A Great Science Teacher Quit Because US Schools Are Broken
EARLY IN THE morning on Monday, May 23, the uptown 5 train lurches skyward from its subterranean shaft, rising into the light of the Bronx. The cars groan as they lumber over elevated tracks high above the avenues, bodegas and detached homes, alongside treetops and the Escher-esque maze of rusty low-rise fire escapes. Twelve stops later, just shy of the end of the line, the few remaining riders wander out onto Baychester Avenue. Up the hill sits a squat, checker-patterned building with a triangle-wave marquee that is home to Baychester Middle School.
The bell blares. Upstairs in the “Cornell University” homeroom, so named to get kids thinking early and often about college, Channa Comer addresses her students with a big voice and an even bigger Cheshire cat smile: “Cornell, 10 seconds to take out your homework, 10, 9, 8 … ” The students scramble, rifling through their backpacks, until they are all seated at their desks with their notebooks in front of them. They all wear blue school-issued shirts with big white letters across their backs. Over the course of the year, they earn shirts with letters that spell TRY, TRUST, TRAIN or THANK. Today the shirts say TRY.
All around them are reminders to try, including posters that advise: “Life is complicated: Let’s deal with it,” and “Think like a proton and be positive.” In front of the classroom, printed above a whiteboard with the day’s schedule, are vocabulary words like “parameter,” “syntax” and “data type,” along with their definitions. A shelf at the back of the room holds clear containers packed with pine cones and shells. Below are containers for compost, soil, plants, rocks, starfish and safety goggles.
Standing 5 feet 1 in two-inch-high platform sandals, Comer projects an outsize presence. Her voice easily fills the room, but she rarely raises it, except to let loose a mammoth laugh or to sing the praises of a student—today it’s Shawnay—who got 100 on her scorecard for good behavior. Comer has an athletic build that comes from years of martial arts and marathon training, not to mention amateur competitive bodybuilding, activities that have taken a toll on her now bandaged 40-something-year-old knees. A naturally inquisitive serial career changer, Comer took advanced biology courses as a nursing student, studied some physics and engineering for a job coordinating the construction of group homes, and, after becoming a teacher, spent several summer vacations conducting scientific field research.
“There’s nothing that has no relationship to science,” Comer said after the class. “It’s very important to me that students know how the world around them functions.”
But learning science is like learning another language, she said, and only 10 percent of Baychester’s students read English at or above grade level. Complicating matters,elementary school teachers vary widely in their interest or ability to teach science. By the time kids arrive in Comer’s sixth-grade class, some have had virtually no science, some have only read textbooks, while others have been doing full-on experiments. Even at the middle school level, she said, “science is not a priority because of testing. The high stakes of math and [language arts], that’s what kids get promoted based on and what teachers get rated based on.”
Complicating matters further, the school sits opposite the borough’s largest public housing complex, with 42 buildings, 2,000 apartments and a history of gang violence.
Comer does anything and everything, including videos, songs (she has students clap and chant: “S-C-I-E-N-C-E, scientists is what we’ll be! Solve. Create. Investigate. Evaluate. Notice. Classify. Experiment!”), kinesthetic movements (on this morning, she calls students up to act out how molecules behave), physical models (students roll little balls of Play-Doh to model molecular characteristics) and analytical reading to “ensure that every kid gets some point of access based on their level.” Throughout her lessons she interrogates students with reflexive urgency: “What’s your evidence? I need to know,” followed by the kicker, “How do you know?” Then come hands-on experiments to reinforce meaning and evoke wonder.
But when she started her teaching career in 2007, at a small Bronx high school called Urban Assembly Academy of History and Citizenship for Young Men that has since closed, on many an evening Comer curled into a fetal position on her bed, crying. “I was jumping through hoops, standing on my head, trying to get kids interested,” she said. “Every day I get home and I felt like I just did battle.” She remembers starting a unit on the human body, thinking, “Everyone wants to know about their bodies.” She was blindsided when a student said, “Ah, miss, I don’t care how it works as long as it works.” She knew she needed to drop to a lower grade where she could get kids excited about science.
At the sixth-grade level, Comer said, “I’m not concerned that students remember everything or can regurgitate information. I feel that if they really have a level of engagement, they’ll learn all the nuts and bolts.”
After four years at the high school level, Comer became the founding sixth-grade science teacher at Baychester. Shawn Mangar, the school’s founding principal, said that soon after Comer was hired, she showed up in a U-Haul loaded with science materials she had purchased over the years, eliciting an “Are you serious?” from security staff. And last year, she took the popular rap song that all the kids were singing—“Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap, about a guy teaching his girlfriend how to make crack cocaine—found the background music and organized a competition for students to rewrite the lyrics with science content. The winning students performed their remake—about the water cycle—at theScience Genius competition at Columbia University. Comer also started an after-school engineering club with funding from the SECME consortium of universities and later received a $2,500 Summer of Innovation grant from NASA to purchase supplies for it. “Those kinds of things she makes happen,” Mangar said.
Comer is also known for her dogged insistence that students solve their own problems. Too often, said Vice Principal Elizabeth Leebens, students “get the history of science rather than getting an opportunity to do it for themselves.” Still, Leebens was surprised when, after a group of science club students asked Comer for help with their ice-cream-making experiment, which had already failed seven sticky times, Comer told them, “Go back and check your process.” Off they went to the bathroom to dump the latest batch and start over.
“I call it productive struggle,” Comer said. “That’s where the growth happens.”
In meetings, Leebens said, Comer has “challenged me to stop doing the cognitive work for kids: ‘Let them do it themselves. They can do it; they can do it.’” For Comer, she added, it’s about “life lessons and also high expectations for kids in letting them see what they can do before the adult decides what they can do.”
With all the messages out there telling Baychester students what they can’t do, Comer will not give up on them, and she won’t let them give up on themselves. “These are my kids,” she said. “This is my community.”
That Friday, two men are shot in a car just steps from Baychester Middle School. Both are taken to nearby Jacobi Medical Center, where one dies. A crime scene unit seals off Baychester Avenue.
The school day begins as usual. After lunch, students from the “UC San Diego” homeroom arrive in Comer’s classroom for science. “Good afternoon, San Diego,” she says, beaming.