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Monday, March 23, 2009

Teacher Chance Nalley Invites All His Students to His Commitment Ceremony

I applaud Mr. Nalley for openly announcing his commitment to another man.

Betsy Combier
Editor, NYC Rubber Room Reporter

March 23, 2009
Big City
Most of the Seventh Grade Will Be at the Commitment Ceremony

Sometimes the best news is that a story makes no news.

In the fall of 2008, the supporters of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative meant to ban gay marriage in the state of California, fell on a lucky break: video of first graders whose class parents had arranged for them a trip to city hall, where they celebrated their female teacher’s marriage to another woman, a ceremony over which the mayor of San Francisco presided. Gay-marriage opponents cried indoctrination, and the ensuing controversy provoked so much outrage that it has been considered important in squashing opposition to the ban. (The California Supreme Court is currently weighing the constitutionality of the proposition.)

In Harlem a week ago, a 32-year-old math teacher handed out slips of paper inviting the entire seventh grade of Columbia Secondary School to his upcoming ceremony, where, the names on the invitation made clear, he’d be celebrating his commitment to another man. The teacher, Chance Nalley, (pictured above) rarely wastes an instructional opportunity but said that, in this particular instance, he wasn’t trying to make an educational statement.

“They kept asking if they were invited,” he said of his students at Columbia, a selective public school that specializes in math, science and engineering. “Originally, I said no. But when I found a venue that turned out to be big enough I said, ‘O.K., you can come.’ I invited their parents, too.”

A famously strict teacher — his boss says he is regarded by students with a mixture of “love and fear” — Mr. Nalley kept his sexual orientation to himself at the previous public school where he taught, the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy in the Bronx. “They respected my authority, and I’d have hated for their prejudices to interfere with my working relationship with them,” he explained.

But Columbia Secondary, which operates in a partnership between the Department of Education and Columbia University, is a much smaller school, whose mission statement includes a commitment to diversity (more than half the students are black or Hispanic, 45 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches).

With his principal’s support, Mr. Nalley, who started at the school when it opened in 2007, felt comfortable coming out to students during a diversity workshop that fall.

“A lot of the students were shocked at the time,” said the principal, Jose Maldonado-Rivera, (pictured below) “shocked that he said it, and shocked that it was true. For many students, it was a huge eye-opener — it was the last thing they would have thought about Chance.”

Two parents told the principal that they didn’t want Mr. Nalley teaching their children. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera explained that since the school had only one math teacher at the time, if they wanted their children to take math, they didn’t have a choice. The children stayed, and since then, neither Dr. Maldonado-Rivera nor Mr. Nalley has heard a word from them.

More recently, two other parents sent e-mail messages to Dr. Maldonado-Rivera to complain about Mr. Nalley’s invitation. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera explained to them that he saw the school as an extended family and that the invitation was in that spirit. And that was the end of the controversy, such as it was.

There have, however, been some questions. One student asked about the legality of two men marrying. Mr. Nalley explained that New York State does not, in fact, allow it, but that he was thinking of the ceremony as a wedding celebration, if not a legal contract. When another student asked why gay marriage was not legal in New York, Mr. Nalley responded, “I really don’t know.”

He is expecting about two-thirds of the school’s 96 seventh graders at the ceremony, on April 4 at St. Paul’s Chapel on Columbia University’s campus (he had to hire an extra security guard because so many children were coming). Four seventh graders, approached at random on Friday, said they planned to be there.

Were they surprised to learn he was gay?

“He’s not gay,” said Japhet Guzman, 12.

“No,” agreed a lanky 13-year-old who walked with a bit of a tough-guy swagger, “he’s not gay. He’s bisexual. Why don’t you ask him?” (Mr. Nalley confirmed this.)

Within hours of that diversity workshop last fall, the kids said, the whole school had heard the news about Mr. Nalley.

“I was really surprised,” recalled the 13-year old boy. “It didn’t change anything about what we thought about him, though.”

Raven Franklyn, another student, added, “It showed he trusts us.”

