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Toni Bruno

Toni Bruno

pict0004toni-rally1.JPGFriday was a day of action for student MetroCards! At noon, an estimated 600 students walked out of school for a rally organized by the Urban Youth Collaborative, and were joined by public officials, Transportation Workers Union members, and other adults. And at 4:30 about 100 students and TWU workers marched over the Brooklyn Bridge with a string of 3,000 expired student MetroCards that were given by students to the NYC Student Union to show support for the cause.

I am pleased and proud to be leaving Insideschools.org with this news. That's right... leaving... it is that happy and sad time for me. As I prepare to graduate and lose my identity as a public high school student, it is incredibly warming to know that I am leaving our city in the hands of such passionate students.

When I started my work with the NYC Student Union it was hard to not be overwhelmed by the apathy in the city, and the lack of effort by education activists to include youth in their work. I found myself at education policy meetings where I was the only student, despite the fact that students would be the ones most affected by the issue at hand. And now... well, sometimes I'm still frustrated by the apathy of my fellow students, but I feel hopeful.

I've been so inspired by the other members of the NYC Student Union, and by students all around the city doing incredible things, and I've learned far more from my work on education reform than anything I've been told in a classroom. I'd like to leave with a couple of the most important things I've learned from my time as a student in this city.

1) I've learned, to take from Urban Word NYC's mission, that students can and must speak for themselves. Those who have the power to make decisions should ask for and listen to our opinions. And those who are fighting for us-- such as adult-run education reform groups -- should fight with us. Groups like the Student Union also cannot presume to speak for everyone. Rather, we are accountable to all our fellow students and their desires. Our MetroCard campaign has been one of our most action-filled because others in the city were with us and it wasn't simply an issue that Student Union members felt was important.

2) I've learned much more from the Student Union than from any of my teachers, and this has taught me the importance of spending time on activities other than school. I would like to leave everyone with the idea that there is much to be gained from studying less sometimes and exploring all the exciting and enriching things that teenagers in NYC can do. With the excessive focus that many families seem to have on "getting in" (and you know what I mean), I fear this is something many people have lost sight of.

3) I've learned that everything you do truly does count, and that it is important to speak up even when it seems like no one is listening. A couple of weeks ago I was at a tiny protest against cuts to youth service programs like The Door and LGBT centers. There were about ten of us standing in the rain shouting with no media of any kind, and I was feeling a bit disheartened. In the middle of it, a group of elementary school kids walked by with their teacher. She stopped and had us explain to the students what we were doing. At the end she said: "See kids? This is what democracy looks like." I realized that what we were doing was important, whether or not anyone in power was listening.

And on that note, I hope to leave having inspired some younger students. I hope that some freshmen saw me running around my school collecting MetroCards, or that some kids saw us marching across the bridge, and will someday take up the fight themselves. After all, come next week, the fight is no longer truly mine.

It's been a long battle for student MetroCards. We've been rallying and writing and signing and speaking all year long. We've even had some success: the MTA's vote, which was supposed to be held in March, was postponed to June in response to the fight that our city put up! And now the final vote is almost here.

Please join the students of your city, one last time, in telling Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Patterson and MTA Chairman Walder that it's time to stop passing the buck and take responsibility for our futures. On Friday, June 11 we will be marching over the Brooklyn Bridge with this message and we hope you will march with us.  Please join us at 4:30 pm in Cadman Plaza Park. For more information, check out the NYC Student Union's website or the Facebook event page.

This is it -- the last hoorah for one of the most important issues that New York City students have faced in years. Pull out the posters, dig up your sneakers, and march for our* right to a free public education!

Also, check out our flyer. Print it. Post it.  Spread the word.

*This event is by no means limited to students. We encourage anyone and everyone to walk with us.

Two weeks ago my friends and I sent in our deposits to the colleges of our choice and put an abrupt end to the lengthy "college process." But for many parents and students reading this blog, the Fiske books are just coming out.

