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Students and the Power to Change

(Alternative High School)

by Jane Califf

When I began teaching at an alternative high school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, I felt confident.  Afterall, I had been teaching for many years—elementary school for 11 years and adult literacy classes for 13 years.  I had a lot of experience to draw upon which would help me resolve conflicts and overcome obstacles.  My 20 students, ranging in ages from 17 to 21 were reading at about the 4th or 5th grade level, and I would be with my class for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, teaching many subjects.  I was sure to find something to interest almost everyone, since teachers were given the freedom to choose whatever curriculum they thought would be the most successful with their particular classes.


(The mission of our school is to raise students’ reading levels, so that they might one day be able to return to a regular high school or attend classes to prepare for the GED test.)


My confidence was shaken in the first few weeks and months as I observed behavior and attitudes I had not expected.  Not only were individual students immature and disruptive, but there was also a pervasive alienation in the room, a generalized negativity and low self-esteem among most of the students, greater than I had ever seen in my years teaching younger children or adults. (In discussions I had with colleagues, reasons for this included institutional racism, academic failure, lack of job opportunities, negative effects of massive TV viewing, lack of supervision—many of their parents worked long hours outside the home at low-wage jobs like home attendant—and communities in which drug dealing and gun violence are facts of everyday life.)


Added to all of this were students who tried, but weren’t progressing significantly, the fact that many students were from Caribbean countries with accents and dialects I was unaccustomed to, and the potentially serious drawback of my being white, while all the students were people of color.


Despite such formidable challenges, I set to work to turn things around.  It was a step-by-step and arduous process, which was often depressing and seemingly hopeless.  I frequently called upon my colleagues and administration for advice and recommendations of teaching materials which they freely gave and for which I was very grateful.  I listened carefully to my students, and I wracked my brain for ways to be more effective in my work, for I believe that young people are basically good at their core and deserve the best educators can offer.


This is an account of my journey and the journey of my students.


The first order of business was to set up rules which would govern behavior.  To this end, I broke up the class into small groups, which had to come up with at least two rules.  One group had contributed “No war,” which I noted sounded rather negative.  An addition was suggested- “Peace.”  They had said “Listen to the teacher,” and I added “Listen to each other.” I explained that all of them had important things to say, that we could learn from each other, and that I was not the only source of knowledge in the room.


These rules were put on a permanent chart in a prominent place in our room.  When rules were broken, I would point to the chart stating something like “You are breaking class rule #5,” which help return the offending person or persons to task.


I set high standards for behavior and expected them to live up to them.  I gave periodic talks on why absolutely no put-downs were allowed—not just curses, as they had already suggested — but comments like “You’re stupid, crazy or ignorant.”  I emphasized over and over that no one in the class was stupid, that it was a sign of intelligence to be in school and to want to improve your skills.  We brainstormed how to disagree and not hurt someone’s feelings.


I used psychology to explain why it is that people unfairly ridicule others: these are individuals who feel badly about themselves and this is a way to enhance their own egos — all at the expense and unhappiness of others.


In my own behavior, I rarely raised my voice and never disparaged anyone in front of the class no matter how provoked I was.  I was extremely polite, and this I came to believe was an essential ingredient in my eventual success.  I modeled high quality behavior every day, hard as it sometimes was.  I knew how wounded many of my students already were; I knew they needed encouragement, not scorn, regardless of how badly behaved they were or how poorly they did academically.


I always demanded respect, because I respected them as human beings, although not certain of their behaviors.  I would never speak to the class as a whole unless everyone was quiet.  I would, if necessary, sit down and wait until students came to my aid and hushed their classmates.


I also made clear my belief that their low skill levels were not necessarily their fault. We discussed what it could be due to: overcrowded classes, poor teachers, inadequate books, lack of support at home. Whatever the cause, I was insistent that they could, with systematic effort, improve. Through my words and actions, they could see that I had faith in them. In my adult literacy classes, I had always begun the year with students introducing themselves. I tried this as a part of a tradition that I thought was a way to break the ice, but it was met with hostility by half the class. As one student put it, “We don't want to know who anyone is. Just give us some work to do.”


