aunt’s advice to stay in Times Square because it was “centrally located” had seemed perfectly reasonable. I squinted at the screen in an attempt to block out the neon seeping in through the curtains and I worried incessantly. Some of my worrying was directed at the paper I knew I’d have to pull an all-nighter to finish. Most of it, however, was directed at the looming interview for a job I really, really wanted.
Now, after seven months of living in New York City, I know better than to step foot in Times Square—I avoid it like a mysterious substance on an empty subway seat. And after six months of teaching for Blue Engine, I know better than to worry myself sick about how (or if) my personality, ideas, passions, or intuitions might fit in. I knew this from the moment I stepped out of that daylong interview and into the gray, New York winter sun. Despite the weather, I was feeling perfectly delirious; I was loopy from lack of sleep, but I was also feeling a strange, dawning elation—something I later attributed to having found the place I wanted to spend my first, formative years after college. My first years as an educator, yes, but also as an individual.
There’s an incredible openness that comes with interviewing for an organization that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; none of that ideology-touting that comes with interviewing for a place that has particular things it wants you to say. During a single twenty-minute phone interview with City Year, I remember hastily squeezing in how my experience with high school cheerleading had taught me the importance of uniforms for team unity. I thought it might get me one step closer to my goal—to be in a classroom with students.
The Blue Engine interview was the first I had ever had where I felt I was saying what I wanted to say, instead of what I was supposed to say. The first half of the interview focused on group work. As I sat around a table with the other candidates, debating our survival strategy if we were stranded in the tundra, I looked to a current BETA to ask a question. He shrugged his shoulders casually and said he couldn’t intervene, but his posture, his genuine confusion, suggested he might not know the “right” answer himself. There are no right or wrong answers, the whole exercise seemed to be saying, because we want to know who you really are, how you think, and what you’d really do. So I said what made sense to me. I didn’t worry about what I should be saying.
As I watched the current Blue Engine staff interact with each other, I got the feeling that these people didn’t just work so well together because they believed in Blue Engine’s mission; it was also because they genuinely respected, cared for, and liked each other. The energy in the room was indescribable. There was no other place I wanted to be.
As another round of BETA selections starts, some applicants may find their situation similar to the one I was facing that late February night—stressed by midterms or finals, overwhelmed by the thought of life post-graduation. So here’s my advice: don’t worry as much as I did. Don’t worry about saying what you think Blue Engine wants to hear, because it’s not so black and white. We want to listen, and we want to learn about you. We’ll probably be more impressed if you say what we don’t expect to hear—probing questions that smartly challenge our current conception of what works in the classroom. Figuring out how to push students further, faster is an evolving, flexible process, and as Blue Engine enters its fourth year, we’re still pushing ourselves to create the best model possible.
And above all, get some sleep. Finish that paper and rest easy knowing that the next day, you’ll have no other obligation but to be who you are and do what you do. What could be easier? You’ll be great.
Bronx Leadership Academy 2
What I have learned about teaching over my two years as a Blue Engine Teaching Assistant:
The most essential piece of equipment for any teachers’ work area is a coffee machine.
Nobody will ever know how to push your buttons more, or do it more often, than your students.
Never give up on your kids and always work your hardest for them, but make sure to take time for yourself, too. You are no good to the kids if you are run ragged, irritable, or too exhausted to make a good judgment call.
If you try to make your class copies the morning of or, God forbid, the period before you intend to use them, it does not matter how large or small the copy job is—the copier WILL jam.
Never get into an argument with a student; they are younger, less wise, and understand repercussions less than you do. Above all else, they need you to provide stability and reassurance that, even in their most immature and selfish moments, you still care about them and are determined to help them learn and be better.
You may think it’s funny; your kids think it’s corny.
Don’t be “friends” with your students! You definitely have enough friends, they probably do, too, and what they need so much more from you is a stable, trustworthy adult that they can look up to and who models and gets them excited for responsible adulthood. A degree of distance is good for that and it doesn’t mean there is any emotional connection lost, it just means there are boundaries.
It takes upwards of AN HOUR to format a SINGLE worksheet. Word has still not caught up with teachers’ brains…
Students will routinely ask: 1) if you are married/have a boyfriend, 2) if you have kids (especially if there are students who share your last name), 3) how old you are (guesses range from 16 to 40), 4) what your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. name is and if they can friend/follow you (they wish), 5) if you are related to the other BETAs (Lauren Gleason, Willy Golden, Aaron Frumkin and I had the kids convinced we were all either siblings or cousins last year, and Alysa Delerme and I are cousins this year as far as the BLA2 kids are concerned), 6) if you are dating the other BETAs, 7) questions not at all related to the lesson you’re teaching.
