Dr. Shyla Rao, Principal, City Neighbors Hamilton

This year at City Neighbors Hamilton (our 2nd City Neighbors school, K-8 est. 2009) we welcome Dr. Shyla Rao as our new school leader.  Already Dr. Shyla (as the kids call her) is deep in the work of getting to know the students, connecting and supporting her teachers, and focusing on the health and well-being of the community. She has entered into our fast-paced environment right in stride – literally! On a recent Sunday, Dr. Shyla offered a walk around Lake Montebello for any parents and students who wanted to connect. It was a beautiful day. Dr. Shyla said it led to some great conversations, fresh air, and the fun of being out in the community together.

Here’s another fun detail about Dr. Shyla: Every week, she sends out a faculty bulletin to her staff that includes all the nuts and bolts, a calendar for the week, meetings, notes, and of course a quick message.  I asked her if I could share the message from Week 1.  She calls her bulletin: “What’s Good?… For Staff. The idea of taking good care of yourself – straight from Dr. Shyla Rao.” Here’s the first message of the school year:

Faculty Bulletin   September 5-8

Welcome to a brand new school year!  Let’s all begin this year with hope, optimism, and focused attention on our learners.  Let’s make decisions based upon what’s best for the students, and remind each other to maintain a work-life balance for ourselves.

“What are you doing? You ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it will go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically.  “I’m too busy sawing!”

Covey, Stephen R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Please take time to sharpen your saw.  I hold true to my Sacred Saturdays (no work, no email, no work texts) every weekend, except for the first and last of each semester. What do you hold sacred for yourself?


How wonderful to start the journey of a new school year, and a new leader, with such an inspiring message of well-being and mindfulness. As much as our students need these messages, so do our teachers and school leaders. We all need to take care of each other. And, as Dr. Shyla is demonstrating, we can have fun doing it!




Giovanni’s Cafe sign (made in the Fab Lab)

This week please welcome guest blogger  Sajida Davis, teacher of Language Arts at City Neighbors Charter School.

Last May, I was convinced to move into the old library space on the third floor attic like space of City Neighbors and leave the comfort of my huge classroom on the second floor with lots of natural light, multiple desk arrangement possibilities, and the plush white curtains that I picked myself. But, when Bobbi asked, “If you could design your classroom so you could teach the way you’ve always wanted to teach,  what would it look like?” I rubbed my chin and begin to ask myself several questions:

  • Where is the best place to read and write for adults in the world?
  • Is the space I have in mind feasible for what I want to do, what I teach, and how I teach?
  • What do I want students to think of and feel when they enter?
  • What will I have to give up or let go of in order to attain this?
  • What will I do differently for the space to be real (rules and procedures)?
  • And of course – What will it be called?

After I realized that the space I was moving out of and the space I was moving into were probably the same size, I realized that I did not want to take all the desks and chairs upstairs with me. The new space has carpet and feels more like a gathering or meeting space. So, I immediately thought of a cafe style of setting. I love to read and write, or just people watch at Starbucks and Barnes and Nobles. So, I decided that I wanted to create a very comfortable space with big seats and chairs for my students.  A Cafe like setting.  Lets call it Giovanni’s Cafe′!

I wanted the authority in the room to not be noticeable and wondered if any was needed at all.  Would the students to be on task working and learning in the new cafe′ like setting if I gave up the command center at the front of the room?  I knew that in order for these things to work, to have the cafe that I imagined, I would have to give up a few things – and now I realize what they are.  Giving up the traditional set up of desks and chairs caused me to submit to the space my authoritative position in the room.

There is no “front” of the room in Giovanni’s Cafe.

I’ve learned a lot this year about the authority of the classroom.  Now, students are allowed to move about the room on their own and without permission.  Students are also allowed to go to the restroom and for water without permission. (You wouldn’t need permission at Barnes & Noble.)  Over this past school year the students and I have become used to our new setting.   We use the space for performances and open mic’s that are sometimes planned and sometimes happen just naturally (like it might at a “speak easy”). The space is laid back and relaxed, a place where I often hear students having open cypher-like conversations on current events and topics they’re passionate about.  When it gets too loud, instead of telling kids to stop talking so loud, I play music in the background, and just slightly increase the volume of the music (which grabs attention), then turn it back down. Because they are so used to the music being in the background, this cue allows them to know when to bring it down.

Teaching from the front of the room? Those days are over. I now teach from one of the big comfy seats and converse with the kids. I stand in front only as another presenter that is “informing” them and offering notes.  Even the walls are used differently in Giovanni’s Cafe′.  I now have a whole wall that is a white board. Student-artist work always lives here and is welcome.  Students know that this is a wall that WE all use to present works, it isn’t just for the teacher.

Now, the management of this space is in the quiet unknown procedures that we all support and enforce together.  These new procedures allow me to focus on the work of my students and have extended time to really talk.  And, I think that it has also changed my relationships with my students.  They come to talk to me all the time now.  They are very comfortable just lounging in the cafe during recess or when there is no class,  just to work on school work or whatever.

Now, I couldn’t imagine teaching in any other space but Giovanni’s Cafe′.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Giovanni’s Cafe…

Guest blogger:  Kayisha Edwards, Special Educator shares her Thoughts from the Field.

Eyes affixed upon the throngs of books that align the shelves, I can’t help but wonder if the dreamy eyed student is paying attention to the lesson at hand. Is the student processing?  Taking a much needed break from the discussion?  Or perhaps just thinking about life.

In the Middle School Current News Intensive, (Intensive is a time of enrichment and support)  students were encouraged to spend time to ruminate about their dreams. After reading an article about Malala Yousafzai and two Langston Hughes poems, students were eager to connect who they aspire to be to the likes of a resilient young woman and a renowned poet.

In their writing, some students made comments about who they are as dreamers:

“What type of dream am I doing? A lucid dream because I want to be aware and have control over where I go in life.”

“Langston Hughes said something that made me think about my dream, and Malala made me think about how hard she worked to let girls know what she went through in order to rally for education. My dream is to be a beautician and never let that go.”

Other students personally connected with Langston Hughes’s poems:

“What stood out to me is when Hughes says ‘For if dreams die, Life is like a broken winged bird that cannot fly’. What I get from this is if you diminish your dreams then you will lose a big factor of your life. I say that because a big factor of a bird’s life is flying and with a broken wing it can’t do that. So with a dream, if you defer it, then you will lose a big element of your life.”

And others made a connection to Malala Yousafzai:

“Malala’s story is an inspiration to people, including me. Having a dream is not worth anything unless it’s spread to the world. Some say that your dreams have limits, but there is always a way to overcome those limits.”

“Though, it’s easy to have dreams, it’s more difficult to fulfill them. If you really want to become what you seek, you have to work very hard to achieve it. Many people, like Malala Yousafzai, worked extremely hard to do this, and I want to do this, too.”

In these quotes I see the power of giving students time to think. Time for students to sit and stare wherever their eyes become affixed: on a picture, in a book, an article or a poem – and to think about those who have dreamed in the past and whose dreams are making headlines today in an effort to foster robust thoughts and conversations about dreams of their own.

-Kayisha Edwards is a Special Educator at City Neighbors Charter School

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