Undeterred, I decided to have them get acquainted in small groups by working cooperatively on certain assignments. Three to five students would work together, with one acting as the recorder; this person would have to ask the others their names and write them down. The incentive I provided to encourage them to work in groups was that any group member would get two grades—one for how well their group collaborated and the second for quality of the written work. Anyone who worked by themselves would only get one grade.  This was a real stimulus to a number of students, and they found that group work made it easier for them to understand the material and to write about it. (Of course, I had to explain how such groups operate. So as to be fair to all participants, everyone had to read and contribute to the discussion and the final product; no one could ridicule anyone else.)


To enhance my students’ morale, I found a number of articles to read about famous and ordinary people who read poorly, but with determination became good readers.  To create a spirit of group unity and appreciation one for another, I looked for any chance to celebrate a student’s or a group’s achievement.  For example, Alan, an alienated student who spoke to few others, was a poet.  He rarely did any homework or completed class assignments, but one day he wrote the following:



Be strong, live long,

Work hard, be a man.

Stand tall, don’t fall,

This goes to one and all.

Don’t fight, nor cuss,

Walk away, don’t fuss.

Be strong, life’s long.



At the same time he wrote this, I discovered that Douglass, a brooding young man whose face was always covered by an orange hood, was not only a football player but also a poet.  I told him I would like to see his poems.


I kept after him. Weeks went by during which time he sulked and did little work regardless of what I said or did.   Finally, one day he brought in a couple of poems.  I told him I admired their main theme which was the importance of friendship and love.  I wanted to print one along with Alan’s for the class to read.  After some hesitation, Douglass agreed, especially after I pointed out that there were so far only two students in the room who wrote poetry, and that he and Alan could be an encouragement for others to become poets too.


When the day arrived for the class to read his poem, his orange hood had disappeared and he was dressed well.  I saw his full face for the first time.  Alan read his poem, we discussed it and then we read Douglass’:


Someone Special

Here you are the girl of my dreams.

You have my heart and you have my joy.

Here I am thinking and dreaming about you and me.

If I have someone special in my life like you,

I will put all of my love to you and only you.

I want to be that guy to be with you.

And be there for the good times and bad times.


For the first time, Douglass actually had a smile on his face.  I gave out half a piece of notebook paper to each student (a whole page would have been intimidating).  I said, “Alan and Douglass have giving us a gift of poetry today.  Let’s write them each a note of appreciation.” It was a tricky request.  I had no idea whether it would be greeted with resistance or acceptance, but I felt it was worth the risk.  Surprisingly, every single student wrote something positive.  To Douglass, one student wrote, “I really enjoyed your poem. One of these days I would like to have a conversation with you about self-esteem.”


I couldn’t have wished for more. Not one negative note was written.  The two poems struck a chord in every student, and they really were glad to put into writing how they felt.  My community-building efforts, such as this one, were beginning to get somewhere.  I was even able to use Alan’s poem to help him change his behavior.  One day, instead of reading, he had earphones on, dancing alone on the side of the room.  I walked over and looked up at him (he was six-feet tall) and said, “I can’t believe you are doing this after writing such a great poem as “Strive.” “I see what you mean,” he replied, taking off the ear phones and returning to his seat.


Neither Douglass nor Alan became model students.  They continued to bring their personal problems to class, which would distract us from our lessons.  However, the poetry appreciation day helped to draw them a little closer to others and made it more possible to talk to them.


Another factor in building community was my sincere interest in their lives.  I would ask them questions now and then about their afterschool jobs, their families, their goals, music they liked, whatever.  I never pried.  If they didn’t want to talk, it was okay with me, but I would try again another day.