And they apparently trust him: Mr. Nalley said six students have come out to him this year.

Every once in a while, Mr. Nalley does catch an earful of the homophobia that’s obviously rampant in seventh-grade boys trying to prove their machismo. For example, he said, seventh grade is the age when kids start saying everything is “so gay.”

“When I hear that, I just say to them, ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’ ” said Mr. Nalley.

After that, he doesn’t hear it again.


2008: Math Citation
A Global Take on Mathematics
Chance Nalley brings an international flair to the classroom


Middle school students are notorious for their short attention spans—a trait science teacher Chance Nalley is lucky to share.

“I have an attention span about the same as a small child, so if I’m not interested, I don’t expect kids to be interested,” Nalley said. “I make sure I’m interested in the material and the kids are interested by default. I always think about if I were in that seat, how I would want to learn.”

Nalley, who teaches 6th grade at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, has booked some mileage trying to figure out how kids learn best. Traveling the world in a comparative analysis of education, Nalley has made trips to Cambodia, Mexico, Russia, Singapore and Vietnam to understand the differences in mathematics education across the globe and find ways to integrate international techniques into his own teaching.

“Every time I go on one of these trips, I sift through the things that I see and determine what we can use and what we can’t,” he said.

As a founding member of the math department at the start-up school, Nalley has the freedom to implement his ideas immediately, so his teaching style is a cultural hybrid. His curriculum focuses not on grades, but rather on mastering individual skills—163 of them, to be exact—which he has identified as the necessary precursors to the study of algebra. Each student is given a checklist and must check a box each time they build up proficiency in one of the building-block skills.

“It keeps the kids enthusiastic to really be able to measure their learning,” Nalley said.

“For the kids, it’s not about a grade—I have to give them grades—but their learning is about how many of those skills they have mastered.”

Aside from his impressive record of research and a laundry list of awards, parents and students agree that Nalley’s most impressive feat is making the classroom fun, day after day.

“They’re in 6th grade doing 7th grade math and they really understand it,” said parent Candy Gulko. “I think it’s because this is his life’s work. He keeps the class mesmerized. These kids are glued to the edge of their seats, listening to him the way they would be watching a movie.”

Nalley’s students often stay after class or come in before school to show him that they are ready to check a new box, and the teacher is eager to spend the extra time with them.

“He has an incredible dedication to middle school children,” Gulko said. “He really understands them developmentally. He understands what makes them tick. And he bends over backward to motivate them.”
Nalley’s short attention span has led him to jobs in construction and engineering, so he has plenty of experience to enrich his lessons.

“I’m a real-life context person,” he said. “I don’t like the contrived problems that books come up with, so we talk about where things really do apply.”

— Carolyn Braff

Prof. Nalley Rakes in Two Prestigious Teaching Awards!
It is with great pleasure and much pride that we announce that Prof. Chance Nalley, CSS-MSE Professor of Math-Coordinator of Afterschool Programs, and 7th grade Faculty Team Leader, has won the Math for America - Master Teacher award as well as the 2008 Blackboard Outstanding Math Teacher Award!

The Master Teacher award is one of the most highly sought after in the nation, as it comes with a 4 year supplementary stipend worth $57,500, to support the selected teacher's commitment to teaching in urban schools. Prof. Nalley intends to use the stipend to support the completion of his PhD in Math Education at our partner institution,Teachers College-Columbia University.

The United States suffers from a serious shortage of quality math and science teachers and this is affecting our nation's ability to train future scientists, mathematicians and engineers. At CSS-MSE we are honored to have been able to attract a stellar core faculty Professors Dominguez, Hill, Jones, Cota, Thompson, and Stillman. Prof. Nalley's MfA award recognizes the excellence and passion for teaching that make Columbia Secondary an extraordinary place of learning.

The Blackbloard Award recognizes "fantastic teaching" in New York City. The Blackboard Awardees are nominated by students, parents or teachers and a panel of judges makes the final selection. We are proud of Professor Nalley's work, and ask that you join us in congratulating him!