NJEA members from across the state converge on Atlantic City on the Thursday and Friday following Election Day. This year, they had something to celebrate: the election of Ambassador Phil Murphy as New Jersey’s next governor.
But the reason members flock to the convention is the same as it is every year: to take advantage of the very best in professional learning and countless opportunities to connect and collaborate with colleagues.
In keeping with the 2017 NJEA Convention’s theme of social justice, education justice, and student success, author, activist and educator Ilyasah Shabazz participated in a discussion with the three NJEA officers about her family’s history of activism and the role educators can play. She also moderated a panel of six students from diverse backgrounds on their suggestions for creating more inclusive, considerate and effective learning environments.
Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, urged the audience to consider that “activism is a way everyone should live their lives.”
Shabazz’s father was murdered when she was a very young child, so she credits her mother with instilling in her and her five sisters a sense of his legacy as well as their own responsibility toward others.
“My mother always said to me, ‘just as one must drink water, one must give back.’”
Shabazz has traveled around the world working on women and girls’ empowerment issues. She said that her mother stressed a strong sense of self-worth in her children, believing that in order to be compassionate toward others, you have to love yourself.
“When we teach our children to hate other people, we’re actually teaching them to hate themselves,” Shabazz said.
Dr. Shabazz ensured that her daughters were surrounded by examples of strong, accomplished women, and that they were inclusive of people from all walks of life. In this way, she reinforced her children’s self-worth and value to the world, regardless of how outsiders might view them.
“My mother raised six strong, opinionated women. There is no one who can tell us we are not worthy.”
In addition, Shabazz urges her students to acknowledge their own responsibility to be positive actors in their communities.
“I always tell my students, ‘you can’t complain unless you’re doing something about it.’”
You can learn more about Shabazz at www.ilyasahshabazz.com.
The panel of students, all current or former students at three Bergen County high schools, provided educators with advice on how to engage with students while respecting and understanding experiences they bring into the classroom.
Bergenfield High School student Conor Murray urged educators to relate the curriculum to the real world in order to help them grow as people and activists.
Zainab Ali, also from Bergenfield High School, pointed out that, “If you look at a car or a phone from 150 years ago, there’s been progress and change. But there’s been no change in classrooms. We still sit in rows and have a short break to eat. We need greater cooperation, not competition.”
For Devin Raphael of Bergen County Technical High School, educators can vastly improve the learning environment for students who do not identify with their birth gender by using more inclusive language. Devin provided the examples, such as “guys, gals and nonbinary pals” or the adopting the southern phrase, “ya’ll” or “you all.”
The students were sympathetic to educators who feel beaten down by changes in the curriculum and the over-emphasis on standardized testing.
“I’ve learned the College Board version of history,” Conor said, urging educators to try to tap into their own—and students’—interests in order to improve the experience for everyone.
Jamile Munoz and Angelina Carrion from Bergen County Technical School and Dean Connors, a graduate of Bergenfield High School, also spoke on the panel.
One strategy that Thursday’s student panel would probably have applauded was demonstrated during Friday’s plenary session by Mike Kuczala, the Director of Instruction for the Regional Training Center, and educational consulting firm based in Randolph, and president of Kuczala Consulting. The session was sponsored by the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.
Plenary participants who expected to sit and listen to a speech for an hour were no doubt pleasantly surprised by Kuczala’s presentation. From the beginning, he had participants on their feet, working with partners, and even up on stage keeping a balloon aloft in order to demonstrate easy, classroom-friendly techniques that engage students’ minds and bodies.
With plenty of research backing his claim that physical activity actually improves student learning, Kuczala urged the audience to rethink their impression of how learning happens.
“Learning doesn’t just happen from the brain up, it happens from the feet up,” Kuczala said. “People need to be full-body learners.”
He shared research supporting the fact that physically fit students do better academically.
And he shared statistics that underscored the health crisis that is building in the United States. According to Kuczala, one in three children born in 2000 or after will develop diabetes. Among African-American and Latino children, that number skyrockets to one in two.
As fun as the plenary was—and the laughter erupting from Hall A was evidence that it was fun—for Kuczala, the strategies could not be more serious or necessary. “The point of these exercises isn’t fun; the point is to make the most efficient learners by meeting their needs.”
Kuczala is coauthor of The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning Through Movement and Training In Motion: How to Use Movement to Create Engaging and Effective Learning.
At the annual Celebration of Excellence, NJEA honors those who personify the success of public education. Members meet the newly minted state teacher of the year, public school graduates who have gone on to careers of distinction, and the recipients of grants from the NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Honoring veterans, the celebration opened with The Air Force JROTC from Salem County Vocational-Technical School presentation of the colors.
Ocean City American Sign Language (ASL) teacher Amy Andersen gave one of her first speeches as the state’s top teacher, 17 Hipp Grant recipients were introduced, and an outstanding public school graduate was honored.
NJEA President Marie Blistan noted that New Jersey’s public schools are consistently ranked first, second or third in the nation. She credited that success to the teamwork of teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs), especially when they are supported by all stakeholders.
“Our students outshine their peers because the educators in our schools outshine their peers,” Blistan said. “Our schools here in New Jersey are excellent because our teachers and ESPs, our unions and administrations, our board members and legislators, and even our mayors and town council members, all work together with our students and their families to build our communities. It’s that sense of togetherness, and knowing that it truly takes a village, that brings immeasurable value to our schools.”
The NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education was established 24 years ago and the first grants were awarded in 1994. Since then, the Hipp Foundation has awarded over $2 million to support hundreds of innovative programs in New Jersey’s public schools.
This year, $97,012 was awarded to fund 17 projects in school districts across the state.
You can learn more about the awardees and how to apply for a grant at njea.org/hipp.
NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller introduced the 2017-18 New Jersey Teacher of the Year Amy Andersen.
Andersen is a nationally recognized educator who began her career teaching deaf children to fall in love with reading. She now teaches hearing children to fall in love with ASL.
“Amy has made a difference in the lives of her students, and she serves as a model for teachers throughout the country,” Spiller said. “She ignites her students’ passion for learning, gives them a voice and shows them their voices are valuable. Amy’s students go out into the world as lifelong learners making bridges between cultures, embracing differences in those around them, and changing lives as they go.”
In her remarks, Andersen discussed the “power of voice.” She traced the story of Laurent Clerc, who was born deaf in Lyons, France in 1785. Clerc would go on to found the first school for the deaf in the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
“Teaching is a means to establish equity so that every child has the opportunity to achieve excellence,” Andersen said. “I make sure my students know that regardless of where they are from, who their parents are, what church, temple or mosque they go to, or how they communicate, I hear them, and their voices are valid. That is what Clerc did for deaf children in America, he gave them the means to express themselves and then he listened.”
Seven of Andersen’s students provided the emotional highlight of the Celebration of Excellence when they took the stage to sign the lyrics to “You Will Be Found,” a song from the Tony-award winning Dear Evan Hansen.
NJEA presents the Award for Excellence to graduates of New Jersey public high schools who have demonstrated exceptional leadership in their fields of expertise. This year’s honoree was Patricio Molina, a 2008 graduate of Passaic Valley Regional High School.
A Chilean-native, Patricio Molina is a musician, pianist, composer, church organist and conductor. He has appeared in venues around the world including New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Teatro Municipal of Chile, Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), and the Odeon Amphitheater in Jordan.
Molina is an associate director at the Newark School of the Arts in the Conservatory Division.
Molina came to the United States at the age of 13. After initially attending Gosford Park High School in Paterson he moved to Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls.
“I heard that this country was a country of opportunities and I knew I had this talent and this dream,” Molina said. “With a lot of patience, love and support, teachers guided me to continue in pursuit of my dream.”
Molina hinted that pursuing that dream did not come easy.
“I played nights at the Brownstone [banquet hall] in Paterson to get enough money to pay the rent,” Molina recalled. “During that time, one of the best meals I had every day was the meal I had at school.”
As the Christie administration entered its final months, NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller hosted a panel discussion with three members of the New Jersey State Board of Education: Board President Arcelio Aponte and board members Edie Fulton and Kathy Goldenberg.
Aponte was elected board president at its September meeting after the former president, Mark Biedron, was not reappointed by Gov. Chris Christie. He was initially appointed to the State Board in 2005. He had previously served as the board’s president from 2010-14. Fulton, a former president of NJEA, has served on the board since 2007. Goldenberg, president of the Moorestown Board of Education from 2015-2017, was appointed to the State Board this year. She was first elected to the Moorestown board in 2007.
Aponte noted that he is a product of the public schools in Newark. He called education the foundation of prosperity and said that New Jersey is a leader in public education. He also noted that with a new governor there will likely be a new commissioner of education.
“My hope is that we—the State Board and the Department of Education—continue to work with you toward improving public education in the state of New Jersey, continue to listen to the students in our schools, the parents, the teachers and school leaders to meet the needs of our schools,” Aponte said.
Fulton referred to herself as the maverick on the State Board, noting the questions she has raised concerning New Jersey Department of Education proposals to lower credential standards for school nurses and to weaken certification credentials for charter school educators.
“While we were raising the credentials for teachers in traditional schools, we were lowering the credentials for charter school teachers and I found that hard to swallow,” Fulton said to applause.
Fulton also clarified the different responsibilities that the State Board and the Legislature have concerning public education.
“The legislature makes the laws; we make the rules,” she said.
Such differences came up during the meeting—especially concerning the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. While the law requiring the use of such scores comes out of the Legislature—something the State Board cannot independently undo—the State Board and the NJDOE create the regulations for how the scores will be used in compliance with the law.
“My big concern is returning joy and passion to the classroom,” Fulton concluded.
Goldenberg said that educators are role models and that she has the utmost respect for teachers who go in every single day and deal with educating students. She noted that her children are successful graduates of New Jersey’s public schools.
“I am here today because I want to learn, I want to be a part of the conversation, I want to hear what our stakeholders have to say,” Goldenberg said.
PARCC still central to conversation
PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, continued to be a major topic of discussion at this year’s session with the State Board.
On the heels of the election of Phil Murphy, who has said that he is “not a fan of PARCC,” many questions asked of the board indicated that NJEA members were hopeful that the Pearson product would soon no longer be administered. Aponte compared PARCC favorably to the tests that had preceded it: the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) and the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA).
“I recognize that PARCC is not perfect by any means, but neither was NJASK and neither was the HSPA,” Aponte said. “I do believe that while PARCC is a better assessment tool than what we’ve had in the past, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Calling it a better assessment evoked groans from the audience.
Anthie Jones, a science teacher at Freehold Regional High School, indicated that it takes about six weeks for the school to administer the PARCC to 2,400 students. She noted that during those six weeks she cannot introduce new material or administer tests or quizzes.
“What do you expect of me by taking my students away for six weeks?” she asked.
Apart from PARCC, members asked the State Board about civics education, kindergarten education, arts education, an increase in the weight of standardized test scores in school district accountability standards, anti-bullying and school climate, the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, and special education.
Camden teacher Larry Zahn told the board that it is difficult for community members—particularly in low-income areas—to attend State Board meetings or provide public testimony. The board generally holds its meetings during the work day. He thanked Fulton for being one of the only board members to visit Camden’s public schools and urged the board to hold a meeting in Camden at a time when parents and educators could attend.