Student teachers bring diversity to Hudson Intermediate School

HUDSON — “They’re here. The teachers are here,” said MC Smith third graders who had been waiting expectantly for a group of student teachers to arrive. On December 9, MC Smith’s 3rd and 6th graders got to meet five student teachers who traveled from SUNY Plattsburgh to work with selected groups at the Intermediate School on a photography and writing project. They will return for a repeat visit in January.

At a reception to welcome the visiting educators, Hudson City School District Superintendent Jack Howe spoke about his own memories of student teaching. “I still have my own lesson plans. It was that special to me,” he said.

The visit represents an expansion in a relationship with SUNY Plattsburgh’s education program, part of the School of Education, Health and Human Services that began last spring when SUNY education professor Dr. Jean Ann Hunt conducted a series of workshops on how to teach writing for teachers at M. C. Smith. Last week the school’s associate dean, Dr. David Stone, Dr. Hunt’s spouse and colleague, accompanied Dr. Hunt and six of her students to Hudson.

“This partnership will encompass all the people in this room,” said Dr. Stone. “We’re pleased to be here.

Lisa Dolan the school district’s literacy coach initially brought Dr. Hunt to Hudson and through her, initiated the relationship with SUNY Plattsburgh.

Ellen Henderson and Alan Skerritt, prominent members of Hudson’s African American community, were on hand to celebrate the arrival of the student teachers because three of the five are African Americans, whose presence promised to bring diversity to the Hudson district, where the diverse student body is not reflected in the makeup of the faculty.

Dr. Stone said that although he and Dr. Hunt had worked in inner city schools in Chicago, they had never encountered the kind of diversity they found in Hudson. “I’m impressed with the people I’ve met. Roots in the community run deep,” he said, adding that the new relationship with Hudson was part of his school’s intention to keep growing in spite of the challenging economy.

Helen Dawson from Manchester, England, and Rhona Stopffel from a town near Frankfurt, Germany visited 3rd grade classrooms together to talk with students about their cultures. “We told them about our homes and they told us about Hudson,” said Ms. Dawson.

“We brainstormed about pets, their neighborhoods, the woods, dead-end streets, food and where they hang out. It showed that they are going to take the project seriously,” said Kwesi Burgess of the photo project he helped present to 6th graders. He will student teach in Niskayuna near Albany next semester, but plans to return to Hudson in January to work with M.C. Smith students first.

“I found the faculty and students welcoming,” he said. I saw that the students are looking for people to listen to them. Some students described reading, writing and dancing as their interests. There are things in the school that make them happy.”

When he was a grade school student he remembered a health project and math as inspiring subjects that led to his decision to become a teacher. Work with summer youth programs and at camps deepened his interest, and a year-long teaching assignment during his senior year in high school finally got him hooked. He said he was specifically interested in working with students with difficulties, those with “no opportunities to grow because they are difficult, in danger of being forgotten.” He praised the SUNY Plattsburgh education program for its emphasis on field work.

Asked about diversity, Mr. Burgess said, “A white student looks at a white teacher and seems himself. A lot of my teachers embodied diversity.”

When asked about the school district’s low test scores in certain groups, Dr. Stone called it “a time gap, not an achievement gap.” African Americans have been in this country for 600 years but have only been educated for 150 years, he said.

“What do educators do that doesn’t contribute to kids engaging in their education? That’s what we have to figure out,” he said.

“Standard testing is a small part of education. School is so much more than a test score,” said Dr. Hunt. “It’s complicated,” she said, but she believes that it is “worth trying to figure out the complexities.”

“Race, poverty and gender are part of it,” said Dr. Stone. “Teachers need to understand how that works in education. It’s a multi-variable issue. We have in common the shared value of the welfare and education of our children. What pulls us together has to be greater than what pulls us apart.”

The program can benefit students, said Dr. Hunt, because “if you have a teacher who looks like you and talks like you, you don’t have to code search…. There is no teacher of color in this school. The three [African American] student teachers look a lot like a lot of students here.”

The photography project that Dr. Hunt’s students introduced is based on a seminal project begun in 1998 in Zimbabwe by the American photographer Jill Mott, who gave disposable cameras to children and instructed them in how to photograph their world. The activity empowers children and launches an exploration and sharing of what is important to each student.

“Whatever in your life is important, that’s what you want to take a photo of,” said Dr. Hunt, who was drawn to the idea of a photo project when working in Chicago. “I felt a disconnect between my life and the children’s lives. They lived in the projects. I needed to know who they are.” The photographs enabled the children to begin to talk about their worlds she said.

“We’ll come back in January to work on the literature part of the project,” said student teacher Genesys Nunez, who grew up in Queens and the Bronx.

Students have received their cameras and will take pictures during Christmas break, she said.

She had brought a flag from the Dominican Republic and her graduation tassels from junior high and high school to show to students and to talk about what is important to her personally.

Ms. Nunez praised Dr. Hunt, calling her “a great teacher. She challenges you to be the best teacher you can be. She’s a mentor I cherish.”

Shelivia Ocasio, also from the Bronx, is looking forward to a student teaching assignment in Harlem next spring. Ms. Ocasio said that diversity in teachers is important and that she understands the need for more African American teachers as role models. She remembered a favorite 5th grade teacher, who convinced her that education was important. The teacher was Italian American.

When asked about the importance of identification with a teacher of the same race, Mr. Burgess said he was the kind of student who would have been described as “at risk,” but two teachers took special interest in him and made him want to go on to college. Both were white.

Mr. Burgess, who is from Albany, said he didn’t know much about Hudson but came because of Dr. Hunt. “I was lost in Plattsburgh, but she pushed me to do great things. She is why I am here today. She told me about the project and I wanted to be part of it, to help pave the way for a partnership between Plattsburgh and here.”

“Not having teachers of the same race doesn’t mean kids won’t be able to achieve,” said Dr. Hunt. In Mr. Burgess’ case, she said,  “Teachers saw the potential in him. It’s important that a teacher sees a child as full of potential rather than full of deficit. When you teach from a deficient model, you lower your expectations.’

The photo project and the student teachers was funded by a Humanities Grant from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation.

The student teachers said they enjoyed their contact with Hudson and were enthusiastic about returning in January and after. “This is definitely a place I wouldn’t mind teaching in,” said Ms. Ocasio.

“It was a delight to watch these teachers at work,” said Dr. Hunt.

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