Star Teacher Adjusts To New Reality

Aliyya Swaby PhotoJessica Zelenski asked her Hillhouse High students to write a paper in defense of Mayella Ewell, a notorious character in To Kill A Mockingbird who falsely accuses a black farmhand of rape.

“I’m asking for some compassion for the girl; I didn’t say you had to like her,” she said when students protested.

The resulting discussion — as students found they had more in common with the poor girl than they expected — was featured in New Yorker staff writer David Denby’s book Lit Up, which hit shelves this month. In the book, featured this past week in The New York Times, Denby follows Hillhouse High School teacher Zelenski for a year, along with teachers in two other communities, to explore how star educators inspire their students to engage with serious literature.

That discussion took place two years ago, before seismic changes came to Hillhouse.

Zelenski’s dynamic teaching style was still on display during a visit to her honors English class this Thursday morning with a group of rowdy Hillhouse juniors. But some key differences in the way the school is now structured have made it harder for Zelenski to replicate the magic moments captured in Denby’s new book, 15 years after Zelenski started teaching at the school.

For one, Hillhouse is now divided into four academies, including a new Social Media and Arts Academy (SMART) for freshmen starting this year and a College Career Readiness (CCR) Academy for seniors being phased out by next year. School teachers and students have been vocally critical of the way district officials handled the transition to the academy structure, especially this year. The Board of Alders is preparing to visit the school and hold a hearing into the changes amid public concern.

Superintendent Garth Harries sent a letter to the school community in January apologizing for the lackluster communication and coordination of the transition and proposing a seven-point plan to address existing problems. He attributed the decision to add two more academies in 2014 and the SMART academy this year to the fact that Hillhouse was still a “last ‘choice’” for students and parents, with increasing rates of drop outs. He and school leaders argue that academies break Hillhouse into smaller chunks where students get more individualized attention; the principals say they’ve made progress in addressing problems with the transition.

Back when Denby visited Hillhouse two years ago, the school did not have themed academies with their own administrators. Zelenski taught a total of 55 students in three classes scheduled five days a week. Last year, after the academy-system shift, she taught sophomores in the IDEA Academy and saw them half the time. This year, she teaches four English classes of close to 80 students, nearly all of IDEA’s juniors, whom she sees either two or three days per week.

“I was able to get so much done with lengthier assignments,” seeing students daily instead of biweekly, Zelenski said.

But that hasn’t stopped her from still inspiring her students, as a visit to her class confirmed. She continues to motivate students to take literature seriously and relate it to their own lives, the goal sought by Mayor Toni Harp in promoting a campaign to make New Haven the “city that reads.”

“Who Left The Water Running?”

Thursday morning, Zelenski’s students were reading Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, a comedic play about a Jewish teenager dealing with his family and identity during the Great Depression.

Kids filed in sloppily, some still plugged into phones blasting music, until Zelenski sharply ordered the devices away. She handed out a couple of yogurts to students who were hungry. “They’re always starving because they’re kids,” she said.

Zelenski grew up in Wallingford and got her teaching certification in Boston before moving to New Haven. She was considering a job as a Fair Haven Middle School social studies teacher when she got called in to interview at Hillhouse. She said she had negative preconceptions of Hillhouse before walking its halls. “What do I have to offer?” she thought to herself, as someone who grew up in the suburbs. “But I came in for the interview and I loved it. It wasn’t what I thought. ... I was amazed by what a good fit it was.”

This year, her classroom is a large conference room with two doors that kids used to cycle in and out of, until she blocked one off.

“I have a sink,” she said in a tone of disbelief. “Why am I saying stuff like, ‘Who left the water running?’”

IDEA Academy Principal Fallon Daniels said administrators prioritized spending on technology for the classrooms and other immediate resources last year. They built a lab with manufacturing equipment to prepare students to enter the industry after graduation.

“We recognize that the classroom is very large. Is building a wall a priority before getting new textbooks?” Daniels said. “We’re planning now for new walls.”

She first met Zelenski last year when she became principal of the academy. Zelenski’s strong teaching skill is “asking higher order questions” so that students have to “apply their knowledge,” Daniels said. “We continue to build on that” across the department.

“I Only Read For Her”

Zelenski challenges students while acknowledging their varied interests. “She didn’t protect them or condescend to them by giving them easy assignments ... Jessica Zelenski combined literature and ethical inquiry. The students were entering a forbidding economy; they needed to be armed with the intellectual and moral strengths that would enable them to succeed — or at least survive,” Denby writes in his book.

“Would you rather do rhetorical analysis or read the play?” Zelenski asked her students at the start of class Thursday.

