Childhood Special Education '23
If I had to pick, I’d say one thing that Bank Street does really well is provide forums for discussion and community-building. I really valued the Conference Group that happened in coordination with our fieldwork experiences. A small group of classmates met once a week to share the highs and lows of our lives as teachers and graduate students.
After graduating from Bank Street in May 2023, Kiera Nemsick landed a job as a second grade teacher in a general education classroom at PS 234 Independence School in downtown Manhattan—a position she found through a Bank Street career fair.
Here’s what Kiera had to say about her experiences in Bank Street’s Childhood Special Education Program.
You completed your supervised fieldwork at a charter school, but chose to start teaching at a public school. Why?
I had completed my supervised fieldwork in a third-grade classroom at Success Academy Charter School in Manhattan. Transitioning from a charter to a public school was interesting. At the charter school, I came to understand how people wanted a system that was different from the public schools, whether that meant more rigorous or subject-specific (like STEM schools, for example) or more accessible and affordable than private schools. It is a unique system, but one that I learned was not for me, so when I began to look for a new school, I focused on my values and beliefs around education. I wanted to be in a school that emphasizes individuality in its culture and curriculum. I also searched for a school that values data but does not define a student by their assessment score. I looked for schools that emphasize social-emotional learning as much as literacy and math. This research led me to many different schools, and one was PS 234, so being able to start working there this year was a perfect match.
What was the topic of the Integrative Master’s Project that you completed at the end of your program?
I chose to explore and synthesize my learnings about emotionally responsive practice in a project I called “Engaging in Emotionally Responsive Practice when We Have Big Feelings.” I chose this topic because I have always been interested in learning more about social-emotional learning, especially since it was not emphasized when I was in elementary school like it is today. I understood “emotionally responsive” to mean responding to one’s or another’s emotions, but I did not have all the answers or tools on how I could do that. I thought about interactions with previous students who experienced challenging emotions and the ways in which I responded to them. I wondered if there were other ways in which I, or other staff members at my school, could have responded to these emotions to better support the individual.
What do you mean by “big feelings” in today’s world and learning environments?
The term “big feelings” came from my focus student, a 9-year-old boy. He had struggled academically in a NYC public school, had started the school year in temporary housing, and also had, according to his mother, experienced more trauma and instability than most children. As we worked one on one, he and I came up with the term “big feelings” together to help label the moments when he had strong reactions to certain things, which translated to physical behavior—yelling, throwing things, kicking, or running. One of the projects he and I worked on together was creating his own book about what it feels like to “always feel energetic,” like he said he did. He wanted other people to understand how he feels and I wanted him to be able to name and reflect on his big feelings. I knew it would help boost his confidence and love toward himself, which it definitely did!
Can you explain some of the key learnings in your Integrative Master’s Project that you utilized in your work with your focus student?
Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) grounds itself in neuroscience and developmental psychology. When children experience trauma, they experience physical and psychological effects that impact their emotions. ERP emphasizes empathy, reflection, and containment, which help children understand their emotions, why they might have them, and how to manage them. In order to support students, emotionally responsive practices in the classroom invite students to share their experiences and feelings yet also contain them through predictable routines and structures. This is an extremely important part of ERP because it allows students to share and reflect but in a safe and managed setting.
How are you incorporating these learnings into your current teaching role?
One way in which I—and many teachers at my school—consistently do this is through my morning meeting. My morning meeting structure is modeled after Responsive Classroom, so there is a greeting, share, and activity. The greeting is different every day but provides consistency such that every student is acknowledged. They have a chance to share, and during the activity portion, they are invited to bring their feelings and experiences into the meeting. “Morning meeting” is a great way to balance inviting and containing because it is predictable, reassuring, and affirming.
Since my major was in childhood special education, I learned so much about supporting students with developmental variations, including how to use the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDL), which is grounded in cognitive neuroscience and works to ensure that learning is accessible to all individuals. These guidelines help educators plan and implement multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. The UDL guidelines help me plan and reflect on my lessons, making sure they will provide options for self-regulation, expression, and communication. I feel very comfortable with the UDL framework. I’ve been able to utilize specific strategies and curricula from other courses, too, such as Assessment and Instruction in Teaching Literacy and The Essential Orton-Gillingham, to support reading and writing skills.
What part of your master’s degree program do you value the most?
I am so grateful that I attended Bank Street because its instructional methods and practices align very closely with my school’s. If I had to pick, I’d say one thing that Bank Street does really well is provide forums for discussion and community-building. I really valued the Conference Group that happened in coordination with our fieldwork experiences. A small group of classmates met once a week to share the highs and lows of our lives as teachers and graduate students. Our faculty leader/mentor facilitated meaningful conversations around topics we were interested in and curious about, such as culturally responsive teaching. And in return, our questions and opinions were heard. It provided us with a chance to grow our practice while building bonds with other teachers.