Overnight Sensation

After 26 years of relative obscurity, Kay Toliver started winning awards. Now, the star of East Harlem Tech Middle School is in the national spotlight—and enjoying all the attention

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Until recently, Kay Toliver was one of the best-kept secrets of Manhattan’s East Harlem Tech Middle School. The veteran math teacher was highly regarded within her school for her innovative teaching methods and her leadership qualities, but, like most teachers, Toliver had spent her career in relative obscurity. Not that she craved recognition. For Toliver, teaching is a reward in and of itself. “I love doing it,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to become an administrator. I want to be a teacher.”

But one of her colleagues, special education teacher Elba Marrero, wanted the world to know about Kay Toliver. Marrero saw a notice about the Disney American Teacher Awards in a newspaper, and she thought to herself: “I want to get Kay to do it. She just has no sense of how great she is.”

There was a small problem, however: Toliver was reluctant to enter the competition. “I’m not really into contests,” she told her friend. But Marrero wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I kept hounding her and hounding her until she applied,” Marrero says. Putting it off until the last minute, Toliver had to run to the post office so that her application would meet the March 9, 1992, deadline.

About a month and a half later, Toliver got the good news: She had been chosen one of three finalists in the competition’s mathematics division. Toliver and the 35 other finalists from all across the country were to fly—at Disney’s expense—to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony, to be broadcast live on the Disney Channel on Dec. 6. When the evening finally arrived, millions were watching as Toliver, elegantly dressed in a gold-and-black sequined gown, was named the outstanding math teacher for 1992. (Rafe Esquith, a Los Angeles elementary school teacher, was selected as the overall winner.) As she stood at the podium clutching her award, Toliver told the audience: “I know that back in New York, I have all my students at East Harlem Tech/P.S. 72 watching.” Then she looked directly at the camera and said: “All right! I won!” Shifting her gaze, she added: “But do you know who I won for? I’ve won for my students—the ones who come to math class and don’t like math. And the ones who leave loving math.”

Toliver returned to New York on cloud nine—and with $2,500 in prize money for herself and $2,500 for her school. “It was like a dream,” she says of her experience in Los Angeles. “Teachers don’t expect to be greeted at the airport with a limousine.” When Toliver returned to East Harlem Tech, the students and teachers treated her like a star. And the city council of New York went so far as to declare Dec. 16 “Kay Toliver Day.” To some of Toliver’s students, the teaching profession has suddenly taken on a new luster. “I’ve never had kids who wanted to become teachers,” Toliver notes with surprise.

The Disney award meant a lot to Toliver, but it wasn’t the only honor she received last year. In September, she was named one of 216 Presidential Award winners by the National Science Foundation. The award, which comes with a $7,500 school grant, recognizes outstanding teachers of science and mathematics and encourages them to serve as role models for their colleagues and to advance education reforms in their disciplines. “I’m quite proud to be representing this district,” Toliver says. “I’m proud because I’m a minority and a woman.”

Also last year, the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, which had previously collaborated with renowned teacher Jaime Escalante to create the PBS math series Futures, selected Toliver to participate in a forthcoming multimedia math project. It will use computer and video technology to bring Toliver’s teaching methods to other teachers.

Toliver, 47, is somewhat amazed by all the attention she’s been getting lately. After 26 years of teaching, she’s suddenly being treated like an overnight sensation. “People,” she says, “want to know, ‘Where did she come from?’ Well, I’ve been here all the time!”

East Harlem has long been one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. It offers a stark contrast to the affluence of the Upper East Side, which lies directly to the south. About 120,000 people live in East Harlem; two-thirds are Hispanic, and the rest are mostly African-American.

East Harlem Tech is actually a school within a school, in this case P.S. 72, a red-brick structure built in 1924 to accommodate the tide of European immigrants then pouring into the area. Originally designed as an annex to a much larger building across the street, it is now something like an afterthought, the older school having been closed years ago. In fact, the American flag flying above the school’s entrance on 104th Street is about the only indication that P.S. 72 is anything other than an old factory or warehouse. The neighborhood is like much of East Harlem: a combination of decaying brownstones, shops, and public housing projects.