I would occasionally share with them something about myself and my family in trying to encourage them to write poetry about someone they loved, I shared a poem with them that I had written about my mother who had recently passed away.  “That’s very touching,” said Nina.  They were very quiet as I revealed to them how painful it was to lose her.  (This was a subject close to home for a number of them who, in a way, had lost their mothers whom they had left behind when the were brought to this country by their fathers.)


I did not have to give a complicated lesson on poetry.  All I did was have them read a few poems on love and say that “whatever you write, if it’s with deep feeling, it may well come out as a poem; that it didn’t have to be in complete sentences or in rhyme.  As a result, four poems were written, which I later entered in an alternative high school poetry contest.  All were accepted, published in a booklet of poetry which the poets received in a special ceremony at Pace University.  Here is one of them:


To the One I Love

The one I love is very precious to me

And that person is my mom.

She is the joy of my life

She is the joy of my morning

She is the joy of my whole being.

Her tenderness is always there when I needed it

She is a person to appreciate

A person to love and cherish.

There are times when problems come

And I have no one to tell

I can call on my mother

And she is always there for me.

She is like a red rose in a bouquet of flowers.


I xeroxed these poems and others from the high school collection; we read and discussed them and as a result, more students attempted poetry.


I decided to share another important part of my life as a result of hearing many homophobic remarks.  I told my class that one of my brothers was gay.  I described Joe as the wonderful person he is.  I explained that Joe did not choose to be gay.  He had dated women but had finally realized that he was attracted to men.  I brought in photos of a family gathering to show the class that we all accepted and loved him.  One of my students was surprised.  “He looks like a nice guy,” he mused.  After that, discussions about homosexuality were on a more mature level and homophobic comments were reduced.


I was very serious about homework.  I kept careful records of who did and did not complete assignments, and I would keep after those who were negligent.  “I’m so disappointed,” I’d say, “I really expected you to do your homework.”  At the end of the year, one student said to me, “Thanks for forcing me to do my homework.”


In order to encourage all of us to be more patient with each other, I explained early on that unfortunately I was not used to the various Caribbean accents, and therefore, if I asked them to speak more slowly or to repeat themselves, it was because I was still learning.  I encouraged them to feel free to ask me to repeat anything that I said which was not clear.  In this way our communication improved.


Achieving and maintaining a cooperative and respectful learning environment was an ongoing effort the entire year.  It was never smooth sailing, but as new difficulties and even crises arose, they were more easily resolved.


 The need for a Social Justice Curriculum


The steps I have described so far were indispensable in creating a climate of support, a respect for learning and a belief in my students that they can change.  However, they were not enough.  Crucial also to this process was a curriculum on social justice themes.  I do this by exposing students to many sung and unsung heroes and heroines who were principled and who stood up for civil and human rights for all.  I introduced them to activists living today who are carrying on this tradition of protest with lives committed to justice and peace.  I focus not only on individuals, but on organizations and movements that have brought people together to achieve these goals.


I teach in this way because, for me, literacy instruction is more than raising reading levels and teaching basic survival skills, so that students can get a GED, a better job and/or qualify for higher education.  It is also to inspire them by introducing them to others who have struggled to create a more humane world.  I agree with historian Howard Zinn that “emphasizing social and protest movements in the making of history give students a feeling that they as citizens are the most important actors in history.”1


In his book, A People’s History of the United States, Zinn proves this by detailing the impact on our country that ordinary people of all races have had.  This is a very different view of our past than the traditional one which promotes the idea that a relatively few wealthy white males, through their positions of power in government, business and the military, have directed the course of this country’s development.  I believe that Zinn’s view of our past is a way of looking at the world which students can identify with and which can stimulate their interest and enliven our lessons in a way that the traditional view never can.  The latter can leave many feeling powerless and unimportant in the scheme of things.


Learning about how people tackled problems of the past and seeing how resolving them took a long time, despite the systematic and dedicated efforts of many people, can show our students qualities that it takes to make changes in their personal lives as well as in society at large.