The role of parents in the college process is delicate. Many of my friends complained that their parents were overbearing and pushed them too hard with their applications. Others were grateful for the work their parents did for them, noting that a lot of kids don't go to college because their parents are not informed.

So how do you support your kid without stressing him or her out? Here are some suggestions from grateful,  graduating, college-bound seniors.

Research: Many students were thankful for the research their parents did, research that saved them a lot of time and angst. One senior said, "My mom spent a lot of time reading and researching colleges so she had information to help me narrow down my focus right off the bat. Based on what she found out, I was left with a smaller number of schools to look at rather than feeling really overwhelmed by the number of options."

Organize: Students reaped the benefits of their parents' organizational skills. "My mom kept track of all the deadlines and dates, she set up meetings and visits for me, helped me figure out what tests to take and basically just kept me on top of everything," one student said. "It was good 'cause I usually push things off until the end and then get incredibly stressed out."

Finances: Several students expressed gratitude for their parents handling issues like financial aid which they had no idea how to address.

Decisions: In the end, students want to go somewhere of their own choosing.  "Although my mom gave me a lot of information and probably had a lot of influence of my decision she also gave me a lot of room and really allowed me to make the decision on my own," one student said.

What not to do: Stress! Many of the students who appreciated their parents' help also complained that they were stressed out during the whole process and that their parents only made it worse. In one senior's words: "I put a lot of pressure on myself during the application period and while writing my essay. I wish my parents would have helped me relax and not indulge so much in my anxieties."

When to shut up: Another echoed this sentiment, "My mom was very organized but she was organized in her way and couldn't understand that I don't organize in the same way. So when she would get stressed, she would think I should be stressed too. No matter how much stress they were under, they didn't realize that I was under more and didn't want to think about college all the time. They though it was perfectly legitimate to talk about it at home anytime they wanted, they didn't realize that I was constantly talking about it in school, and with my friends. They didn't realize how bombarded I was by college conversation."

No one wants to be the parent who send their kid storming out of the house just because they don't want to hear the word "college" one more time. And, of course, no one wants to have the kid who could have gone to college but didn't because he had no one helping him at home. It's a balance that's hard to find, but one that is essential. Stay informed, stay relaxed, and, most importantly, listen to your kid.

Anyone else out there have to tips to share for today's high school sophomores and juniors just entering "the process"? Please comment below.

Last week, Allison in her “Principal’s Perspective” column asked what should be included in a teacher evaluation system.  My vote is to include students' evaluations of  their teachers. Especially on the high school level, the students who are in the classroom every day with their teacher are some of the best judges of his or her performance.

I decided to ask my fellow LaGuardia students what they thought made a great teacher. Their answers fell into three main categories.

Passionate

Great teachers are energized and enthusiastic about their jobs. As one student put it, “I want a teacher who obviously loves what they do and wants to be there.” One of my favorite teachers in middle school was my seventh grade biology teacher because she seemed so genuinely fascinated by everything she was teaching us. She loved hearing our questions, and had answers that went way beyond the textbook. When someone was confused, she spent as much time as they needed drawing diagrams and making analogies, and seemed grateful for the chance to teach more. That was the only year I enjoyed science class, and I’m sure it was because of the passion Ms. Ray brought to the classroom.

Engaging

Great teachers are varying in their lessons and spontaneous. One student told me, “I like when they don’t just have a class work/homework routine that never changes. Teachers should have different activities that are fun and keep you interested.” Yes, it’s true: high school students can love learning if you make it interesting. My eighth grade history teacher used to introduce each unit with a question. My favorite was our immigration unit, which was taught through the angle “has the Statue of Liberty lived up to her promise?” Just this little twist, and the way he applied it to everything we were learning, made otherwise mundane lessons into causes for thought and debate. Four years later, most of what I know of U.S. history I learned from him. I also remember my eighth grade Spanish teacher who used to bring in her favorite Spanish songs to teach us specific verb tenses. We would get worksheets with the verbs left out and we would have to fill them in as we listened, noting what tense they were in. At the end of the year, she burned me a C.D. with all the songs,  I still  listen to them constantly. Every once in a while when I use a Spanish phrase during conversation I’ll realize that I know it from one of the songs.