In 1970, when New York City’s massive school system was carved into 32 separate community school districts, P.S. 72, an elementary school, became part of Community School District 4. Four years later, the district’s schools ranked at the very bottom in reading and mathematics. Less than 16 percent of its students were reading at or above grade level. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, District 4’s leaders decided to create a number of theme-based alternative schools and then allow parents to choose which ones they wanted their children to attend. Teachers were encouraged to design their own programs; Deborah Meier, a former kindergarten teacher, took over two floors of P.S. 171, a rundown elementary school, and opened Central Park East Elementary School. (Meier went on to become one of New York’s most famous educators, and Central Park East now comprises three schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. In January, the New York City Board of Education approved a plan that will bring choice to all of the city’s elementary and intermediate schools.)

By 1988, the proportion of District 4’s students reading at or above grade level had climbed to 64.8 percent—a considerable improvement compared with 1974’s figure but still below average for New York City. District officials are quick to point out other indicators that have gone up since the mid-1970s. According to Sy Fliegel, formerly the district’s director of alternative education, in 1973 only 10 students from District 4 were accepted into New York’s specialized high schools (all of which require an entrance examination), while in 1988 more than 250 were admitted.

Although District 4 has been widely praised, particularly by advocates of school choice, for its innovations, skeptics have accused the district’s boosters of distorting the truth. “While exaggerating the meager successes of District 4,” writes former District 4 teacher Billy Tashman in The New Republic, “they have ignored some central facts: that the district’s schools choose the kids as much as the other way around; that reading scores may have gone up, fueled by kids recruited from outside the district, but there is no evidence that general academic ability has improved; and that though students are attending more regularly, this is due less to choice than to the creation of small schools with a lot of autonomy— places that have improved students’ lives a little bit.”

East Harlem Tech is one of those “small schools with a lot of autonomy.” Created in 1979 and located on P.S. 72’s fifth floor, the school comprises seven teachers and 104 students, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic and 15 percent of whom are African American. Math and science are clearly the focus, but students, who keep the same teachers for both 7th and 8th grades, must also take classes in social studies, communication arts, and computers. In addition, the school has a special education component. Students do choose to attend East Harlem Tech, but it isn’t as selective as some of District 4’s other middle schools. Many of the students, in fact, grew up in the neighborhood and attended P.S. 72. “We take a wide range,” says Principal Susan Siegel, who also directs P.S. 72. “We sort of give ourselves a ‘curve’ of students. I’d like to take all the best, but I can’t do that. I take the ones who want to be here, and if they’re not that good, we’ll work with them, and they’ll get better.”

Perhaps because of its small size, East Harlem Tech has been spared much of the violence that has affected so many of the nation’s inner-city schools. “This is a safe haven for junior high kids,” Toliver says. “You don’t have to worry about weapons here. You don’t have to worry about viciousness here. They’re sweet kids. People say, ‘Oh, you teach in East Harlem! Aren’t you scared to go to school?’ No, I’m happy to come to school. We walk in the community. The people know me. I used to live around here. So it doesn’t bother me. Of course, I know there’s a lot of danger out there, but not in this building.”

Toliver, who now lives in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, arrives at East Harlem Tech every morning about 8 a.m. She could take the subway to get there, but she admits—somewhat reluctantly—that she chooses not to. “I take a cab,” she says, “because I’m always carrying big bags. I’m always bringing in something, and these bags are heavy. It wouldn’t take me that much longer on the subway, but when you’re constantly carrying packages, it’s very bad, and it’s crowded. So I do take a cab to work. I figure I can give myself that luxury because I don’t have any big vices!” She laughs. “Sometimes the kids think I’m rich because I ride in a taxi cab, but I tell them no, I’m really quite poor. This is my one luxury.”

To reach Toliver’s classroom, Room 504, one has to walk up a narrow, dark stairwell; the school has no elevator. In the hallway outside her room is a bulletin board that says, “Congratulations Ms. Toliver,” followed by a list of her recent honors. The walls of Room 504 are painted two shades of yellow, which helps brighten the place up. Three rows of fluorescent lights hang from the high ceiling. Although the temperature outside is only in the 50s, the radiators are blasting out heat, so all of the windows have been opened to bring some cool air into the classroom. But that merely creates another problem for Toliver and her students: the constant sound of traffic on Lexington Avenue and commuter trains on the nearby elevated tracks.