Never assume knowledge on the part of the students, and go about correcting and informing them in the most conscientious way possible. Sometimes a kid will ask a question that seems obvious or out of left field, but it’s important to remember exactly how young and inexperienced the students are. Not only that, but if we ever ridicule or react incredulously to a student’s inquiry we have shirked our responsibility to help them grow and mature, and we’ve betrayed their trust in us to help them do so.
Every experience with a student is a new opportunity to learn how to be a better educator, and it’s important to constantly strive to know more.
That being said, no educator will ever know it all. Being a teacher means being a constant student.
My two years with Blue Engine have given me the opportunity to learn the practical ropes of working within a classroom, but they’ve also meant that I’ve been able to be extremely reflective about my practice. I don’t think there’s any experience quite like it that would have enabled me to, over the course of two years, slowly learn about public schools, New York City students, and myself in such depth and with such meticulous thought.
With these two years under my belt, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I want to keep learning. I’ve decided to pursue teaching as a long-term career; I’m eager to see what this list will look like after the next two years.
In “G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K Doesn’t Spell Collaboration,” educator Timothy Quinn asserts that a teacher’s goal is to equip students with a 21st century skillset of teamwork, relationship-building, and engaging in “inequality, unfairness, interpersonal conflict, [and] bureaucratic hurdles,” what he calls “the stuff of life.” For Quinn, simply arranging students in groups with instructions to “discuss!” and “work together!” is not teaching effective methods of collaboration. Instead, teachers must guide students in overcoming the challenges of working with their peers.
I know firsthand that collaboration is a messy concoction of frustration, negotiation and, when done right, brain gurgling euphoria. As a BETA working in four classes spanning two grades, alongside three other BETAs and two different lead teachers, my day is a constant dance of interpersonal negotiation and collective problem solving. When my team sits down with our lead teachers, everything we craft, whether it is a worksheet, lesson plan, or instructional tool is a shared product and thus subject to change, modification and rejection. By encouraging BETAs and teachers to work in tandem, the Blue Engine model helps classroom teams better understand how to facilitate and instill these same interpersonal skills in the minds of our students in challenging, but engaging ways.
Before winter break, after a long discussion about how to enliven a To Kill A Mockingbird unit plagued by lost books, homework hooky, and lackluster class participation, my team came up with the idea of having our students reenact the novel’s pivotal trial scene in which Tom Robinson, a black man, is tried for rape in a racist Alabama court. As the students worked together to develop arguments for his innocence or guilt, we would play the dual role of group-work facilitators and character witnesses.
While planning for this week-long lesson, we had to consider a number of questions. How do we teach fiercely independent students to work together to develop a compelling argument? How do we include students like Anna and Greg who have only read two chapters, but could benefit from an activity that might increase their investment in the class? Moreover, how do we facilitate this project in a way to help students challenge each other and wrestle with this “stuff of life?”
While we conceived the trial unit to illuminate the inherent inequality of the Alabama court system in the 1930s, our re-envisioned trial had its own elements of unfairness, inequality, and challenge. When we divided the class into a prosecution team and a defense team, the students realized that the prosecution, (who was trying to convict Tom Robinson) was at a disadvantage because author Harper Lee makes clear Robinson’s innocence. And though every student had to complete the pre-trial prep work, only two students from each side would be selected to deliver statements and cross examine witnesses during the trial. These revelations were disappointments to students who struggled to understand and engage with Lee’s language and complex themes of the novel and thus fell behind on the reading. Additionally, many students would attempt to skirt group work with complaints of “I can’t work with him!”
Although we acknowledged these challenges, we made it clear that our role as instructors was not to intervene to make the project “more fair,” but to engage students as collaborative equals by encouraging them to wrestle with the text, challenge assumptions, negotiate rules and support student leaders who would perform on the group’s behalf. By playing the dual roles of instructor and trial performer I could facilitate group instruction about debate, argument and critical thinking, and then transform into a mere “prop” that helped foment student arguments. Over the course of a class period, I could help students like Carlos, hardworking but stubbornly independent, work with his prosecution partner, Olivia, to manipulate flimsy evidence against Tom Robinson and then walk over to the defense side, slip into the character of foul-mouthed Bob Ewell, and face intense interrogation. I could support Anna, not chosen to act as an attorney, to make connections between the Tom Robinson case and the historical Scottsboro trial and help her defense team leader build an argument around “precedence.”