Interested and invested in individual students and their success

About half of the students I surveyed usedthe words “cares” or “listens” or “connects.” With increasingly overcrowded classrooms, high school can be incredibly impersonal. Some of my teachers last semester didn’t learn my name until November. Teachers rarely take the time to understand how you learn, or how they can teach you as an individual. Earlier this year one of my former Spanish teachers passed away and several of her old students spoke at the memorial. One girl told a story about a time when she was having a bad day and couldn’t participate or answer questions correctly in Spanish class. Instead of getting mad, this teacher took her out into the hall after class and asked her what was wrong. This memory had meant so much to the student that she remembered it for years and came to share it at the memorial service. Students also say that they can tell when a teacher really wants them to do well, as opposed to teachers who seem to "want them to fail."

Clearly, students have a lot of thoughts on what makes a good teacher, and a lot of experience to back it up. As our city continues to grapple with evaluation and accountability, let’s not forget to ask the kidswho sit in the classroom every day.

City Council Member Letitia James has just come out with a simple proposal: money for schools, not for wars.

On Tuesday night, Brooklyn For Peace held a forum at Brooklyn Technical High School to bring together groups working on peace/anti-military issues with those working on domestic budget issues to realize the connections between their causes.

The first speaker, Council Member James of Brooklyn, will be introducing a bill to the City Council this week which calls for the U.S. Congress to cut military spending to help pay for domestic needs, including education. In her words, "The United States today is spending more on defense than all discretionary spending combined... If we do not get military spending under control, we will not be able to respond to important economic issues." She urges New Yorkers to join her THIS THURSDAY, April 15th, at 12 pm on the steps of City Hall for a press conference on this new resolution.

Two representatives from the world of education reform, Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters and Rebecca Morofsky of the NYC Student Union also spoke, emphasizing the financial crisis affecting our schools. Leonie criticized Race to the Top and the eligibility requirements for states, including the elimination of charter school caps and and the linking of student achievement with teacher pay. Rebecca, a junior at Brooklyn Tech, spoke about the threat to student metrocards and the work that the NYC Student Union, among other groups, is doing to prevent it.

While Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Patterson undoubtedly deserve the blame they've gotten for recent budget cuts, this week's forum reminded me that the federal government deserves some too. We spend 42% of the entire world's military spending, and close to 60% of our discretionary budget goes to the military. Four percent of it goes to education.

Better than blaming, let's all come out to fight for something new. Support Council Member James on the steps of City Hall at noon today (Thursday) as she discusses her resolution and the crucial connection between military spending and money for our communities and schools.

As the old bumper sticker goes, "It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to build a bomber." (Do you think we should let them sell homemade goods?)

mta-hearing.jpgThe fight goes on. The MTA has decided to postpone its vote on the issue of student MetroCards, saving the final decision until June. During these next few months it is more important than ever that we make our voices heard and keep the pressure on!

A few weeks ago, students from the Urban Youth Collaborative met with MTA Chairman Jay H.Walder on the issue of student MetroCards, and brought with them 5,000 petitions against the proposal.

Previously, members of the NYC Student Union testified at the MTA public hearings, bringing with them approximately 2500 student MetroCards covered in messages of protest from their fellow students.

The City Council delivered 40,000 petitions to the MTA this week with the message “Don’t cut our services.”

And, half of the folks who voted in last week's Insideschools.org poll said they were "fighting mad" and would raise their voices to keep student MetroCards free.

