Podcast: Rachel in the Bronx, New York, for Teachers in America

Today on the HMH Learning Moments podcast, we have our first installment of the Teachers in America series hosted by Rose Else-Mitchell.

 

Our guest is sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher Rachel Swartz. Rachel has been teaching for seven years with the last five years spent at the David A. Stein Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy. She is an anti-bullying champion who ensures her lesson plans promote kindness and are socially and culturally relevant. 

The Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy is a public secondary school for students in Grades 6–12 in the Bronx in New York City. The school has approximately 1,600 students with a demographic breakdown of 56% Hispanic, 25% Caucasian, 9% African American, and 8% Asian. The school seeks to create an atmosphere of learning that will challenge all students to become creative, independent critical thinkers and will foster a lifelong love of learning. 

We observed Rachel’s first-period class, which has 29 students and is both integrated co-teaching (ICT) and an English as a new language (ENL) push-in. One-third of the class has Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) because they have a special education classification that requires support from an additional teacher in the room. The other two-thirds of the class are general education students, including four ENL students.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Rachel Swartz and Rose Else-Mitchell recording at Rachel's school in the Bronx

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments! I'm Onalee and for today's Teachers in America episode, host Rose Else-Mitchell, [an educator and learning scientist], sits down with anti-bullying champion Rachel Swartz. Rachel teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts at the David A. Stein Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy in the Bronx in New York City. Now, here's Rose and Rachel.

Rose Else-Mitchell: Rachel, thanks again for joining me for Teachers in America.

Rachel Swartz: Thank you so much.

Rose: Let's jump in. So, do you remember the moment when you decided that you wanted to teach? 

Rachel: I do.

Rose: What happened?

Rachel: When I was in high school, I kind of had a “mean girl” type experience. And so, I went from someone who had a lot of girlfriends to having no girlfriends and not really knowing why—and, you know, just the kind of mean things that girls can do. And, it was one of those things where there were a few girls that sort of said nasty things and did nasty things and then everyone in the group followed that kind of bystander mentality. I sort of turned to my teachers for guidance and support, and I didn't really tell anyone what was going on necessarily. But I think that they noticed a huge change in my personality and sort of thought, “Well, maybe there's something going on with that kid.” And I see that honestly in myself now as a teacher: I'm always looking and saying, “There's something going on with that kid. I'm not sure what it is.” And so I can see how they sort of thought that.

When I was in high school, one of my teachers—Mrs. Lewis, her name was—did the plays and the newspaper, and those were two things that I was really interested in. And I sort of got to know her a little bit better through those things, and she specifically took an interest in me. And, I could even say that she favored me.

Rose: What did she teach you?

Rachel: She taught theater and then journalism, which was with the newspaper. But she also did the after-school plays and the after-school club for the newspaper, so I saw her a lot. And so I think through that sophomore year, she sort of saw that there’s something off. And then by junior year, she really started taking that strong interest in me and giving me roles in the plays—but not roles that were, I guess you would say, easier or simpler. She gave me things that were different or kind of would empower me. And, at the time, I didn't really know that. Like, for example, in Alice in Wonderland, I played a character that was kind of like the queen, and she was very mean and nasty and sort of full of herself—and that really was not me. And so, I was thinking, “Oh my god, why did she give me this part?” 

Rose: You got to play different roles.

Rachel: Right. Yeah, and I think that, thinking back, she did that to not only give me something to make me feel special but to make me feel empowered. Because here I am, standing up in front of everyone, and kind of being this strong female character that I maybe so badly wanted to be inside in my real life and couldn't necessarily do. So, that was really amazing.

And then with the writing—I always liked to write. I always wanted to be a journalist. That was what I wanted to do. But then once I met her and some other teachers who I had—other great writing teachers, Mrs. Dugard was an amazing teacher I had for creative writing—and they all sort of taught me just to use what I had in me and kind of find a way to give that back to the world.

Rose: They helped you decide? They suggested you become a teacher?

Rachel: They both encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. And I think that they told me I was a good writer and that I could definitely do that. But I just started to idolize them. And I think when you have nothing, that's what you sometimes do, right? So, I felt like my world was sort of falling apart around me. It was a very hard time. I mean, I'm talking I ate lunch in the bathroom—it was bad. I really had no friends, because the girls would then talk to other people, and then it was just everyone didn't like me, and you didn't know why. And it was just . . . it was really hard.

Rose: Horrible. That stuff goes on today. Sometimes in [bullying happens on] social media rather than up front.