After three days of bolstering students’ confidence and excitement, all six of us (including our Site Manager, Kevin) withdrew into our roles of Tom Robinson, Bob and Mayella Ewell, bailiff, Sheriff and judge, allowing the students to take full command of the class. The four attorneys paced back and forth, wielding arguments about racism in Maycomb and evidence hidden deep within the text – not to us, but to the jury of their peers. Shouting “objections” and “out of orders” during the trial and giving feedback for improving statement deliveries afterwards, students in the audience challenged the attorneys to act within the bounds of courtroom structures and behavioral norms. Whether as an attorney, jury or audience member, all our 10th graders were disseminating evidence, taking notes, delivering statements or questioning witnesses. Out of a project that highlighted the realities of historical injustice—as well as the realities of systematic unfairness in life—bloomed a trial performance in which students not only collaborated with instructors, but ultimately negotiated and engaged in a lesson on their own collaborative terms.
Despite (if not because of) the mess – students talking over one another, lawyers forgetting their arguments mid-statement, props falling apart, violent eruptions of laughter – our team and our students were filled with an exuberant sense of accomplishment. Weaving in and out of group work facilitation and performance, we co-planned and co-taught a complex lesson while engaging students with questions of inequality and interpersonal communication. After the jury announced the verdict of Robinson’s innocence, Carlos of the prosecution, sidled over to me with a smile brimming on his face, exclaiming that although he was disappointed in losing, he thought the trial was one of the most exciting projects he had ever done. “It felt so real” he said.
Indeed the trial did feel real, not simply because our students were hilariously convincing jurors, attorneys, and court reporters, but because they collectively presented arguments, disputed ideas, and negotiated rules that would allow them to recognize and deal with interpersonal conflict, unfairness, and inequality – the “stuff” of real life.
By Erica Hauswald
“A teacher is one who makes himself [sic] progressively unnecessary” – Thomas Carruthers
The more I teach, the more I become convinced that a teacher’s job is to become obsolete.
This might seem like a crazy goal, especially for high-need public schools where resources are often scarce: A classroom full of students alone? No more need for instructors? Moreover, this might seem counterintuitive given Blue Engine’s mission –by drastically increasing the number of educators in a classroom (from 1 to 4-5), are we really making teachers less necessary?
Yet, going into my fifth month as a Blue Engine Teaching Assistant at Mott Hall Bronx High School, I have become increasingly convinced that transforming students into their own best resource is what Blue Engine does best.
At Blue Engine, we talk a lot about the massive impact a reduced student-to-instructor ratio has on student learning. With more educators in a room, students will necessarily be pushed to greater heights. With more manpower, classwork can be differentiated to suit a range of skill levels; students can have constant access to a mentor; tutoring can take place with an instructor who is attuned to the needs of their individual students; collaborative lesson planning can lead to more innovative, exciting, and aligned lessons every day.
The part that people don’t hear about as much is how much students have to gain from each other and from themselves in a Blue Engine classroom.
Blue Engine’s model embodies the increasingly discussed idea that collaboration, among other social experiences, is not only beneficial but actually crucial to students’ growth. As Paul Tough’s popular new book, How Children Succeed, points out, success extends far beyond the realm of the academic; in fact, researchers are discovering it has more to do with social-emotional growth than they had ever imagined.
At Mott Hall, I’ve seen just how much the small group work that Blue Engine makes possible empowers my students. Working in groups of 6-7 students with BETAs day after day allows students not just to get more personalized instruction, but also to build greater connections and more confident relationships with their peers. Student-led discussions force students to speak and listen not only to the various figures of authority in their lives but also to each other. I say “force” because many students do not naturally value the opinions of their classmates and peers, in the same way that they have not been adequately encouraged to have confidence in themselves.
And it is not easy to make them do so. Day to day, my words sound like a mother’s persistent nagging: talk to each other, not to me. At first, it feels artificial and meaningless to my students, as they are made to turn their bodies completely around to face their classmates and project their opinions out rather than simply reporting them to the teacher and waiting for approval.
But it turns out that the result, when it works, may very well be one of the most meaningful experiences in education. I have rarely felt more successful as a teacher than when my 10th graders began to view one of their peers as an educator herself—and promptly started turning to “Ms. Nubia” for all of their grammar questions.