“Read the play,” many called back.

Zelenski chose Brighton Beach Memoirs, a funny play with a 14-year-old protagonist named Eugene, so the kids could relate. Throughout the class, as they read aloud, she asked them questions that pushed them to make comparisons between the text and their lives.

Camron Joyner said he could relate to the characters in Brighton Beach Memoirs, despite the large time gap and major difference in cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

In the first act, Eugene shifts his parents’ attention onto his brother, who has secretly lost his job, to get out of eating a despised piece of liver for dinner.

“I used to do stuff like that when I was little,” Joyner said. His older brother told him secrets and Joyner passed them along to his mother, though he knew he shouldn’t.

Zelenski had Joyner’s brother as a student when he was in high school. Joyner took Zelenski’s English class last year as a sophomore and signed up again this year as a junior.

Last year, he was a “knucklehead” who didn’t pay attention to class and “started off on the wrong side,” he said. Zelenski “explained to me how powerful I could be,” Joyner said.

“I only read for her,” Joyner said, nodding toward his teacher.

“He says that, but I think he’s lying,” Zelenski said.

Joyner is one of few students who bring back multiple drafts of assignments to her, seeking repeated feedback on edits, she said.

She pulled out his “motor mouth” personality trait and directed it toward class debates, he said. “I love to argue.”

“Why Does He Say ‘Colored’”

After reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God earlier this year, the class debated whether or not individual black people need to uphold their images in order to avoid representing negative stereotypes of the race. Joyner got so excited he started to feed arguments to the other side. “They were missing one point,” he said.

White culture often “tries to steal some of our culture,” he said. Often, aspects of black culture generally looked down upon are praised when adopted into white culture. He tried to hold up the class through lunch to pitch his closing argument.

Zelenski pushed students to understand the ethnic and racial dynamics in the context of the play, different from the ones they encountered in New Haven. In the play, one character Stan, a Jewish man, describes the way his boss, a German man, mistreated a “colored guy who sweeps up” in the shop.

“Why does he say ‘colored’?” Zelenski asked.

“Because it’s the 1930s and he’s black,” one student Matt Brehon called out.

In Lit Up, author Denby visits the homes of some of the students, sees some of their struggles firsthand.

“[A]t Hillhouse, the African American students didn’t openly claim the privilege of being individuals. Mere survival came first, before selfhood and ‘journeys.’ And for Hillhouse students ‘society’ was not so much a hostile abstraction as a blank, something so little known that it was hardly mentioned,” he writes in the book.

Heaven Anderson, a self-described avid reader outside of class, said Thursday that Zelenski makes personal bonds with the students and knows what they’re going through outside of school. She talks them through their problems instead of kicking them out of class.

Unlike a guidance counselor, “she will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear,” Anderson said. She was having tense interactions with some of the other girls in the school; Zelenski talked her through it.

Disorganized, Divided School

Zelenski gave students parts in Brighton Beach Memoirs to read aloud in class Thursday. Anderson said she pegged kids based on personality. Anderson likes to take charge, so she got the part of Kate, the overbearing mother in the play.

Tyriq Woodson played the main character Eugene, who instigates some of the drama between his family members and wryly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience in between lines. He read his part smoothly, switching up his inflection to reflect his character’s mood and intentions. His goal, he said later, is to get into acting.

Woodson is a good student, who is also described in Denby’s book as an “extraordinary fifteen-year-old” with “ravenous curiosity” in Zelenski’s tenth-grade English class last year.

Some students think Zelenski is harsh, Woodson said. But they’re misguided. “Not every teacher cares” like she does, he said. “She’s not going to allow you to fail.”

He was less enthusiastic about Hillhouse’s academy system. He expected to be able to take classes in entrepreneurship and other “exciting things” when he chose the IDEA academy his freshman year. Instead, it’s disorganized and divided, with few opportunities that interest him.

Zelenski said the biggest challenge with the academy system is the difficulty of meeting and learning from teachers in other academies. Lauren Cianciulli, who teachers juniors in the Law, Public Safety and Health Academy, popped in to sit in on Zelenski’s class Thursday.

Zelenski said she misses learning from Cianciulli, who is “good at tying things up with detail…We don’t have time to meet with each other.”

Her students are a handful and she spends a lot of time trying to keep their attention, by raising her voice, by calling out individuals, by zipping around the room. The biggest barrier between her and her students is not race or class but age. “They’re just regular kids,” she said.

Author David Denby is scheduled to appear at an event for the new book this Sunday, Feb. 28, at the Study at Yale at 1157 Chapel St. beginning at 2 p.m. The event is sponsored by R.J. Julia and WSHU.