This long-term view of resolving problems is not often reflected on television, which is where many of our students see serious issues being resolved quickly, in an hour or two, not months or years.  To many people, but especially to poor readers, this false idea, if internalized, is a guarantee of continued frustration. 


Students who feel hopeless and helpless make our job as teachers much harder.  No matter what we do, we will feel as if we are beating our heads against a wall.  As students discover that individuals and organizations have achieved victories in the past and in the present, and that this took long and hard work, they will be less despairing, and begin to develop some optimism for their own futures and for the future of our world.


When we read about and have discussions of various topics, I participate as a member of the class.  To have no opinion implies no involvement and no need to do anything about the problems around us.  I make it clear that they have the right to disagree with me and one another as long as it is done respectfully.


With this as my philosophy, I worked hard with my students during the year to determine what subjects would interest them.  In October, we studied about the Columbus period from the traditional point of view and from the point of view of the Arawak people who were indigenous to the area.  The class wrote moving essays on the topic “I am an Arawak” expressing deep sadness and indignation at the destruction of their society by the Spanish invaders.  We also studied about the history of Native Americans in the United States down to the present.  Many students identified with their struggle for land and justice, and stereotyped ideas dropped away.  Our concluding activity on Native Americans was to collect some of our best essays. Most students were proud to go to a beginning reading class to read and discuss their work.


I never begin the school term studying about discrimination against African Americans, Caribbean Americans or Latinos, the groups from which my students come.  I start with the culture and strengths of another group such as Native Americans, Asians or women in general.  Then I introduce problems the particular group as a whole has faced, and ways in which its members have worked to be treated equally.  In this way, students come to see issues such as racism and sexism to be pervasive problems in our society that have affected many peoples, not just their own, and that individuals in every ethnic, religious and racial group have struggled individually and collectively to overcome these evils. 


Once students have this perspective, it is much easier to study about their own group’s strengths and problems.


After a brief look at great African kingdoms of the past, we moved on to the study of colonialism and enslavement in the Caribbean.  We read a number of sources, one of which was a book called Sam Sharpe and the Christmas Rebellion, a story of an enslaved man in Jamaica who led a revolt in 1831.  The quietest student in my class (Nina, who never spoke up and was even seen sucking her thumb on her most depressed days) took up the challenge to put herself in Sam Sharpe’s shoes, and to imagine what he said:


We all are going to quit working after Christmas 1831.  We have been in poverty and have been enslaved too long.  No one is helping us to become free men and women.  We have to be strong, have faith and courage to do this on our own.  It may take many lives but it doesn’t matter!  We are all enslaved together!  We will die together!...


Our discussions and readings on justice, and my insistence on mutual respect led to Nina’s speaking up in class and expressing her opinions on many issues.  As the months passed, she stopped sucking her thumb, began to write poetry and was voted the most charismatic student in our class.


Our in-depth study of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement inspired a student who was often unfocused to write the following:


I learned that if you want something you have to work hard for it.  You must not give up.   The most inspiring thing to me was Frederick Douglass never quit.  He fought until Blacks were free.  That inspired me the most.  I would never give up on getting out of high school.  Frederick Douglass’ life has inspired me to want to read more and to learn more about Black history.


We took trips to the African Burial Ground in Manhattan and to the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, a museum of the first free African-American community in Brooklyn.  I invited Brooklyn activists to my class as role models of commitment to improving life in our borough and the larger society.


My class curriculum included international news.  For example, a study of the first free elections in South Africa and the life of Nelson Mandela was incredibly uplifting to my students.  The impact of our study was particularly dramatic on Susan.  Earlier in the year she had leapt onto a boys’ back, run out of the room one day, and spent months daydreaming, but by the spring, she had changed.  She was able to concentrate better on her work, to pay attention and to contribute to class discussions.  She was the only one who had decided to take notes on our trip to the African Burial Ground.  She had learned to write paragraphs that made sense.  Here is part of what she wrote about Nelson Mandela:


“Nelson Mandela makes me feel like a woman who can stand up for my rights anywhere and any place because of who he is.  He is a leader and also a freedom fighter for me and his people…”


I was even able to use what we learned about Mr. Mandela to modify the behavior of Donald (who had threatened to drop a desk on a classmate earlier in the year).  One day a student asked him to bring over a book.  For dramatic effect, Donald threw it across the room.  I looked at him shocked and said, “Would Nelson Mandela have thrown a book?”  “No, Miss,” and he quickly picked it up.