Rachel: Yeah, today it's even worse. I mean, I was in high school when sort of social media was starting, and I purposely just didn't have it for that reason. People started letting me eat lunch with them so that I wasn't in the bathroom. Mrs. Lewis would write me passes to get out of things so that I didn't have to be with my peers. If there was a senior event when I was a senior or junior event, she would be like, “No, you're not going. You're going to stay with me, and you're going help me with this.” And she would give me something special to do so that I didn't feel like I was kind of this loser. 

So, they didn't necessarily say, “Oh, become a teacher,” but then I think I brought it up to probably Mrs. Dugard, the creative writing teacher. So, Mrs. Lewis was older; she was like my mom's age. Mrs. Dugard was young; she's like my age. She was 28, I think, so like my age now. So, I thought she was the coolest. I really looked up to her. I thought she was beautiful, she was smart, she was funny, she was intelligent. I mean, she just was what I wanted to be. So I think that that's kind of what led me, and then I wanted to be what Mrs. Lewis was to me for someone else.

Rose: If somebody was asked to describe a teacher, I'm not sure that they would come up with those adjectives! And, having role models as teachers and teachers as role models is so important, whether they're men or women, but for kids generally—and, I think, for perpetuating great practices and great people going into the profession. So, thank you to Mrs. Dugard and to Mrs. Lewis on our behalf and your kids’ behalf.

Thinking about the 29 students in your class today: You're teaching a class every time you teach, but you're also teaching 29 individuals. You're trying to reach them. You're trying to have them trust you. You're trying to get their best work, and you're also trying to keep everything organized. Tell me a little bit about how you how you manage to teach 29 souls at once.

Rachel: Well, it's difficult when you think of it like that. But it's also very simple, I think. So you know you want to teach something that is going to mean something to the students in some way. So, I think that's where you start. You know they always say the best lesson is the best kind of way to manage behavior. And so I think that that's a start necessarily in terms of reaching them in some way. Because whenever I teach, I always think of the subject matter—usually more than the activity, if that makes sense. I want them to learn something when they leave my room. I want them to . . .

Rose: Like content—you want them to know something.

Rachel: Yeah, and I want them to have it relate to their life. That's like my thing—I want them to have something that not only is interesting to them, but they can relate [to] it in some way. So right now, we're doing the “World Wonders” unit where we're learning about all the wonders around the world that are sort of being destroyed by pollution and weathering and corrosion and all these things. And so, we're going to tie it in with the whole thing about pollution, and how we can start recycling more, and how can we start that in our community, and things like that—so it becomes realistic, becomes tangible. It becomes something that they can actually apply to their own life.

Rose: And that they care about. [Read more about making instruction culturally responsive.]

Rachel: Right! Yeah. Because when they start to realize how much waste we make, they're going to kind of all have this fire lit under them and say we need to make a change, and they're our future, and it's important. I think you have to get to know them, and it's hard to get to know them.

But the other thing I think that's huge, and that I think that we don't hear enough about in the education world necessarily, is collaboration. Collaboration is huge. 

The view of Rachel Swartz's classroom from her desk

Rachel: You met before the other teacher that teaches sixth grade, because our school’s so big that there's two sixth-grade ELA teachers, and we work together so much. I mean we're good friends, so I think we're lucky that that kind of worked out. And the teacher that I co-teach with also we’re good friends as well. And so, we all sort of plan things together, and we talk about things. And, honestly, the whole sixth-grade team at this school is friendly and I've always, knock on wood, I've been very lucky everywhere I've ever taught. I've become friends with the people I worked with. So, I think that that's a huge thing—like talking to them about specific kids, which we do that at lunch a lot. Where either teachers are venting about something that happened or “I don't know what to do about this one” and then “Oh, in my room he's so different” or “She's so different.”

Rose: So you get a different perspective on each child, and you get different solutions.

Rachel: Right.

Rose: I noticed you had a smart board in your classroom.

Rachel: Yes.

Rose: I've seen a lot of smart boards. So is technology a help or a hindrance? How often do you use it, and what makes you think this is the right time to be using it?

Rachel: I think that when [technology is] used effectively, it's used well. So we do a lot of things where they come up and they touch the board. They move things around—matching, drawing on it, circling—depending on what . . .

Like annotating is a huge, huge example. I don't know how I would teach annotating if I didn't have a smart board, because when you're underlining, writing notes on the side, that's huge and you're doing, you're showing—you're modeling or showing them what they should be doing on their paper. I really have no clue how I would do that if I didn't have a smart board. I mean I guess I would use a document camera. But again that's technology.