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posted by: Josiah Brown on February 26, 2016  10:00pm

It’s good to see the work of Jessica Zelenski, one of the New Haven Public Schools’ many accomplished teachers, recognized – along with her students.

posted by: Conscience on February 26, 2016  11:02pm

Urban schools cannot succeed without teachers like Ms. Zelensky. Too bad she is in an environment that actually undermines and disrupts her noble efforts. She must be protected at all costs. Good teaching is not based on color but commitment. Kids know who cares and so do parents. Ms. Breland, Ms Thomas, Mrs. Michelle Moore, mr. Gary Moore, Mr. Garaty, and many others are among the Hillhouse teachers who hang in there despite the chaos and confusion. The question is how long? The board must act immediately to protect, encourage, and support these teachers by giving them the resources and moral support they need. Wake up New Haven. Our village is being ruined and we are allowing it.

posted by: Jones on February 27, 2016  8:40am

Finally a real look at what’s going on inside of Hillhouse.  The passion of teaching at Hillhouse with brutal honesty.  Mr. superintendent and Mayor you need to Really get involved before you lose more good teachers.  Alderman folks   I hope you go in with open eyes and not pre-conceived notions like the Mayor did.  Don’t drink the pre-made Kool-Aid that the superintendent is serving up to everybody.  Please take the time to talk to the students, teachers, paraprofessionals,  deans and parents, and come up with your own truth.  And if you’re really brave talk to the teachers who have transferred to other schools or left the district entirely.  Ask the hard questions before we lose a generation of students who are being told that everything’s gonna be OK and find out 10 years from now they have been lied too.  The world doesn’t always work in hugs.

posted by: fearless on February 27, 2016  9:07am

Congrats to this great teacher.  The public needs to hear more about the good things happening in our schools. We need to praise teachers like Ms Zelenski for leading today’s young adults to success. Great job

posted by: AliceB on February 27, 2016  12:36pm

This article is about Jessica and everything she brings to “the game.”  She is unique.  Her personality drives her enthusiasm and knowledge; you take everything together and you come up with an amazing educator.  This is what is missing in education. The administrators are trying to reduce everyone to a simple formula; robot educators.  What this article should tell everyone is that it is those who are not robots; who are not teaching to the teval; who are igniting our young people; it is those educators we need to value.  We need more Jessica Zelenskis in education - less data driven robots and especially less data driven administrators.

posted by: WakeUpandGetInFormation on February 27, 2016  12:45pm

Wake up people! How dare we allow the school of Hillhouse to be focused on adults and not kids? Everyones comment and Zelenskys comment goes back to how adults feel!  Now back to this teacher as an example of how we focus on adults and foolish concerns: Are you great for calling kids a motormouth and knucklehead publicly? Social and emotional skills are important for learning!  Those terms speak to the underlying notion of what people think of our kids. Parents speak out! Black community Don’t be fooled! Hamden Meriden Monroe Trumbell don’t publish this mess about kids!! HOW ARE SRUDENTS PERFORMING IN THE ACADEMIES? IF THE ACADEMIES ARE BRINGING DOWN ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT GET RID OF IT!! Who else is working for kids opposed to complaining? Teach!!  By the way BOE and BOA get it together!! Argument is horrible and not what our kids need to see!!! Kids do not need to be described in our paper as rowdy and hungry and motormouth and knucklehead!! This is sad!! shame on you reporter and shame on the teachers that support this foolishness!

posted by: jzelenski on February 27, 2016  3:04pm

WakeUpandGetInformation Cam referred to himself as a knucklehead and a motormouth. And “logical argument” is part of common core standards and our curriculum.  We teach students to think critically and discern the difference between fighting and formal argument.  Where in this article is the focus how teachers feel rather than about providing a sound education to the students? It’s challenging to have less collaboration time with other educators to provide the best opportunities we can for the students.  I see students less frequently than I have in the past and that’s what I stated. This is a complaint? The students featured are actively engaged in learning and their educations, they are represented as such.  As for the “Teach” you’ve commanded others to do (and me too I guess) how and what might that look like in your opinion? Am I somehow part of fooling the black community?

posted by: Brutus2011 on February 27, 2016  3:53pm

I do not see where the teacher called a student motormouth or knucklehead.

Close reading reveals that it was the student who used those words to describe himself.