In my classes it is not enough to know.  It is also a question of acting on what you know.  Just as our forebears and contemporary activists have protested inequalities, I encourage my students to carry on in that tradition.


So it was that, when I heard that the Native American Council of New York City had organized a boycott of Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, I gave my class material to read about the causes of this boycott.  They learned that not only was it a defamation of the character of Crazy Horse, a revered Sioux leader, to name a brand of liquor after him, but this liquor was also cheaper and stronger and was contributing to increased drunkenness in poor communities of color.


We decided to write a collective letter to the Hornell Brewing Company, makers of Crazy Horse, with various students contributing to a single text.  It urged Hornell to change the name and informed them that we supported the boycott of Crazy Horse and their other products.


The company eventually wrote back saying in essence that they had the right to call their liquor whatever they wanted.  My class immediately decided that such letter writing was useless.  I then sent their letters to American Indian Community House asking for someone to write my class about the value of such actions.  They soon received the following from Wayne Martin (Mohawk), Director of Communication and Information:


I would like to extend our thanks and deepest appreciation for your support….If we had more non-native people, such as yourselves, showing concern for the abuse of our people and our culture, this sort of discrimination would never be allowed to take place.  It is important to fight for all causes that you believe in.  Even if it seems hopeless at times and that your concerns are falling on deaf ears, you must realize that those who you are fighting for hear your voices quite clearly.  The knowledge that people from all walks of life understand your pain and try to help to end it, can be just as important as overcoming it….Keep up the good work and don’t ever give up!!


My students were moved by this letter and began to feel glad they had decided to support the boycott.  This feeling was reinforced when a student called our attention to a newspaper article announcing that Crazy Horse was being banned in Minnesota and the state of Washington.


Later, when we studied some of the history of New York City in the book, New York City Then and Now, we noticed that the 1987 edition we were using had little information about Native Americans after the “purchase” of Manhattan and almost no information on African Americans.  Painstakingly, over the course of a week, they wrote letters to Steck-Vaughn, the publisher, detailing their criticisms.  We received a long letter in return stating that this situation was redressed in their 1991 edition.  We checked it out and agreed that it was a great improvement, but we still wondered why it had taken so long to correct.  This company also sent us copies of other books to show that they were tying to be multicultural.  I gave each student a copy of his/her letter as well as the response of the company.  No one thought their efforts had been wasted; they were all impressed that Steck-Vaughn took their letters seriously.


I cannot say that my year-long efforts were successful with everyone.  Despite helpful suggestions to me from colleagues, and the dedication of our guidance counselors, some students dropped out; others remained generally depressed, unfocused and put in very little effort.  However, a surprising number showed significant progress and indicated their appreciation for the class in their evaluation for the school year.  Susan wrote:


I have improved my reading skills and other important work….There are so many things you taught me to do and I always said to you I can’t do it.  Eventually, I reached to the end and can do anything that you ask me to.  Once again, I want to thank you for raising me from my face and putting me on my feet.


Alicia wrote:

I’ve improved a lot throughout the school year and I am really proud of myself….Now I know that I can do what I put my mind to do and not play around…everyone was understanding.  When we had something to do of importance, we would always work together and cooperate in getting an assignment done…love was always in the room.


Mary, who had run away from home in February, by June had taken steps to begin to communicate with her mother again.  I believe the support from the class made that possible.  She wrote:


The students in the class was so good to me they all make me feel good about myself and they always help and they never make fun of people.  When we all are reading if somebody don’t know a word they all help you with it.