The reality is that in a classroom where the student-to-instructor ratio is something like 30:1, students do not readily or consistently get the feedback that they need to understand themselves as learners.
Before I began teaching with Blue Engine, I thought this deficiency was inevitable. The prospect of really digging in and altering students’ mindsets like self-awareness and initiative didn’t seem possible. But one of the best things about Blue Engine is that we are not only there for students who “want to learn.” In fact, we don’t really believe in the distinction between students who “want to learn” and those who don’t—or at least, we don’t settle for it.
Yes, in the beginning we have to prod them to come after school—we’ve used everything from RSVP-required formal invitations in fancy envelopes to a sign-up sheet to a points system to encourage students to seek help. Students at Mott Hall and other partner schools start ninth grade with BETAs by their sides, kneeling down to help them with a paragraph in an analysis essay or calling home weekly to check in with their parents. But over the course of their time with BETAs, students develop into true learners, who have diagnosed their own strengths and weaknesses, articulated short- and long-term goals, and know how to work both for themselves and with others.
I love the Blue Engine model most because it is not fundamentally a teacher-centered model but a student-centered one. I can see this when I witness a typically aggressive student, who has a low boiling point but a high mastery of reading-writing skills, lean over to help a Yemeni English Language Learner pronounce a word in English. Or as I watch a 9th grade group, usually prone to off-topic disruption, guide themselves through a series of high-level questions on the Holocaust experience directed by a student leader. Or when I sit back in a corner of the room as a 10th grade groups comes up with incredible questions on their own about To Kill a Mockingbird, such as what it means to be a girl in 1940s Southern culture or why Maycomb society consistently ignores the most oppressed people in their community. It is in these moments when I see what all the minutiae of daily routines, group work, grading, and tracking really adds up to—progress toward Blue Engine’s ultimate goal of empowering students to become their own next leaders.
“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” – Helen Keller
Last year I had the opportunity to work with Blue Engine as a lead math teacher. My initial introduction to Blue Engine outlined their work as supporting students in their learning, teachers in their planning, and schools in building and fostering a nurturing and supportive community. All of these things are true, but they don’t happen magically. In reflecting on the transition of Blue Engine into my classroom, I settled on a metaphor.
My work with Blue Engine was like getting a pair of brand new, correctly prescribed, stylish glasses.
Since my first day in a classroom, I have longed for the ability to see each and every one of my 90+ students clearly with the kindness and toughness that only comes from building a close and thoughtful relationship. That takes time, energy, planning, and more pairs of eyes and ears than I have. Blue Engine has become the glasses for teachers I never knew existed.
Like with any new pair, there are growing pains. You have to adjust to a new way of perceiving. You have to ask yourself, “How do I best utilize this enhancement?” There are days that you forget where you put your new tool. Days of clumsy, almost painful adjustment as your old way of doing things now has to change.
But the fact remains: You are seeing like you never did before.
Blue Engine helped me put a determined team of eight eyes and ears in front of 98 eager, brilliant, beautiful, and impatient teenagers. As a team of instructors, we saw all 98 of those kids. Each of us had a small group of students we taught. We got to know their work and their thought processes intimately as we spent period after period helping them solve problems. We tracked their progress. We celebrated their victories and guided them when they fell off track. We collected copious amounts of data and evaluated it through many different lenses. Tracking by learning target mastery, by assignment type, by group, by class. It’s incredible. What was once blurry came to have a very distinct shape and texture.
Beyond watching my students’ academic progress, I got a better understanding of their personal growth. Every day as a team we met and I heard about why David was struggling, Jane was happy, and Bill was quiet. I was seeing each of my students. This heightened sense not only helped enhance my students’ learning, but it improved my own teaching experience.
As I began see these things, I also realized that I needed a way to process all this new information I had access to. While invaluable, all of this information produced sensory overload: more data, more adults to manage, more pairs of eyes to guide as they grow to see as a teacher sees. As I adjusted, I had to ask myself an important question: how can I effectively use all this information?
Herein lies the difference between sight and vision. The ability to see is useless without a clear vision. As a Blue Engine lead teacher and therefore the head of a team of instructors, a clear and unified vision for your classroom and students is essential.