While I agree that more cultural sensitivity is needed, I think the teachers try to reach as many of our kids as possible.

posted by: H.Soffical on February 28, 2016  7:19am

I am Anderson the girl featured in this. Dry article & proud and unashamed to say that I have been a student of ms zelenski class for two years straight and a student to James Hillhouse for : almost 3 1/2 and Ms zelenski is by far the best English teacher I’ve ever had Period. Calling us names such a ” knucklehead ” or “motormouth ” are not a problem, she has beautiful personal bonds with students, and encourages us every day , in her class and out ! There’s no such thing as failing in her class she will push you and hold your hand until you are stable enough to make it on your own . Before her class your probably never see me even step foot in a library or in front of a class and speak without a peck of fear in my heart . How dare you , someone who has probably NEVER stepped foot into my school ,talk to my teacher in such a way ,based off a news article. ? Until the day I personally see you seated in one of our class session. Your feelings and or comments are irrelevant. As for everything else Jessica Zelenski Is and always will be an amazing Teacher And There Is Nothing Anyone Or Any News Article Can Say To Change That

posted by: Conscience on February 28, 2016  12:36pm

Wakeupandgetinformation. You have misinterpreted the gist of the artilcle. The writer did a great job of capturing the partnership that must exist between teacher and student for learning tp occur. Ms. Zelensky would be a great teacher in any era and reminds me of the teachers who were at Hillhouse, Lee, and Cross at a time when the entire community embraced education, character, and excellence. We did not rely so much on test scores then because common sense told us that there were too many factors outside the school that influenced standardized test performance. These educators held students accountable for doing their best and recognized that persistence and good habits would secure the victory for them. We also had a superintendent and principals who understood education and had ties in the communities because many of them grew up here. Add to this the large numbers of staff recruited from historically Black colleges in the South and you had a formula for the most innovative and effective urban school district in the state and perhaps the nation. Iconic educators like Emma Ruff, DeNorris Crosby, Eleanor and Les Turner, Reggie and Patsy Mayo conspired with Italian Americans, Jewish, Irish and other ethnic groups to demand excellence from students and to present a united front to the community. Gerald Tirozzi, William Beaty, Charlie Flynn, Ernie Roth, Rhoda Spear, Barry Herman, Izadore Weller, John Dow, Rosa Quezada, Bob Schreck, Lubbie Harper, Frank Altieri, Alvin Holmes, Lou Puglisi, Pete Villano, Wyatt and Annie Jackson, Jeffie Frazier, Denice Coles Cross, Joe Montagna, George and Dee Wells, Chuck and Regina Warner, Charles and Sue Williams, Ed and Shirley Joyner, Waide Robinson, Burt Saxon, Ed Murray. get my drift?

posted by: Conscience on February 28, 2016  2:51pm

Tom Raggozino, John Courtmanche, Bob Conte, Mike Mongillo, Charles Twyman, Lonnie Garris, Bill Bowie, John Colle, Lois Cody, Diane and Elio Bucchiero, Fran Esposito, Tony Sansone, Red Verderame, Irv Toles, Bill Smith, Peter Persano and the great Ernie Casella. Super heroes all.

posted by: withallduerespect on February 29, 2016  3:05am

Can we please take Hillhouse back to the good old days before the academies? Back to when more than half the students dropped out instead of graduating and the suspension rate was high enough to attract federal attention. Dropout factory had a nice ring to it.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on February 29, 2016  2:55pm

Hillhouse has been the talk of the town for the last four years.
There was a tragic grade changing scandal. A principal, other administrators and a teacher was suspended after an investigation. School records and grades were seriously called into question.
The superintendent claims that his reforms have resulted in better grades and better graduation rates, yet SAT scores show that many graduates are not college ready.
The school was dissected into an illogical tripartite organizational structure of academies with three independent principals. Lacking a single head principal, like a decapitated chicken, the school has flipped and flopped along for the past few years under this so-called reform. Teachers were frustrated. Students and parents were confused. One-fifth of the staff left to work in saner and better organized schools in or out of the district.
The school has been so poorly managed and organized that the mayor-BOE president hired a retired school administrator at the rate of $500 per day to get things back on track as plans were underway to start another academy at Hillhouse.
The greater New Haven community must do more than shake their heads and talk about Hillhouse’s problems. There are some great teachers still there despite the hurdles and obstacles inexperienced administrators including the superintendent have placed in their way. Millions spent on reform and restructure, but not enough on books, supplies, computer resources and other technology. It was pointed out by author David Denby at the book talk Sunday attended by about 100 people, which none of the 3-4 Hillhouse principals attended to support this outstanding teacher featured in his book “Lit Up,” that Hillhouse is under-funded, inadequately supplied with resources and counselors. He point out that there is only one part-time person employed to guide students in the college/ financial aid application process.
Hillhouse needs our attention. Parents, students, alumni and taxpayers act now.