Rose: Right. So modeling and then engagement.

Rachel: And you'd be surprised . . . those sixth graders that act like they're in ninth grade? They want to go up to the board so badly! Every hand goes up when you do, “Who wants to come up?” Everyone wants to come up to the board, so . . .

Rose: You talked about praise earlier and, you know, the idea that even a ninth grader is excited to hear a “Thank you” or “Well done.” I mean you know as humans we're pretty optimized for a little praise dopamine hit.

Rachel: Right.

Rose: How do you handle praise in the classroom? There's been a lot of work in this area around growth mindset and that kind of thing about how you give praise. So you described yourself as very structured and sometimes strict. So, how do you handle praise? 

Rachel: Well, I think that I also praise them a lot. You know even though that . . . see, it's funny because I think that I'm strict, but then the kids will be like, “Ms. Swartz, you're strict, but you're nice” and that's great! 

Rose: Perfect combination.

Rachel: That's what I want to be! So, that's great!

Rose: That's like Mary Poppins!

Rachel: Yeah, so I think that I praise them a lot. I mean, when I was walking around today, I'm sure you heard me saying “Oh, great job!” You know the girl I co-teach with, my friend, we also do that with each other all the time. We're always complimenting each other or building each other up in some way in front of the kids or even just regularly. So, I think that they see that—the kids pick up on that—and it's just kind of the culture of our room.

Rose: Yeah, it becomes a mode of discourse. So it's not just praise; it's also gratitude, which I think is a really important thing because that's part of the reason we're doing this podcast—is being able to hear about the work that teachers do and kind of shine a light on it—because I think as a society we probably don't show enough gratitude to our educators. So, it's great that you’re modeling that.

When you think about kids you've taught over the years—there's this amazing binder [of letters from students] here, and these are the kids that have recognized you—there's so many fantastic lines in here of “You are the best teacher ever,” “You're the best teacher in the world.” They've got to make you feel great. What about the kids who haven't written to you, or the kids that you kind of wonder about? Is there some of those that you think back, and—just like you thought about that lesson—“Well, that didn't work” or “I could have done that differently”—do you think that about certain kids that you've taught?

Rachel: There are so many. So, well, one of them in particular—this was maybe two years ago— so this student was sort of like, almost like a big baby, where he . . . like a gentle giant, I guess you would say. He looked so mature. 

Rose: How old was he? 

Rachel: Eleven, but you know kids are just built differently. Just very tall, and he was the sweetest and most sensitive. And so he was having issues in other classes where he was crying, getting into fights because if someone said something or looked at him a certain way, it just triggered something in him that he exploded. So, I had him eighth period—and everyone knows eighth period is the hardest period to teach whatever is going on during the day. 

Rose: It's the last period of the day.

Rachel: Yeah. So, it's bugging them, and they come in with all of this baggage or all of this stuff that happened during the whole day, right? So everyone knows that's how it is. So, he came in eighth period, and I really don't know what I did. I think I just . . . what I try to do is just read each child and read the energy from them and observe and watch how they interact with one another, and that sort of helps me think, “OK, how do I approach it? Am I tougher? Am I coming in, oh, like what's going on?” You know, which way do I kind of approach them? And I approached it very sweet, calm, and almost like a younger child that you would . . . the way you would speak to a younger child. And he just loved me. I don't know, and so every day was hugs. I got hugs, the notes all the time. He did really well. He was like, “You cheer me up every time I'm sad. You make me feel better.” If he was upset in the hallway, I would speak to him and he just was so thankful. He would always say, “Thank you so much.” So that was really special just because it was a very interesting case. It was like . . . it was one of those things where don't judge a book by its cover, because it was the kind of kid where you think, “Oh, they're getting written up by the Dean,” and they just look intimidating and it was so the opposite. But you know I've also had—so that was a boy example—but I've also had girls that [were] just anything from “They're so sweet” or they want to tell you things, or they were bullied and they want to tell me because I usually tell them at the beginning of the year. I don't go into detail, but . . .  

Rose: Every class, you tell them? 