It’s 9:30 a.m. and time for Toliver’s weekly 8th grade math lab. As the students drift into the room and take their seats, Toliver, wearing a white lab coat with “Holt, Rinehart and Winston” on the pocket, writes on the blackboard: “Do now. Describe a bridge!” Then, in a vertical column, she writes:

Materials: Procedure:

Turning to her students, who are seated at desks that have been bunched together to form small groups, Toliver reminds them of the “alien” who had visited the class the week before. It seems the alien had no idea what “area” and “perimeter” meant, and it was the students’ task to explain the terms. “Well, now that same alien is here,” Toliver says, “and that alien does not know what a bridge is. Would you very quickly write a description of a bridge for someone who has never seen one before?”

As they write, Toliver moves around the classroom, prodding her students in a friendly manner. After about 10 minutes, she says: “OK. Pencils down. Now, who can tell me what a bridge is?”

“A bridge is a flat surface that separates two places,” one student offers. Says another, “A bridge connects two bodies of land.”

“OK,” Toliver says, “we’ve got a flat surface, and things go over it. What else would you tell a person who had never seen a bridge before?”

“Man-made or natural,” answers one student.

“Would that help me in seeing it?” Toliver asks. “What else?”

“If it had water under it,” another student replies.

Toliver, realizing her students are getting off track, attempts to redirect the conversation. “Someone mentioned shapes,” she says. “Dominique, I think it was you. What did you say about the shapes used in bridges?” Several students shout out answers: “Triangles.” “Rectangles.”

The teacher asks the class if they’ve walked over any bridges recently. About half the students raise their hands. “Elizabeth, where was the bridge you walked over?”

Elizabeth: “The George Washington Bridge.”

Toliver: “You walked over the George Washington Bridge? I would have been scared to death! Could you tell us what the George Washington Bridge looks like?”

Elizabeth: “Like any other bridge!”

Toliver: “Well, does it look like my bridge?”

The teacher holds up a bridge she’s built, a two-foot-long model made of wooden triangles.

Most of the class members agree that Toliver’s bridge doesn’t look anything like the George Washington Bridge.

At this point, Toliver takes a slight detour, turning her math lab into a geography lesson. She asks if any of her students know which two bodies of land the George Washington Bridge connects. “Two boroughs,” says one. “Manhattan and the Bronx,” says another. Since no one seems to know, Toliver offers bonus points to any students who can come up with the correct answer.

“Anybody else been across a bridge lately, either by walking or by driving?” Toliver asks.

“The Verrazano Narrows Bridge,” replies one student, but he doesn’t know what it connects, and neither do any of his classmates. So a slightly exasperated Toliver gives it to them as another bonus question, telling them, “These are bridges you’ve been over, now come on!” Tomorrow, she says, they’ll walk over to the East River to look at the Wards Island Bridge. “And we’ll see what other bridges we can see.”

Finally, Toliver changes gears again. “OK, we keep coming back to this shape, the triangle,” she says. “And that’s your lab problem for today. Your problem is to discover why engineers, in designing bridges, tend to use triangular-shaped figures.” She asks her students to first write down their hypotheses. “What’s a hypothesis?” she asks. “A guess,” a girl says. “What kind of guess?” Toliver asks. “An educated guess,” the girl replies, correcting herself.

As she passes out the materials for the lab project—cardboard, scissors, paper fasteners—Toliver explains the lesson, using clear, direct language. “Cut the cardboard into one-inch strips. Work together at your tables. You will make triangular figures in which you will use the paper fasteners to connect the vertices. Then, you will make a quadrilateral in which you will connect the vertices with the paper fasteners—so that you will then have two figures. Once you’ve constructed these two figures, I want you to compare them and see if you can come up with the reason to explain why engineers use triangular figures in constructing bridges.”

Toliver gives them 30 minutes to complete the task. The students get busy cutting the cardboard into strips, but it’s tough because their scissors are inadequate and there aren’t enough to go around. (“I think all of our scissors are either begged, borrowed, or stolen,” Toliver tells a visitor.) But they get the job done, and, slowly, the shapes begin to take form. As they work, Toliver—who seems physically incapable of standing in one place for more than a few seconds—darts around the classroom, making sure her students are completing the task. The noise level in the classroom jumps up a few notches. At one point, Toliver uses an old trick: She turns the lights on and off to get the students’ attention. It works; they quiet down.

The students begin to ponder their creations. The triangles maintain their shapes, while the quadrilaterals are obviously too flimsy to use in building a bridge. Yet some students can’t quite articulate the difference.

Toliver asks the class to repeat her original question. “Now, who can give us the answer to that question, based on what we just did?”

One student says, “The triangle is sturdier than a quadrilateral.” Another says, “A triangle gives more support.” Still another points out that, if you want to use a rectangle to build something, you should add a cross support to turn it into two triangles.

