A Final Push for Teachers and Students

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It’s officially summer.

But New York City’s public schools don’t get out until Monday. That makes this last full week of class a long one for restless students. And a creative challenge for teachers.

On a hot summer day, with the ice cream truck beckoning outside, it might seem like torture to be trapped in a classroom. And yet, third-grader Julian Potjagailo isn’t quite ready for the year to end yet. “It would be good to get rid of school but I would also miss school,” Potjagailo says.

That contradiction pretty much encapsulates the last week of school. Potjagailo goes to PS 212 in Jackson Heights and admits it’s hard getting any real work done.

“Our teacher is, like, planning this whole, like, it’s really supposed to be a really fun week, and we’re supposed to do something fun each day,” Potjagailo says.

Like what exactly?

“We did these immigrant books and we’re going to have a party where our parents come in and bring food from our country,” he says excitedly.

Julian’s mom, Larisa Potjagailo, isn’t sure what to contribute. “I’m from Russia,” she says, with less enthusiasm than her son. “I guess I’ll make something Russian. Beef goulash? I don’t know.”

Third-grader Nafisa Nowsan says her teachers are also planning parties in between regular lessons. “If we have a lot of marbles we put them in the jar and if we fill up the jar with marbles we have a popcorn party--we get to watch movies and eat popcorn,” Nowsan says.

Educators prefer to call that “creative teaching.” Some say their students seem more burnt-out than usual because state exams only finished in May and June--later than in previous years. Parent coordinator Olga Flores and fourth-grade teacher Susannah Levithan say they’re dealing with a lot of emotions. “There is a crescendo of excitement in the air isn’t there?” Flores says. “Like they’re just ready; at the gate ready to get out of here.”

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Levithan says. “There’s also like a pushing away of kind of all the togetherness you’ve had all year, they’re starting to pull away, and prepare to say goodbye.”

The ones who won’t say goodbye to school are the principals. A few blocks away, Principal Dolores Beckham at Intermediate School 145 is getting ready for a prom and a graduation ceremony--all within 24 hours. “I had to take two aspirins because I had a headache today,” she sighs. And it doesn’t slow down after 8th-grade graduation. “We have a parents meeting for those students who are going to take the accelerated courses,” she says, rattling off her list of things to do. “On Friday, we’re going to give our students who brought in their medical notes for next year, our sixth and seventh-grade students, we have to prepare a special treat for them, which is a movie.”

Though most students will move on to the next grade, she’s also preparing those who need to attend summer school. Beckham will be working during the summer. Despite her exhaustion, she says she’s excited to see her students graduate and to see new ones register.

At PS 212, fifth-grader Analisa Vasquez knows three friends who will join her at IS 145 next fall. But for now she’s coasting after a year of hard work. “We were listening to some jazz music and we had to draw a picture of what we feel of jazz,” she says, describing one of her classes. Her mother, Annabelle Vasquez, reminds her of hard-covered memory books the students published filled with essays about their childhood.

Analisa may be graduating fifth-grade, but she isn’t ready to leave. “Not really,” she says. “I just want to spend last few days with my teacher and my friends. I just want to enjoy the last few days.”

And with that, Analisa takes off with her mother, clutching her book of childhood memories.

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