The "Chain of Nice" bulletin board in Rachel Swartz's classroom

Rachel: Yeah, every class. Yep. That we have anti-bullying week—and I made this video with my students a few years ago about anti-bullying, and so I show the kids the video. I talk about how I was bullied, and I know what it feels like, and if you need someone to talk to, you can talk to me or whatever. And so, this is in October when most of the kids haven't . . . they're still settling in, right? And so some of them may say from elementary school they've experienced it. But, for the most part, they're all just like happy here, right? And then as time goes on, you start to hear “Oh, my friend group is changing,” which is huge in sixth grade because they're meeting new kids obviously, and some of them have concerns about that kind of stuff, and it's good to sort of just be there—like be a kind of kind presence for them. And so I think all of that has been kind of nice with the girls and continues to be nice with the girls, and I have a few students that I could think of with that kind of stuff. 

Rose: I'm sure. I'm sure. It's very real. And you talked about keying into the issues that students care about. So, what are those issues? I mean you mentioned the effect of climate change. You implied the effect of climate change. What are some of the other issues that you feel are engaging kids today?

Rachel: Well, I think it has a lot to do with trends that are going on in the world. And so you know I'm a young adult. I go on social media. I see different things that are trending online and stuff. And I, you know, I think about it sometimes not only from myself but as a way of like, “Oh, how is this something that I can think about?” or “Is this something that kids would like?” or “Are the kids into this?” So, civil rights is a big thing because Black Lives Matter is all over the news. And so I'm not necessarily teaching about Black Lives Matter, but we talked a lot about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and what does that all mean. And they . . . I did not expect the reaction! I mean, they just couldn't get enough. The questions I got were insane. “When did racism start?” “Who was the first white man that thought it was OK to say a black man is not equal to him?” I mean it was . . . it was insane, and I love—I just I couldn't get enough of that. I loved it.

Rose: Inquiry and curiosity.

Rachel: Yes, and you know there were so many. And I said to the kids, “I know you guys have a lot of questions. Go home and research some of them.” And one of the kids goes, “Yeah, Ms. Swartz, I already have four that I'm keeping to myself, but I have another one. Can I ask you that one?” And I was like “OK, yeah.” You know, you try your best! We looked stuff up together, because they just had so many questions. So, I think that next year we’re going to do a unit on it. This year, we just did maybe a week about Martin Luther King and civil rights because it is important to sort of remember and talk about.

But another thing is female empowerment is a huge trend right now. The students will tell you about the Women's March. You know they live in the city, so they hear about this stuff. They see it on the news. It's right like, you know, not too far from them, right out their back door. So that's a huge thing that we talked a lot about.

Another thing that is huge and this year is sort of something that—it's something that I've never necessarily taught about, but I think that I'm going to start talking about more—is the idea of the LGBTQ+ community and their sort of rights and those kinds of things. So, in my after-school program that I work at, I teach film and video making. And two of the students that I have during the day happened to be in that class and are also part of that club because we have a club for the middle school for that. And they said to me, “Ms. Swartz, we want to make a film about LGBTQ+ and the different pronouns and all this stuff.” And so, I'm thinking, “OK, that sounds great.” And I didn't know that there was a plus and they were explaining why there was a plus and all these things. And then one of the girls whips out a book that she made, and it has every definition of every type of everything that you can imagine and is teaching me about all the different types of genders that there are. And again I'm thinking, “OK, well, there's transgender, and then there's girl and boy, right? And that's it.” She's like, “Ms. Swartz, I hate to say it, but it's a little offensive if you say that.” And then I'm like, “OK.” You know, OK.

And so I think that kind of stuff is great. It's just . . . I think that anything that's kind of a hot topic or an injustice in some way is something that not only I find fascinating, but I think that students find fascinating. So I sort of look for things that are going to interest them or maybe show them an injustice that they weren't fully aware of and go from there. And that's my favorite thing to teach too, honestly. I mean it's fun to teach reading and writing, of course, but when you teach about a topic like that, it's just . . . it's the best.

Rose: We haven't talked much about that. You know the things you've talked about that are important as a teacher. You know some of the words you've come up with: self-reliance, courtesy in the classroom, being a citizen both inside the classroom and outside, part of the city and the country, being kind, being reflective, and modeling that. I mean, do you think sometimes what it means to be a teacher is misunderstood and whether by administration or policy or even the parent community?

Rachel: Yeah, I think misunderstood or maybe not fully appreciated. 