It is with this vision in mind that I decided to join Blue Engine staff this year as the inaugural Director of Instruction to help build powerful partnerships between teachers and BETAs. Blue Engine helped me see each of my students with amazing new clarity. Now it’s my turn to share my learnings and experience with lead teachers and support them in making their vision a successful reality in a Blue Engine classroom.
By Sheyna Mikeal, Team Coordinator at WHEELS
If one more person gives me this look when I tell them I teach, I might just scream. Eyebrows touch, nose scrunches up, and mouth is all twisted at the corners. A look of confusion, of condescension. A smile would be nice, because teaching is a wonderful profession, just misunderstood.
Yes I went to Johns Hopkins University, a top school for biomedical engineering and medicine. Yes I graduated with honors in both of my majors. Yes I received my masters from there too. And yes—believe it or not—I decided education was the path for me.
Why? Because despite my educational successes, I look back and believe I was cheated from a quality education.
Let’s go back to 1996. I was in the 3rd grade standing no taller than 3 feet 6 inches. I loved school. Learning was fun and I would do anything to do well.
My teacher was out sick for weeks. We had a substitute, so you know what that means: playtime. She gave us busy work to do, with most of the children choosing not to do it. I completed each assignment.
One day I came into class ready for whatever worksheet would be handed to me. I looked at it and it was the SAME worksheet that I had completed the week before! I was furious. At 8, I went home and told my aunt “I want to be transferred because I am not being challenged enough.” Like my mother before me who used to skip school to advocate for the Black Panther movement on the radio, I was a pretty outspoken child. This was the birth of my inner angry black educator.
My fight for a quality education has continued from there. I graduated as valedictorian from a Baltimore City Public School. I was confident and, I must say, a little cocky going into my freshman year of college.
Imagine how I felt when I got to Johns Hopkins and was already failing two courses by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. The day before I am supposed to enjoy the best meal of the year, my stomach turns into mush as two bold Fs stare me in the face from the so perfectly folded piece of paper. I envisioned the person sighing while folding the letter because I was just another low-income, public school student who didn’t make the cut.
I talked to my friends who were doing well in the classes that I was failing and learned that they went into those classes with solid background knowledge and skills that I didn’t have. I was bamboozled!
My high school told me that I was college ready. I took AP courses, honors courses, and I was valedictorian for goodness sake! Why am I failing!?! My courses had the right titles and I had the right grades, but I definitely wasn’t challenged by the rigorous coursework that would really prepare me to succeed in college. I remember that in 11th grade I completed an entire semester’s worth of work in one week. That shouldn’t be possible.
Rigor. Hmm, sound familiar? This is why Blue Engine exists. We put 4-5 qualified, hardworking adults in the classroom to allow for students of all levels to be challenged with rigorous work.
My education failed me when I needed it the most, but my determination and support system helped me overcome that obstacle. Not every student has the drive and support to continue in the face of adversity and that is why only 8% of students from low-income backgrounds are actually getting bachelor’s degrees.
Blue Engine prepares students for college with academic skills, but we also help students change their mindsets. Our students learn to welcome challenge (with a little whining) and face it head on. Some students even expect the challenge and feel disrespected if we give them something too easy.
This is what I missed in school. I confused working hard with being challenged. I can only imagine what I could have done if I had the supports my students have when I was in high school.
Shoot, I could be the chancellor of New York City Public Schools by now.
Okay, maybe not. But seriously, to really think about all the possibilities of intellectual growth that I could have had, I can’t help but to feel cheated and, well, mad.
Memories of my educational experiences are a constant reminder to stay focused and keep my head down so that my students don’t have to go through what I went through. Feeling cheated makes anyone mad, but feeling cheated out of something as valuable as an education, that is grounds for immediate action.
The action plan I chose was Blue Engine.
Earlier this summer at Blue Engine’s second annual fundraiser, 16 year old WHEELS student Joana Batista climbed to the podium in front of 225 people to tell her story. This is what she said.
Good evening. My name is Joana Denise Batista. I am 16 years old and just graduated from 8th grade at WHEELS.
I was born in Washington Heights. Like any typical family, my family had its problems. My mother did what was best for me, so when I was three years old she sent me to live in the Dominican Republic with her aunt.
In DR, I got placed into this neighborhood school around the corner from my house. I remember being in class sitting down with my notebook ready and my pencil in hand, noticing that no one was paying attention and the teacher was talking on her cell phone. Every single day, we had to copy what was written on the board. There was no explanation of what it meant. I didn’t even know what I was writing.