Finally, Toliver says, “In math, therefore, we say that a triangle is a ‘rigid’ figure. Would you describe a quadrilateral as a ‘rigid’ figure?” In unison, the students reply, “No!”

Toliver has spent an entire class period letting her students discover a simple but important math concept. “They’re used to somebody saying, ‘A triangle is a rigid figure. It’ll hold things up,’ without really letting them see for themselves,” she explains later. “Well, I want them to see for themselves.”

After the math lab, Toliver takes a few minutes to talk about her teaching style, a sort of “whole math” approach that she’s developed through years of teaching in East Harlem. “I want to teach the whole child,” she says. “I want them to start thinking and using some logical explanations for why things are the way they are and not just sitting back and waiting for the teacher to always communicate the idea. I like to use writing a lot because many of my kids are Spanish dominant, and they come in with poor writing skills. So this is another way to get them to express themselves, other than in the English classes. They have to realize that writing and explanation are part of the mathematical process. And that’s why I wanted them to describe the bridge.

‘I want them to find out that math can be a pleasurable experience. That’s the whole idea. Math class shouldn’t be something that they fear coming to. My greatest joy is just seeing my students enjoy math, coming to school, not shying away from it. It’s an area where a lot of times minority kids feel they can’t be successful. I want them to know they can be successful at it.”

She adds: “I don’t seek to embarrass my kids. If they get a wrong answer, then we’ve got to ask, ‘How did you get that answer?’ Then it becomes less intimidating if they’re not correct.”

Toliver generally has her students work together in groups; she says they’re more comfortable learning that way. And as for textbooks, well, forget it. “You’ll notice that there’s never a textbook even mentioned here,” she says.

She favors performance-based tests over paper-and-pencil tests in evaluating her students. For one such examination, Toliver had each student form a pentagon from any combination of six pattern-block pieces: a square, an equilateral triangle, a rectangle, a trapezoid, a parallelogram, and a rhombus. The students’ task was to determine the sum of the interior angles of the pentagon, and they had to explain how they got their answers. “The bottom line was, they had to go through the process, and they had to write up and explain what they did. And that was a test. And it was graded one to 10. And most of them did pretty well.”

One of Toliver’s most popular projects is the “Math Trail,” in which students create books of real-world math problems. One such book, on display in Toliver’s classroom, was put together last year by a group of students calling themselves “the Untouchables.” In the book’s introduction, the students wrote: “The problems in our book are comprised of things around us. Continue if you are a person who is not afraid to learn or try something new. We are trying to prove that the classroom is NOT the only place to learn math. So sit back, relax, and watch the Untouchables discover math.”

The book contains a number of photographs of sites around the neighborhood, each site containing a math problem. For example, next to a photo of a house on 106th Street is this puzzler: “There are two fire escapes on the outside of the building. If one is rusted and opens twice as slowly as the other, which opens in 7.4 seconds, how long will it take the rusted one to open?”

The Math Trail book incorporates at least two of the ideas Toliver holds dear to her heart: It allows her students to “discover” that math exists all around them, and it forces them to use their writing skills in communicating the math problems they create.

Toliver also has her students keep journals; she wants to know how they feel about math and school. Once, in her 7th grade math class, Toliver sensed that her students were having difficulty understanding how to measure an isosceles triangle. “I knew they were getting frustrated,” Toliver recalls, “so I asked them to tell me right then and there, ‘How do you feel? What’s on your mind at this moment?’ And here’s what some of them said.” She pulls out some samples:

“I feel very puzzled but I think I have the answer to Miss Toliver’s problem.”

“I feel very tired because I went late to sleep last night. It affects my way of working because every time I lay on the desk.”

“I feel that the room is stuffy and hot. Because of this I can’t find the way to solve the problem that Miss Toliver gave me. I also feel very sleepy and hungry.”

“Right now my brain is tired. I feel tired because I haven’t had any sleep and my brain cells aren’t energized enough.”

“I feel kind of funny because I really don’t know how to measure an isosceles triangle, but I’m going to try hard so I could feel great.”

Toliver: “I wanted to know how they were feeling about the task. And I knew they weren’t used to my teaching style. The fact is, they were being driven nuts. But I tell my students from the beginning, ‘In this room, you’re expected to think. And it’s not going to be all spoon-fed to you. You will have to apply yourself, and you’re going to discover that you know more than you really think you know.”