The David A. Stein Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy (MS/HS 141) in the Bronx

Rachel: I wouldn't say . . . I think [maybe] some administration. I would say that our admin respect us, and they make us feel special, and they know that we need that because it is exhausting. But I think that as a society, absolutely. Even if you think of how much teachers get paid. I mean we're teaching children how to be citizens of the world, and we're paid so much less than so many other fields. And I'm not trying to complain and say, “Oh I don't get paid enough for anything,” but you know I work two, sometimes three, jobs and everything's with kids, right? So, sometimes I'm working 12 hours a day with kids all day. And I think that no matter what I do, I'm going to make some kind of impact on them and that's something that should be valued. And I know I'm not the only teacher. So many teachers do that kind of stuff. So I think that you're right that there is an aspect of teaching that’s sort of maybe misunderstood or not fully appreciated by the rest of society. And I think it happens a lot too if you meet people that don't have teachers in their family or in their friend group—they have no clue what you do. And I'm like, “Didn't you go to school? You know, you should remember from when you went to school what a sort of a teacher does.” But there's so many obstacles and things and demands from just society in general with getting observed and getting rated. I mean that's just the absolute worst.

Rose: That has not made you a better teacher, I'm gathering. 

Rachel: I don't know, because I think that it's made me a stressed-out teacher. I think that it has made me a better teacher only when I've read my feedback and gone to my AP [Assistant Principal] and said, “What can I do differently or what can I do better?” But I don't think that the number system is effective, and I think that it makes . . . I mean [as] teachers it's all we talk about is numbers and “Oh, I’m a 2,” “I got a 3,” “I got a 4.” You know if you get a 1, forget it, that's it. You're like, “I'm going to get fired.” I think that it's not a good way to value or evaluate how you actually do. And I know that it's not our school; I think it's just in general the entire country does this. But I think that it's wrong to say that because this person got a 3 or 4, they're better than this one, because you're not there every day and you don't see what they do. And I would put money on the fact that Mrs. Lewis was not “highly effective” because half the time she was like, “I don't care what I get. Whatever. It doesn't matter.” But she made the biggest impact on me to this day that I wanted to be just like her, and I think about her so often—and that's more important than getting a 4 on an observation, in my opinion.

Rose: And I'm sure many more students than just you, given the stories you told about her. 

Rachel: Right, yeah.

Rose: What do you think—this is a big question—what do you think it means to be a teacher in America right now?

Rachel: I think social-emotional learning is important, and that ties in with the positive behavior incentives. So, I think that part of it is viewing the students and their needs and trying to meet those needs. And again, it feels like—especially on paper—it feels like it's impossible. All of these kids have different accommodations and needs. And this one's upset about this and needs extra time at the handwriting, and this one needs this kind of worksheet, and this one speaks this language and just came from this country, and you're just like, “Oh, my gosh, this is overwhelming.” But I think that if you try to look at them, like I was just saying, as people—I think that's a big thing. I also think we live in a very diverse world and a very kind of like technologically advanced world.

Rose: If you had one wish—you could wave your magic wand and change something, one thing, for teachers in America today, what would it be?

Rachel: I would say either we don't need to be rich—but I think if we were paid a little bit more that would be good, because I have two master's degrees and I still work two jobs—or I think smaller class sizes. Having small classes allows the students to be so much more successful. And I think you know in New York City 33 is the cap, and you can certainly reach kids and things like that with 33. But if you had 20, imagine what you could do! Imagine how many more essays I would give and grade and feedback and how well I would get to know them. I mean—or 15. Like it just, it would be phenomenal. So I'm a huge advocate for small classes. I think that kids would really benefit from that. So, I say small classes or more pay for teachers—or like somehow being able to go to the bathroom whenever I want, although that seems impossible.

Rose: Yeah, that one seems a little harder to get through Congress. 

Rachel Swartz and Rose Else-Mitchell in Rachel's classroom

Rose: Rachel, thank you so much for spending time with us. And we've got some fantastic books to share with your class.

Rachel: Oh, thank you so much!

Rose: And they'll go a long way to continue the work that you're doing to help open the doors to other countries, other cultures, and they're part of the Carmen Sandiego series that HMH has just put out. So, we hope you enjoy them, and thanks for being part of our first podcast series.

Rachel: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Onalee: This episode of Teachers in America is dedicated to the inspiring memory of Mrs. Lorraine Lewis Brown, who Rachel now thinks of as her teaching guardian angel. Thanks for listening and learning with us today. You can join our community and read our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. That's hmhco.com, backslash, shaped. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on iTunes [Apple Podcasts], Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.

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Read blog posts from Rachel Swartz on Shaped:

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Research for this episode included contributions from K. A. Jagai and Ireen Hossain, Girls Write Now writers.

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