As time went on, things only got worse. Like my classmates, I threw paper airplanes, picked fights, and blew bubbles. Two years passed, and I realized I had learned nothing.
Finally, once the situation back home had calmed down a little, my mother decided to bring me back to New York. I remember getting off the plane in New York City and I couldn’t believe how nice the airport was, how clean the floors were. I felt like I went from poor to rich overnight. I couldn’t even remember living in New York City as a baby, so this felt brand new to me. Like I was born in DR coming to New York City for the first time. I didn’t recognize my mother when she picked me up.
That September, I started first grade. School was really hard for me because I didn’t speak English. When I had to write my name in my notebook, I wrote my first and middle name, because I didn’t know what “last name” meant. So my teacher thought my last name was Denise until my mother corrected her. I was 6 and I couldn’t write my full name.
When I looked at my report card on the last day of school, it said next year I would be in first grade. I hadn’t passed.
The next September, my mom placed me in a different school. My new school made a mistake and placed me in second grade. I was put in a special ed class with 4 teachers because I was so slow.
By then, I had picked up English, but writing and reading was another story. We started with the ABCs. I learned to sound out words, reading baby books with rhyming words and pictures. At the end of the year, I had made a huge improvement with the help of all my teachers. I could officially sit down and read a complete sentence.
But at the end of the year, when my brother’s social worker showed up to school to see how I was doing, he asked my teacher if I was going to pass. In front of me, she said “unfortunately not.”
So, I started second grade again. This time, it was really different because I wasn’t in a special ed classroom anymore and I only had one teacher.
I was asked for homework to read a book and write a book log. I didn’t know what it was, but I was too scared to ask my teacher because I didn’t want her to know I couldn’t read. I turned in my book log with only two words written down.
The next day when she checked my homework, she took me out to the hallway and yelled at me for being lazy. I had to confess to her that I couldn’t read. To help me, my teacher asked my old special ed teachers to work with me for 40 minutes before school every single morning. With their help, I was learning how to read.
I made a lot of progress, but at the end of the year, my reading level wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I didn’t understand the passages in the testing booklets in our state exams.
I didn’t pass. I was two reading levels behind.
That next September, I started second grade for a third time. This time, it was a piece of cake for me. I picked everything up really quickly and when I got my final report card that year, I saw that I would be entering the advanced third grade class. I was so happy that I cried.
Since then, I have passed every grade. But each year, the work gets more challenging. While reading is no longer an issue for me, math gets scarier by the minute.
I am 16 and I’m in the 8th grade. Most of my classmates are 14. I can’t afford to fail one more time, because if I do, I will be too old to be in high school once I get to senior year. This pressure motivates me to work harder. But it also makes it very scary for me when I don’t understand something I am learning.
I can’t afford to fail.
8th grade math is beyond hard. When I started math this year, I thought the world was ending.
I don’t know what I would have done without Ms. Pichardo and Mr. Kickham by my side. One of my biggest struggles this year was solving for x. They would always take the time to sit with me and go over any questions I have, and they wouldn’t leave my side until I fully understood what they were teaching me.
I could never have become student of the month without their help and support. I could have never gotten a 92 on my final test if Ms. Pichardo and Mr. Kickham hadn’t taken the time to review the material with me after school and during lunch.
Thank you, Ms. Pichardo. Thank you, Mr. Kickham. Thank you, Ms. Fedyna.
Most importantly, Blue Engine. Thank you. Because if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t have them. I may not be here standing in front of you as a graduate of 8th grade.
I know I am just one student up here speaking to you. But I am not the only one. I ‘ve seen my classmates grow the way I have this year with the support of the BETAs.
I am so thankful that this program has been invented. That we have teachers—not just one—standing in front of us and making sure we understand what we need to understand.
I wish that every single student that struggles with school as much as I have would have the opportunity to work with BETAs. They will discover something about themselves that they never did, which is… if they sit down to work with determination and support, they can achieve anything they want.
Blue Engine would like to extend a special thank you to lead teacher Dimity Kirwan, whose leadership of her BETA team and dedication to the students in her classroom made Joana’s story possible.
By Lusdymer Pichardo, WHEELS BETA
Last Friday, each 8th grade student at WHEELS climbed the stage of the auditorium. By the time they had reached the opposite end of the stage, they were officially high schoolers. Discussing the road to come for these students, BETA Lusdymer Pichardo reflected on the road behind her in her speech at the 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony. Full speech below.