From pupils to politicians, the heat has been on. Now’s your chance to join us in making your voice heard, if you haven't already.  Here's how:

  1. Stay tuned to the facebook page for upcoming protests and actions.
  2. Sign Scott Stringer’s petition.
  3. Sign the City Council’s petition.
  4. Sign the Working Families Party petition.

The NYC Student Union is planning another major action in the next few weeks. Stay tuned to our website and Insideschools.org for upcoming details. Let's keep up the fight!

mta-hearing-4.jpg

When I sat down to write this post and found myself instead opening Facebook chat, gazing out the window, and experiencing a general lack of focus, I decided that "senioritis" was the most honest thing for me to write about. It seems that I am not the only one with senioritis on my mind -- in Insideschools blogger Judy Baum's last post, she responded to a parent concerned about her son dropping out as a senior.

I empathize with the student in question. As one senior friend of mine put it, "You’ve been doing the same thing for 12 years, you’re looking at these new exciting places to go and things to learn, and then you’re told that you should go and do more of the same thing. You can’t help but say ‘screw that.’” But, as Judy said, dropping out in senior year is still dropping out. And if kids are threatening to drop out just three months before graduation, something needs to change.

I changed my Facebook status to the following question: “I’m writing a post on an education blog about senioritis, can you take a second to answer this: how is senioritis affecting you? And can you think of a better way to do senior year?”

Though it was close to midnight, I got about 15 responses in the next few minutes. Many of them were something like: “Well I have a ten page paper due tomorrow and I’m on Facebook. Does that answer your question?” Many students voiced complaints such as "I have no motivation. I have a hard time getting myself to school, and if I do get myself there, it is past 10:00 a.m.” Students had a lot of ideas for alternatives, including internships, senior projects, and community service. And students are not the only ones thinking about trying something new.

In February (around the time when college applications were done and I began to lose motivation to work and spend more time lying on my floor feeling restless and purposeless), Utah State Senator Chris Buttars suggested that the state eliminate the twelfth grade as a money saving strategy. He later backtracked, suggesting instead that senior year become optional."

The bottom line is saving taxpayer dollars while improving options for students," said state Sen. Howard A. Stephenson, a Republican and co-chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "The more options we give to students to accelerate, the more beneficial it is to students and taxpayers."

A recent NY Times Magazine Article reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is funding a project to help students go to community college after tenth grade. The idea is to allow students to move on when they’re ready rather than when they’re told they’re supposed to. Nine states have already adopted programs to start students in college after sophomore year. More than thirty years ago, my dad took advantage of a similar program that Queens college had for students to start classes after eleventh grade. He says, "my senioritis was so bad, I went to college!"

At the Institute for Collaborative Studies (ICE) in Manhattan, second semester seniors have internships four days a week and come in to school one day. They can choose an internship that suits their interests, so that they have a daily, real-world activity that keeps them engaged and challenged. As an added bonus, they gain experiences in a potential future work field that can help prepare them for college – and improve their resumes. Seniors there love this, and have internships in a wide range of places.

What do you think? Is there a better way to do senior year? Can we turn six months of restless partying and frustration into a productive, meaningful time for students?

As continuing budget shortages force schools across the city to cut music programs, PS 55 in Queens is about to get a new one. Last spring, LaGuardia High School senior instrumental major David Charles was taking his sister to school at PS 55, when he realized that there was no music program at the school.

He went inside, found the principal, and offered to start one. In his words, "[The principal] warned me that it would require a lot of work and planning, but I told him I was ready for it. We exchanged contact information and I made the first lesson plan and showed it to him. We went over ....[the] cost... the schools budget...who would be interested. Then we handed out letters to the parents explaining what this was going to be about. Parents seemed really interested in the idea....

"Our purpose was to bring diversity to the school and promote musical understanding.... The school found a place (Laconia Music) to buy used instruments for very cheap... I’m going to have to come in before I go to school or after school. I have free periods in the morning and can move some things around."

Wow.

