Building Community in a High School One Teacher at a Time (Jerry Brodkey)

A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School  (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that  bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues last May just before the school year ended.

One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious.  We all learn about each other in  a gentle, supportive environment.  Students seem to love this, and so do I.

I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department,  I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this.  Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.

Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate  Thursday lunches to this small initiative.  I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room  (or some other place ….) for this experiment.  We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself.  If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule.  Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week.  No obligation, no memberships, come when you can.  Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to.  Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.

If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these  questions.

1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?

5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?

So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up  in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.

Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.

Just a few days ago, Jerry wrote to me this follow-up email on the once weekly lunch-time meetings of teachers held over the past Fall semester:

At the beginning of this school year, we decided to try something new at the high school where I have taught for thirty years, Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California.  We have a very large staff, split into departments, and each of us know little about our colleagues.  We decided one day a week at lunch that one staff member — classified, certificated, administrative — could volunteer to tell about herself.  There were really no guidelines, no obligations, no requirements. I developed an optional series of questions that could be used as desired:  Who are you?  How did you come to be at this school?  What do you like to do when not working?  What are the rewards and frustrations you have teaching/working at Menlo-Atherton?  How would you like to be remembered?  We thought we’d give it a try for a semester, then re-evaluate. I wasn’t sure if on these Thursdays I would be having lunch by myself.

So far, I believe it has been wonderful.  Our attendance has varied from fourteen to almost thirty, with a surprising mix of veteran  and new teachers. There is a core  group of about ten of us who make every session, and another group of maybe twenty-five who come when they can.  At our school, there is a norm that many teachers  welcome students  in their rooms at lunch, so it is hard for many staff to close their classroom doors and slip away. Many teachers also sponsor clubs and are engaged with students,  Next semester, we are switching from Thursdays to Fridays with the hope that more staff can attend.

Every presentation has been  a gift. Some have been very serious, others humorous.  Some focus on teaching, others on travels and personal journeys.  One first year teacher and one second year teacher bravely volunteered.One week the principal came and presented, and our District Superintendent spoke one week after I let him know what we were attempting. Each week I learn something new about my colleagues.A new physics teacher was in a rickshaw race across India. A veteran  teacher talked about donating a kidney to help save her brother’s life. Who knew? The Economics teacher once worked at the Federal Reserve.  A science teacher worked across the street as a lab researcher, then one day came to our school to deliver some homework for his daughter and discovered there was an opening for a teacher.  He said he spent the entire summer preparing his first day’s lesson and then was faced with the reality of preparing for 179 more days. He said  he lost thirty pounds the first semester, pulled many all-nighters, but never looked back with regret over his decision.   A new teacher from Romania told us how in her homeland her math teacher routinely slapped students, and if the teacher was too far away to slap a student, the teacher would instruct another student to slap the offending student.  One teacher movingly told us how difficult it was for her to be separated from her children who are far away. Several veteran teachers spoke of the difficulties they faced the first few years, with stress, tears, and self doubts. Only by finding a mentor on the staff and building relationships with their peers were they able to survive.

It is , of course, impossible to measure the benefits of these lunches. For myself, whenever I see one of our presenters on campus I now feel a deeper connection, a broader understanding of who they are.  We are trying to build relationships, strengthen  community, one person at a time. I look forward to our special lunch every week, and find myself slowing down, listening intently. My only regret is that I wish I had started this years ago.



Filed under how teachers teach

8 responses to “Building Community in a High School One Teacher at a Time (Jerry Brodkey)

  1. Great blog today! I want you to know that I forward each of your blogs to my wife, the 25-year AP and honors US history teacher, who shares your thoughts with her colleagues and often reports kudos (to me) for your work. She doesn’t have time to read many online first-person experiences because she has a large class this year, about 180 students who are painstakingly learning how to write a five-paragraph essay, and all with parents who email her, get weekly grade reports, have conferences, check assignments on Blackboard, and call before and after school. So your work helps keep her fresh and inspired to soldier on.
    I note that you always thank people who re-blog but I guess that you don’t find out who forwards your blog via email. My question to you is this: Does my unreported forwarding of your blog cost you anything in uncounted readership statistics, income, personal gratification or anything else?
    If so, I apologize for the hundred or so recipients who read your blog as a forwarded email and will seek to remedy the lapse.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Jim,
      Thanks for forwarding my posts to your wife whose hands, eyes, brain, and heart are thoroughly filled with teaching and minding her AP students. I wish her well. As for your question about counting, I have not inquired into whether your forwarding my posts get counted. Just keep doing it!

  2. I love what Jerry has done, first with his students, then with his colleagues. When I taught a speech class, the opening speech would be the paper bag speech. Put three items you treasure, care about, would fetch before leaving the fire, into a paper bag. Show us one at a time, talking impromptu about what the item is, how you got it, why it’s important to you.

    I called this “The Paper Bag Speech” and, of course, modeled it for my students first. I always modeled every speech and assignment first. Or if I had student examples from past years used student models in EVERY class I taught. With Speech I didn’t have the videos so had to do them myself, or it a previous student hadn’t graduated, I’d invite them back to Speech class to be the model. Great fun.

    Didn’t have the “bright idea” to do it with faculty. It’d be a great way to begin every faculty meeting, one faculty member speaking at the beginning, another at the conclusion of the meeting. Get the principal, counselors, Superintendent, Secretaries to participate as well.

    Thanks for sharing this Jerry. That for getting it onto the blog, Larry.
    Ann Staley
    teacher & writer

  3. Rei Nakamura

    I am a graduate of Menlo-Atherton High School (2009), and had the privilege of being one of Mr. Brodkey’s AP Calculus students – I even remember, it was 4th period, senior year. I had the even greater privilege of having Mr. Brodkey present my high school diploma on Graduation Day. (Mr. Brodkey was so beloved by his students, he always had the maximum number of seniors permitted to have diplomas presented by him). My older brother too (graduated 2006), took AP Calculus with Mr. Brodkey, and chose — rather, honored — to have him present his diploma to him.

    I have a fond memory of this end-of-year project that we did – a student presented her modeling career, another taught other students how to make ice cream – the presentations really ran the gamut. They were fun, different from anything else we were doing in other classes, and more importantly, they gave some insight into who each person was; consequently, we felt more connected on a level, separate from simply being in the same math class. It was this kind of project, alongside Mr. Brodkey’s mathematical lessons that helped us connect to the world around us, that demonstrates how passionate and caring Mr. Brodkey is as a teacher, and person. I appreciate that you, Mr. Brodkey, are doing just the same for your colleagues as well.

    I would also like to say, that primarily because of the influence that Mr. Jerry Brodkey had on me, (and so many other phenomenal public school teachers I had growing up), that I have developed a passion for mathematics, and have myself become a 6th grade math teacher in the District of Columbia Public School District. And for that, and so much else, I’ve been wanting to say thank you, Mr. Brodkey. I hope to eventually become half the teacher you are to so many students at M-A.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you very much for responding to Jerry’s post, Rei. I forwarded your comment to Jerry. He will be touched by your words. He retired from M-A in June.

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