“Good morning. It is an honor to be speaking at this years moving up ceremony. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Lusdymer Pichardo or Ms. Pichardo as some of the 6th 7th and all of the 8th graders know. This past year I worked as a BETA, a blue engine teaching assistant, in the 8th grade math classroom.
Many of you especially within the 8th grade were shocked to know that I was a recent Yale graduate. Not because you didn’t think I was capable but because many of you never knew a person of color….a Latina, especially not a Dominican who had ever gone to Yale, let alone graduated. Neither did I when I was 13 years old or even in high school. No one in my family had been a college graduate.
I came from a family of immigrants, like many of you. Even though my sister and I were the first generation born in the United States, my first language was Spanish and it will always be my home language.
A day didn’t pass when my mom didn’t remind us that she came to this country “para que ustedes tengan la educacion que yo nunca tuve” when she didn’t remind us that she used to walk “yo ni se cuantas millas con un cubo en la cabeza para buscar agua” and that although she always enjoyed learning, her aunt prevented her from going to school because cooking and maintaining the house was top priority. My sister and I pray that she would hurry with her speeches so we could watch the TV in peace.
Although I hated to listen to her rant, I was aware that it came from a place of love. We never had enough money in the house and my mom only us wanted to have a better future, filled with financial stability. Yet, I was too young and immature to understand that education could provide that for me.
Therefore, throughout elementary school I only did well to please my mom. I wanted her to be proud of me and knew that it made her happy to watch me excel academically. However, by the time I got to middle school, I was tired of pushing myself to excel. As much as I wanted to make my mom happy, it annoyed me that my teachers didn’t think we were smart enough and therefore never challenged us. For reasons that I would never understand, these teachers had given up on us. I remember an 8th grade student at wheels telling me she expected me to give up on her because so many teachers in the past had done so. I very much understood and felt her frustrations because at 11 years old I felt the same way.
However in 7th grade, I had a teacher with a military background who refused to give up. She was mean at first and we all hated her. Yet she challenged us like no other teacher would. Unlike other teachers who had made excuses for students with IEPs she expected us all to get 3’s and 4’s on our state exams. Although we were only 8th graders, she pushed a handful of us to take regents. We all thought she was crazy. I hated that she cared so much wanted her to just let me be average… mediocre.
To her satisfaction and our surprise we all received 3’s and 4’s on both state exams and I entered high school with Spanish and biology regents credits. It wasn’t until high school that I realized that my teachers nagging had pushed me to challenge myself. More importantly the time she took to get to know my family and home situation, to get to know me as a person instilled a confidence within me that I never had, not only in my academics but in everything I did. I see her in all of your teachers at WHEELS. In the way they are invested not only in your academic growth but also your personal growth. It amazes me how strong the relationships are between teachers and students here. Through my experiences I have become a strong believer that part of academic success involves some level of mentorship. Those of you remaining at wheels are lucky to have a staff of teachers who deem you special and important enough to want to get to know you beyond the classroom and watch you succeed. Not everyone will want that for you. People often have no problem celebrating in your success but it takes dedicated teachers and friends to also support you in your downfalls.
When I was a senior in high school, through the help and encouragement of my mentor, I decided to apply to Yale. I never in a million years thought I would get in but I decided there was no harm in trying. When I went to the college counselor’s office, a woman I had never met, to tell her of my decision, she looked at my SAT scores and background and “No. No one from our school has ever gotten into Yale and your scores are too low.” That moment was when I realized that even though there will always be people telling me I cant do something, I knew I had to try for myself. So, without my counselor’s support, I got my application together and applied. And I got in. Even though not everyone believed in me, I knew that I believed in myself and therefore put 100% of my effort into this and it paid off.
Its great to try and impress your mom or teachers but the immense satisfaction you feel when you’ve done something for yourself is like no other. I hope that throughout this year and years to come you learn to wish success for you. Because the work will continue to get harder but if you have confidence and continue to strive, success will follow. So i leave you with this- high school, whether at wheels or somewhere new, is the place to continue your personal growth. Whether you were successful before or not, high school is a fresh start. You cant rely on your past success or your past failures.
I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t give you some summer homework. Think about how you want next year to be. How will you change your actions and mindset to be the best person you can be. Then put those thoughts into actions. I will be checking up on you next year through the hallways, in the classrooms and by asking your teachers. 6th and 7th graders, I’m talking to you as well. As I heard someone once say, nothing in the world is impossible because within that very word is I am possible.