We spend a lot of time complaining about budget cuts and the lack of arts (among a million other things), in our school, but rather than complaining David decided to take the initiative and simply start a program himself.

He says, "Aside from the value of learning music for music's own sake, music has other benefits. Music teaches discipline, and they [students] can apply that to different subjects. It gives them confidence, and something they can show off. A lot of students have different ways of learning, and get depressed and discouraged because they don't learn well in the classroom. Music can be something they feel they're good at and will encourage them. It also gives them an extracurricular activity... keeps them out of trouble and doing something that will enrich their own life as well as others. "

His advice: "If you want music in your school, as parents, you can't ask. You must demand it. Music should be recognized as a subject as well as an art form, because it has the same benefits. If you're good at math, or English, you have a potential profession. Same as music. Talk to the principal, get something together, you have to be proactive. And sometimes you have to do it yourself."

Obviously we can't all march into our kids' -  or siblings' -- schools and start music programs. We're not all musicians, to start with. And parents have jobs, students have school. But we can all learn a little from David about taking the initiative to improve our city, one music program at a time.

As I sat furiously answering emails from high school students around the city last night, on the phone with a student from Queens I’d never met, and trying to keep up with constant facebook notifications from strangers, I told my mother I thought the MTA’s proposal to cut student MetroCards was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t really mean it, of course, but it is clear to anyone working on this issue that the students of this city are uniting and mobilizing to make their voices heard.

There have been student organized rallies and protests, petition drives and press conferences. And the next phase begins this week: a MetroCard drive, organized by the NYC Student Union.

At the end of this week, first semester student MetroCards will expire. Student representatives from schools around the city will be collecting their classmate’s MetroCards, asking them to write a brief message on their card before handing it in. The message should be about how the MetroCard cut will affect them, or anything they want to say about the MTA’s plan.

In the first week of March, the MTA will hold its public hearing’s on the proposed service cuts. (They have not put up the official announcement yet, but keep checking the website to register). Student Union members will be testifying at as many hearings as possible, and will be bringing thousands of MetroCards as testimony. We will read a few of the messages, then leave the rest as written testimony and as a symbol of the thousands of students who are united behind the need for free transportation to school.

The first step, of course, was to create a facebook group called “NYC STUDENTS! DON’T THROW AWAY YOUR EXPIRED METROCARDS.” The response was tremendous. A few hours after creating the group we had thousands of members. Then the emails started coming, from students wanting to help collect MetroCards. I created a spreadsheet with all the information.

So, amid my anger about these looming cuts and my exhaustion from being up all night organizing, I feel a new kind of hope and energy from seeing my fellow students coming together to take action.

Tell yourself, your kids, and your students: don’t throw away your first semester MetroCard Friday after it expires! And if you’re interested in helping collect metrocards from your school, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

CAUTION: Do not let this post convince you that enough is being done around this issue. Get involved!

"Don’t think. If you think, you will fail." That's not a Zen master speaking, but my government teacher. "I’ve seen plenty of students go wrong because they were creative, intelligent people and they thought about the questions. Don’t do it. Copy exactly what’s in the box. Word for word.”

Her lips twitched into a smile, but she wasn’t joking. She was referring to the Document Based Questions section of the U.S. History and Government Regents exam, a test that will be the culmination of my last three semesters and has turned my government class into test prep for the past three weeks.

The sad part? She’s right. And the really sad part? Because she’s right, instead of teaching us how to analyze and understand government, our last 15-plus classes have been spent learning to copy from the box. I don’t blame my teacher at all, her job is to help us do well on the Regents exams and she’s giving us the best advice she can.

Still, isn’t it weird that after more than 12 years of school, the big expectation is that I can copy words of text onto an answer sheet?

Well, I’ll do it. I want a good grade like the next guy, so I’ll turn my brain off when I sit for the Regents next week. I hope that after graduating high school I’ll be able to think again.

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