“Kay has a way of bringing math alive,” says special education teacher Marrero. “She has a way of making it interdisciplinary so that it’s not just all numbers. It’s literature, it’s folklore, it’s culture, it’s history, and you can see the connections.”

Some of Toliver’s students go on to East Harlem’s Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, while others get accepted into New York City’s more elite—and highly selective—specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant or the Bronx High School of Science. A few students opt to pursue vocational training.

Toliver is proud of all her students, but she is especially proud of the ones who go on to college. Like her former student who will graduate from Brown University in June. Or the one at Cornell. Or the one at Syracuse University. Or the one who graduated last year from the University of Virginia.

“It’s like everything else,” Toliver says. “You have those who make it and those who don’t. But the hope is that all of them will.”

Kay Toliver would probably be a remarkable teacher in any school, but there is no doubt that East Harlem Tech has given her the opportunity to flourish as a professional. Toliver’s tenure at the school—she began her career as a student teacher at P.S. 72 in 1966—is persuasive testimony to that fact.

Jack Perna, director of District 4’s Professional Science Center, recently completed a dissertation on East Harlem Tech for Kansas State University. His conclusion: “It’s basically a school that has a very enlightened staff.”

The teachers at East Harlem Tech are lucky to have a principal—Susan Siegel—who gives them the freedom to teach the way they see fit. “We all know what we want to teach and what we like to do, and we are able to do it,” one teacher told Perna. “There is no one breathing down our necks telling us what we can and cannot do. We check in with the principal to let her know what we are doing, but it is very flexible and independent. It means I run my curriculum the way I want to run it.”

Siegel also gives her teachers the power to set many of the school’s policies, although she has the final say. “It’s decision by consensus,” Perna says. “Unless everyone agrees, there’s no decision. They keep working until they reach that consensus.” The school’s teachers meet with Siegel at least once a month to present her with ideas and to get her “seal of approval.” Says one teacher: “If there is a problem, we discuss it first and then we go to administration for consent for what we want to do. And usually administration is supportive. But when decisions need to be made, it’s the group together, and we move on from there. When we meet with the [principal] we have already developed a game plan. We have already decided which way we want it to go.”

No one disputes that Kay Toliver is the “lead teacher” at East Harlem Tech. “Kay is the senior teacher,” Perna says, “so she’s looked upon by the other teachers as one of the prime movers of the school.”

“She has an impact on new teachers,” adds Marrero, “especially those who are very shy with math. She does staff development, and I’ve seen teachers who are very reticent come up to her after the session and say, ‘Could you help me with this?’ and she always follows up. And then they use her ideas in their classrooms. So she does have a real impact.”

Principal Siegel puts it another way: “I call her a magician. Her energy just runs through this building.”

In 1991, Toliver was one of 22 New York-area teachers selected as a Fellow for the Advancement of Mathematics Education, a three-year program administered by Long Island University. The FAME fellows meet for an entire month during the summer and once a month during the school year, returning to their schools with new ideas for their colleagues. “It’s a wonderful program,” Toliver says. “I think it’s important that teachers in this building be very much aware of what’s going on in math education because what’s going on in math affects what’s going on in English and affects what’s going on in social studies.”

Elba Marrero sounds like a proud mother when she talks about Kay Toliver, her friend and colleague. “I’m so happy for her,” she gushes. “She’s just all aglow now. She’s more self-assured. She’s done all these great things all these years and never got any real accolades about it, and now she’s getting her due.”

And so, it seems, is East Harlem Tech. “This year’s been wonderful,” Susan Siegel says. The attention, she adds, “has done a lot for us. We’re here in a tough neighborhood. Things are not getting better around us. So to know that she’s one of us, and she’s being acknowledged, makes everybody feel good.”

Meanwhile, in Room 504, Toliver is taking a break between classes. A student enters the classroom with a Federal Express package addressed to the teacher. It’s a wooden plaque from the Coca-Cola Company congratulating Toliver on being named a finalist in the Disney American Teacher Awards. It says:

‘I touch the future; I teach.”
—Christa McAuliffe

The Coca-Cola Company proudly salutes Ms. Kay Toliver

East Harlem Tech/P.S. 72
Manhattan, New York, NY

A Champion of our Future.

Toliver is elated. “Oh, I love it,” she says. “I do touch the future. I truly believe that.”

Vol. 04, Issue 06, Pages 22-27

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