Congrats again on moving up to high school. I expect nothing less than amazing achievements from the class of 2016. Thank you.”
By Kevin Jeng, Team Coordinator Mott Hall Bronx High School
In the front of our classroom, we have a sign that counts down the number of times we will see our students before they take the NY State Integrated Algebra Regents Examination. Currently, that countdown is at 1, which means that my students have just one more day of classroom instruction before they take the Algebra Regents Thursday, June 14th. With the state test approaching so quickly, it’s interesting to see the many different reactions that the looming test elicits from my students.
For some, this moment is met with a nervous energy; they are about to take a test that they have been gearing up for all year, some putting in countless hours of work both in and out of class, during Saturday school, and even during lunch periods. These students want to prove to themselves, to their families, and their peers that not only can they pass the regents but surpass expectations and score well into the 80’s and 90’s. Yet for others, this moment is met with fear, a fear that now that the state test looms just a few days away, minimal effort during the year coupled with the fact that time is running out causes some students to panic. Not passing the regents means not passing the course. Furthermore, the Algebra Regents is the only mathematics state test that students are required to pass in order to graduate from high school. For my students who failed the exam last year and are repeating the course, their efforts are re-doubled because they realize just how important it is to pass this test. Excuses that they have used before: “I don’t want to study,” “I don’t like math,” and “I don’t care about the test,” just don’t hold up anymore now that the reality of June 14th approaches.
It can be hard to come by things that motivate high school students. Money motivates. I can bet a “Mr. Jeng dollar” with a student that she won’t be able to get her entrance slip quiz completely correct, and instantly I hear the ferocious scratches of pencil on paper. Candy motivates. “I’ll bet you a jolly rancher that you can’t get this problem correct without my help,” I say. The student quickly retorts, “Shoot Mr. Jeng! I got this!” But these methods of motivating students are ephemeral and shallow. Money and candy can only motivate for so long, and when it comes to investing kids in a subject notorious for being “boring,” these external rewards can hardly motivate consistently throughout the course of a year.
In searching for the perfect motivator to get my students to do work, I have found the regents to be my answer. For the past month, students have been working harder than ever in class because they understand the urgency of doing well on the regents. The miracle of the regents as a motivator lies in the fact that it does not motivate just temporarily, nor does it focus on external rewards unrelated to learning the material at hand. Instead, the regents motivates by focusing on the inherent reward of doing well on a test, achieving academically, and ultimately being invested in one’s own education. Whether for reasons of reaching a personal target score on the regents or for the basic reason of passing the class and graduating from high school, students are realizing how important doing well on the state test means in maintaining a good high school record, moving on to the next course, and staying on track to graduate from high school. Given this type of internal motivation, the impact that the regents is having on classroom performance and productivity is palpable, strong, and consistent.
The importance of the regents, however, doesn’t just lie in the fact that it is needed to graduate high school; in fact it goes well beyond that time frame and into a student’s college years. There is a staggering statistic that for people ages 25-28, only 31% have earned a bachelor’s degree. This statistic shrinks to just 8% for people who come from low-income communities. This national college completion rate is shocking to me, but as a teacher I am even more bewildered particularly because my students come from low-income communities. According to this statistic, out of the approximate 124 students that I teach, roughly 10 of them are predicted to graduate college by 28. (Yes, I’m a math teacher. And yes, that figure is difficult to swallow every time I read it.)
This is where the importance of the regents comes in. In order for my students to avoid taking remediation courses in most New York City community colleges, they need to get a 80 or higher on the math regents. If they don’t reach a 80, they know that upon enrolling in college, they will have to take remediation courses for Algebra in addition to earning credits from taking actual college courses. I can’t imagine the extra pressure both academically and financially that taking these remediation courses can have on a student. It’s no wonder that faced with challenges like these, students who have not performed well on their state tests fail to finish college and attain their bachelor’s degree. So, while my students may see themselves as only taking one high school mathematics regents exam in a few days, in my mind, they are actually fighting against a sobering statistic that has doomed them to fail in their college life. I am fortunate to be one of five teachers in a classroom working in small groups every day to try to meet my students’ needs at their individual academic levels so that they can beat the odds. Hopefully, with the increased support that we have given our students to be prepared for the regents this year, come this Thursday June 14th, they will be well equipped to combat and change the trend that has historically relegated them to a position of failure. My fingers are crossed alongside my students.