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Too Sick for School

Hospital teachers keep kids learning

Kristine Polisciano Gonzalez is a teacher at the New York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. Her job title is straight-forward: a teacher who provides instruction and school-work assistance to school-aged children who are hospitalized.

Gonzalez, a 32-year veteran educator, helps her young patients stay up to date on their school work; plans lessons and materials for different age groups and skill levels; and serves as a go-between for the patient and the school. Her goal is two fold: to keep students academically current and “normalize” their day.

“A hospital can be such a strange environment for children and young people—it can be really isolating,” she says. “What we want is to normalize their experience, and give them the opportunity to learn, play, and cope with their medical condition.”

Gonzalez’s day is full. Every morning she checks on her students—ages four to 21—and determines their needs. If patients are able to leave the bed, Gonzalez will conduct class in a small group setting. If not, she’ll take her rolling chair, dry erase board and manipulatives, and conduct the lesson at the student’s bedside. A rolling chair helps to quickly make way for parents, nurses, and doctors.  

Teaching at a hospital can be “heartbreaking” work, says Gonzalez. Some students have debilitating conditions, such as Sickle Cell Disease, a lifelong ailment in which abnormal hemoglobin changes red blood cells into an inflexible sickle shape. This hinders the passage of oxygen to tissue, causing intense pain and sometimes organ damage.

Despite the scary stigma a hospital may have for some children and young people, Gonzalez does experience happy moments.

“Making kids smile, laugh, and forget they’re sick is one of those moments,” she says. At times, she’s even able to go the extra mile for her students.

Last year, a teenage student missed her school’s prom because of a Sickle Cell crisis.
Gonzalez took action and called the principal of her son’s school to ask if they had room at their prom for this young lady who had already bought a dress and rented a limo. The principal said, “Yes.”

“These are some of the things you’re able to do for kids and hopefully make up for the things that they’re losing out on,” Gonzalez says.

Giving Back By Doing Good

Engineer turned teacher helps students build apps for their special needs counterparts

Nick Gattuso is a computer science teacher at Point Pleasant Borough High School in New Jersey, where his students have developed a suite of learning applications to assist students with disabilities, as well as an emergency-response app for school officials. Last year, his students’ work was honored by the state school boards association. 

“This November will be my 15th year at the high school. Prior to coming [here], I worked for 20 years for Bell Labs. It was the pre-eminent research institution of its time…I was scheduled to be in the Pentagon, in its computer center, on 9-11. The reason I wasn’t there was because it was back-to-school night for my daughter, who was in elementary school. After that…I wanted to give back. I was too old to be a cop or a fireman, so I decided to give back by becoming a teacher.

“I took an early retirement package from Bell, and was literally put into a teaching job with no experience. I have a master’s degree in software engineering, and also a bachelor’s degree in English and poetry. I took an almost $100,000 pay cut—no lie.

“When I was at Bell, we had done this work for a guy who was paralyzed in one arm. It was a voice-activation program that helped him do his work. Years later, I was talking to my son Nicholas, explaining this story and how this program had helped this guy, and we had the idea of building real software, something that means something to people. I went down the hall to the teachers in the special-needs programs, and they were like, ‘We’ve been waiting for you!’

“PALS stands for Panther Assisted Learning Software. In our case, my students have a set of customers downstairs, in special needs, and those customers are dependent on us to create programs that are actually meaningful, that help their lives. One of the applications we built teaches them how to go grocery shopping—with a shopping-cart simulator that has them rolling around a 3D store, picking up the bread. Another one helps them count money. 

“When this thing started taking off, I went down to my administration and said, ‘We have Programming 1, and we then we have AP Computer Science, but there’s really no place for kids to go after that. So we created Advanced Software Engineering topics. All we do is project-based, like it would be in college, or in the workplace. There are deadlines, but there are no tests.

“The question is: Did you solve the problem? Did you build something that will enrich the lives of the children downstairs? Did you make their lives better? Some of my kids are working now for Google, for Apple, for Yelp. They make oodles of money, but they always know that the genesis of their work was building stuff for special needs kids, for doing good for somebody else.”

Men of Honor

Opportunities, possibilities, and expectations

NaShonda Cooke watches as the fourth- and fifth-grade boys from her Men of Honor Club excitedly learn from a visiting robotics engineering team that is teaching the students to build their own robots. 

A teacher at Eno Valley Elementary School in Durham, N.C., Cooke believes that for the male-student population in her community to envision themselves as something other than future entertainers or athletes, they must be exposed to different people, places, and ideas during their elementary school years. Cooke has directed the club since 2010 and helps to ensure the young men receive the experiences and tools they need.  

“I have taken them to a five-star restaurant where they tried calamari for the first time. The executive chef was from Durham, [and] had a rough start in life, being in and out of foster care. I want them to see people who have gone through the same thing as them and show them that they can make it,” says Cooke. 

The boys are learning that they are positive examples, that they are expected to be successful, and their parents and community have faith in them. 

“We get to show the possibilities that they have inside of them,” says Cooke, adding that the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) has for years been a big supporter of her work—something that fuels Cooke’s passion to continue “fighting for my sons.” 

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