Kevin, who was shy and often found it difficult to speak in coherent sentences, gained enough confidence by the end of the year to stand in front of a school assembly and read his opinion on why teachers should give homework.


The greatest metamorphosis, however, occurred in Robert who began the year depressed, alienated and disruptive.  When I called in his mother, she said in front of him, “He’s not college material, is he?” I assured her he could go to college one day if he wanted to, but she did not believe me.


I showed faith in Robert every day.  For example, I told him after he only wrote the word “it” on one writing assignment, that the next time he should say to himself “I am intelligent; I can write more than ‘it’,” and it worked.  By May he was able to write an essay in answer to the question, “Why was Paul Robeson called The Tallest Tree in the Forest?” He became so confident as a writer, that one day he helped Susan write her first long essay.


I believe Robert changed because of my curriculum of social change and the fact that I was always on his side.  I praised him for his intelligent questions and helped him find answers.  I cheered every bit of progress he made, but put him in line when he backslid.  I only called his family to report successes, not failures.  When he complained about problems with his parents, I gave him advice.  He began to sit up straighter; he looked more like a serious student.  He even told me toward the end of the term, “I am a role model to my friends who are younger” and went on to report how he counseled them to stay in school.


On the last day of school, on Student Recognition Day, he showed up in a tuxedo! His mother came, too, and took his picture.  I showed her our book of class writing entitled, We Celebrate Ourselves and Others Through Poetry and Prose and pointed out two poems and three essays by her son.  She was incredulous and began to cry.  “He is intelligent,” she said.


That short comment was a highlight of the year for me.  Another highlight was our class discussion of our year together.  I began by saying, “Last fall you gave me a hard time.  It was very difficult to be your teacher in part because we didn’t know each other.  As the year went on, I began to be proud of the way many of you were trying hard to learn and to raise your skill levels, and I was glad to be your teacher.  Some of you could have worked harder, but there’s still time.  You can do better next year.” In response Nina said, “It’s true that we gave you a hard time, but the important thing is you never gave up on us.” “That’s true,” I replied, “Not even for one day,” and the class nodded.


During our school Student Recognition Day ceremony, my class gave me a trophy of a teacher holding a book inscribed with these words: “To Ms. Califf From Class 207 Students With Love June 1994.”  It was presented to me by Alicia who had begun the year with disruptive behavior and poor classwork, but by June had changed into a much more serious student.  In the middle of complimenting me on my efforts to teach her and others, she burst into tears and we embraced.


I believe that my class was able to put “love” on the trophy because they came to realize that although I was white, I surprisingly didn’t fit their stereotype of who I probably was.  I had proven to them that I wasn’t just non-racist, I was an active anti-racist woman.  I was also Jewish and unafraid to confront anti-Semitism.  My words and deeds were one.  They saw that I am a person who always challenges injustices that keep our classrooms and our country from being a true place of equal opportunity.  They were grateful not just for my attitude toward life, but also for my steady belief in them, and this combination had turned their suspicion and hostility into love.


It was obvious that they were feeling badly that they would no longer see each other five days a week. To help them through this transition, with their consent, I distributed a list of all phone numbers, including mine, pointing out that in the fall everyone would be scattered in different places, but that we should keep in touch with one another so as to continue the network of support we had developed during the course of the year.  They liked this idea.


As we hugged each other goodbye, I thought of how we had changed since the troubled days of the previous fall and winter.  Everyone who made it to June was transformed in some positive way or ways.  We all had something to celebrate.  And I, their teacher, exhausted and quite ready for summer vacation, felt inspired and proud.



1Miner, B. (1992, Winter) “An interview with Howard Zinn: Why students should study history,” Rethinking Schools. p. 6.


By Jane Califf, as Published in: Literacy Harvest, The Journal of the Literacy Assistance Center, NY, Vol. 4, #2, Spring 1995


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