Cover Story

Read Hilary's Journal


Brooke Whiteley '02, an English major, was paired with English teacher Emily Kornheiser at Murry Bergtraum High School, a business-focused, racially diverse magnet school enrolling 2,700 students from all parts of the city. With Kornheiser's help, Whiteley spent three weeks finding out "what it is like to be on the other side of the desk."

January 3
Today was my first day in the classroom. Getting to the school this time went better than last night, when Lesley [Kruter '03] and I nearly ended up at Ground Zero by accident when we took a trial run on the train.

The environment and demographics of the school were different from what I had expected, and certainly different from my own high school, Westover School, an all-girls boarding and day school in Middlebury, Connecticut, which serves fewer than 200 American and international students. Just getting to Bergtraum was different-every day anxiously taking the A train from Columbus Circle to Police Plaza and showing my visitor's pass to practically everyone I ran into versus driving myself across town and walking into school unnoticed and unchallenged. The absence of metal detectors at Bergtraum's front door surprised me, as I naively thought every school in New York would have them, yet I'm sure the number of security guards serves to protect the school better than any detector would.

January 7
Today we met the principal. We ended up waiting 45 minutes for our meeting, which was largely frustrating and disappointing. The principal even cut our meeting short because of an emergency situation that came up in the school. Lesley and I looked at each other on the way out and shrugged our shoulders; even though we felt shafted, the principal's responsibility of managing a high school population larger than Smith's certainly superseded her hearing about how our days were going.

January 8
Today was the first day I got to work actively with the students. Emily had planned on having them work together in groups, something they evidently do less often than independent work. Getting them to realize the importance of shared learning was difficult, but by the time last period arrived she and I were able to guide the lesson so that the students enjoyed and gained information from working together. The students' excellent oral skills and creativity impressed me. Some of the things they had to say, concepts I had never even thought of, would be valuable in a Smith classroom. The shame, though, was that too many of the students had difficulty writing their great ideas; their spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes and organizational problems hid the greatness of their ideas. These basic tasks, knowing how to write correctly and cohesively, should have been taught and learned years ago.

Need to consider: How does student-to-student interaction affect individual learning? How is learning a building process of compiled knowledge?

January 9
I've realized that not only can I learn on this fellowship such skills as how to teach and lead a classroom, but I can also learn how not to manage a classroom. In addition to training and experience, a good teacher must also have sensitivity and respect in order to work well with students as well as colleagues. I see that in Emily; she honestly cares about her students and directly encourages them to succeed, which I think helps her form a good working relationship with them.

January 10
This afternoon, Emily asked me to administer the students' practice test for the Regents Exams. I was extremely nervous during first period and could barely budge from where I was leaning on the desk, for fear my legs would wobble or my hands would start to shake uncontrollably. Thankfully, after first period everything went much more smoothly. I even ended up joking with some of the students during eighth period-and the feeling I got hearing them laugh was indescribable.
I was so proud of myself for keeping my cool, as well as showing them that I like being with them.

Observation: Notice the good times more often.

January 11
I can't believe I made it through my first week. Even though I'm only at school from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the stress of each day takes its toll. Emily has an even longer day considering she comes in at 8 a.m. and stays until her work is finished, doing everything from meeting with students to making new lesson plans. The unpredictability of each day must add all sorts of stress as well.

January 14
Today was my first day of teaching! The grammar lesson actually went very well. I had developed the lesson plan with Emily last week, so I felt well prepared. My first class, third period, was really great. They weren't exactly very vocal and animated but at least they responded when I asked questions, and they didn't have attitudes, which was something I was afraid might happen. My worrying on the train ride into school about the possibility of "dead air" in the classroom today now made me feel foolish.

The worst part of the day was sixth period, right after lunch. I had a difficult time keeping the entire class interested in the material, most obviously when a group of students started teasing each other and the girls who sat nearby. I feel that that is going to be my biggest challenge: coming up with exciting yet relevant teaching techniques to keep students interested in what they're learning. I definitely had a small glimmer of hope at the end of the class, though, when the group of mischievous students came up and apologized, even adding that they thought I would be "a good teacher." It almost made their misbehavior inconsequential. Almost!

January 16
While most of my classes are Junior Year English, I have also been assisting in Emily's Yearbook class. This class, I realize, is when I get to really connect with the students.

Most of the class time is spent figuring out what needs to be done next in order to meet the publishing company's deadlines, and since the students are so far ahead, I am able to more or less chat with them about what's up in their lives.

Emily and I think these students are a riot. Kristen is definitely the student who makes me laugh the hardest with her silly and lighthearted stories that usually make the rest of the students roll their eyes.

I've also noticed that Kristen always wears nice clothing, largely because of her after-school job as a legal secretary. In fact, most of the students here wear formal or business clothing because they have to go straight from school to work.
I wonder how they balance it all.

January 17
Before I started this fellowship, I think I assumed that the students I'd encounter liked living in New York because they didn't have much experience of what it would be like to live anywhere else. Now I know better. There has been a ton of discussion about how nice it must be to live in Connecticut, how nice it would be to walk down a street and not see homeless people or to sleep without hearing constant noise.
Still, the pride that the students have in New York City I think outweighs their interest in other places to live. Practically none of them plan on leaving the city for college, and regardless of how positive or negative I think that may be, it shows something about their inner spirit. Even after the World Trade Center collapse, their pride in New York and their belief in their security have not faltered. The students in class on the top floor of Bergtraum on September 11 even witnessed the attacks, as Bergtraum is only a few blocks away from the Financial District. The teachers ushering out some two thousand students and pretending to be calm when they themselves were confused, scared and shocked is a situation I know they hope they'll never have to experience again.

January 18
Today is my last day of student teaching. I'll be coming in next week, but only to grade the Regents Exams.

In Yearbook, when Maria and Kristen realized that it was my last day with them, they first jokingly said that I should have thrown them a party, but then they decided that they should be the ones to give me something. After that, Kristen gave me a Hershey's kiss and Maria gave me the ticket stub from a movie she had seen last week. They are too funny and too sweet. I'm going to miss their great spirit.

In general, I am going to miss every student, as well as Emily and the program itself. I doubt I'll ever have another experience like this. I've gained great respect for the students. Just their finding enough energy to make the long commute to school-let alone concentrating and being successful in class or working an after-school job and taking part in their family lives-makes their presence here truly honorable. I have a lot to learn from them.


After graduating from Smith and getting her master's in special education from New York University, Brooke Whiteley hopes to teach in the public schools of New York City-an endeavor she now realizes will bear little resemblance to her classroom experiences in suburban Connecticut and Northampton.



NewsSmith is published by the Smith College Office of College Relations for alumnae, staff, students and friends.
Copyright © 2002, Smith College. Portions of this publication may be reproduced with the permission of the Office
of College Relations, Garrison Hall, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts 01063. Last update: 5/20/2002.

Made with Macintosh