Oct 12, 2018

Summer Mentorship at Inspired Teaching

Inspired Teacher training in action
Inspired Teacher training in action

A Space for Inquiry

It’s 2pm and I’m standing in a classroom in northwest DC holding a yo-yo.

Two brand new Inspired Teaching fellows (teachers-in-training) are standing next to me, asking me questions.

“Do you, uh, think you can do a trick with the yo-yo called ‘walk the dog?” one of the teachers asks.

The other one offers: “Could you maybe try, like, throwing it sideways? Do you know what I mean?’”

“Uhh… maybe?” I respond with a shy smile. I have no idea how to do a ‘walk the dog’ but I do try to throw the yo-yo sideways and end up accidentally dropping it on the floor. I walk away in frustration.

On this particular afternoon, I’m in this classroom because I’ve volunteered to play the role of a mock student, and the fellows have been instructed to teach me how to use a yo-yo… but only by asking questions. No statements allowed.

So the fellow pauses for a moment and then asks: “What do you think you need to do to be successful with a yo-yo?”

My eyes light up. Unlike her first few questions, she doesn’t know the answer to this one. It’s all on me. She may not realize it yet, but this is the space where the magic of learning happens.

“I think,” I say, after genuinely thinking about it, “that I need to just be able to do 5 regular swings without stopping.”

Now we have a new lesson plan – and I, the student, am in charge of my own learning.

This is what teacher training looks like in Center for Inspired Teaching’s Summer Institute, a 3 week long jump start for teachers who are just starting the Inspired Teaching Residency.

It’s an exercise that helps new teachers learn how to provide a space for inquiry instead of a list of directions. And the reason I know this activity so well because I was brand new teaching fellow myself, standing in this very same classroom and doing this exact same activity, 5 summers ago.

This summer, however, I’m returning to play the role of the summer mentor. And while I’m stepping into the first year fellows’ classroom to help out, my primary responsibility is to advise the second year Fellows.

Details Matter

The second year Fellows have just completed their residency year. They’ve been watching, learning from, assisting, and occasionally taking over for their lead teacher, someone who has modeled great teaching practices for an entire year. Now, they’re starting from scratch, in their own summer school classrooms with one of their fellow cohort members. They’ll lead a class together for four weeks and then transition into the lead role in their full-time classrooms starting in the fall. I’ve been assigned to help two teaching teams, four teachers total.

As the summer begins, I watch my mentees struggle with the fact that, with a brand new class coming in next week, there’s no veteran teacher to set everything up. It’s a bit like learning how to drive a car for an entire year and then finding out that you now need to build your own car out of spare parts. And quickly.

“So the students will come in in the morning and do morning work,” one of my mentees explains to me. “After that, we start morning meeting and brainstorm ideas about classroom expectations.”

“Sounds good,” I tell her. “But let’s back up. How will they walk in? What will their volume be like? And how will you communicate these expectations in that first moment when they walk in?”

Just like the first year fellows asking me questions about a yo-yo, it’s not rhetorical. I don’t know the answer to the question I’m asking. My goal is to push her thinking so that she can decide what specific environmental factors she and her students will need to be successful.

She turns to her teaching partner with a quizzical look. They realize, in this moment, that they haven’t thought it through. It’s one conversation of many that they will continue to have as the summer progresses. It’s one of the first of many revelations that they will have the summer: the details matter.

The Gap

Even though summer school is only a month long, it can sometimes feel like an entire school year stuffed into four weeks. It’s not uncommon for teachers in summer practicum to re-connect and disconnect multiple times with their passion for teaching. It’s not uncommon for teachers to discover just how much of a gap exists between the teacher that they are and the teacher that they want to be.

And it’s not uncommon for those teachers to work excruciatingly hard to close that gap before the summer ends. This, I know.

I know this because I see their long and thoughtful texts to me late on a Saturday, about their ideas to address kindness issues in their classroom.

I know this because even at the end of a hard day, they receive long hugs goodbye from their most challenging students.

I know this because that was me, five years ago. Staying up late writing journal entries about my students and their needs, knowing that I needed to learn as much as I could from them as quickly as possible to be the best teacher I could possible be in the fall.

And the result of all of this reflection and learning is evident because somewhere toward the end of the summer, I notice that my mentees’ teaching powers have grown. It’s nothing short of remarkable.  At the start of the summer, I would often take copious notes while observing a mini-lesson. I’d analyze every movement the teacher made, every word that they said.

And now, at the end, I find it hard to even find a place to take notes. Classrooms are bustling with students in every corner, working on interesting projects and directing their own learning. Teachers are no longer standing at the front of the class asking for quiet; instead they’re getting out of the way by observing and occasionally asking a provocative question to a student in need.  The hum of learning is ever present.

At the end of the summer, during our final meeting, I ask one of my mentees a question to which I did not know the answer. “So now that it’s almost over, do you feel like you’re the teacher you want to be?”

“No,” she laughs. “That will take a while. But before the summer started, I hadn’t even thought about what kind of teacher I wanted to be. Now, it’s something I ask myself every day. My vision is much more clear.”

Remarkably, she is learning to ask herself questions that don’t have an immediate answer.

I’m fascinated.

A Window and a Mirror

I’ve said before that the role of a teacher is to offer their students a window and a mirror. A window with which to see the world through many different lenses and perspectives, and a mirror to allow students to understand the power of their own perspective and potential.

But as a summer mentor, I came to terms with something else: a teacher must also stand in front of their own mirror. After all the lesson plans have been written, it is there, in the glow of their own reflection, where they will do their most challenging work. They will confront every imperfection.  They will think about what they will do differently tomorrow. They will, simultaneously, berate themselves and strive for self-acceptance. They will do all of this for the good of themselves and the good of their students.

For a new teacher, looking into the mirror is the scariest part of the job. For a pro teacher, this is the job. And it occurs to me that I, the summer mentor, have very little to do with the mirror. But maybe, in this case, I hold the window.  If I was able to help these wonderful teachers catch a glimpse of all incredible possibilities that lie ahead, then, mission accomplished.

Jul 16, 2018

Teacher Feature: Ms. Jones


Asia Jones is a 2016 Inspired Teaching Fellow and 1st grade teacher at Eagle Academy PCS. This spring, she sat down with Inspired Teaching to discuss how she incorporates topics related to social justice into her classroom to help her students become activists.

You’ve implemented social justice curriculum in your classroom; can you share your experience approaching and executing lessons with your students?

When my mentor and I decided to teach activism, we wanted to teach students about black history that is relevant to now. We thought about Black Lives Matter in general and how we could apply those themes to our classroom to make our class a better space for learning and increase the students’ self esteem around their identity. Every student in my class is black. I taught them about historical black activists and about the change they made and their reason for wanting to make change as well as the challenges they faced. We learned about the traits a good activist must posses, so the students could learn about ways they can be an activists in their class and school.

The students were most engaged during whole-class discussions. Students who are usually reluctant to engage in class activities even expressed enjoyment about learning about the figures. Some kids told me, “I like learning about activism.” One student who is normally disengaged in other units was particularly interested, even creating activism artwork in his free time. Students told their parents, grandparents, and families. One student told his grandparents that he was learning about activism and they said, “what’s that?” This was a great example of student as expert and the students are going home and influencing their communities and families.

How have you dealt with the controversial nature of teaching topics related to social justice?

We did have some controversy. When I first put up the bulletin board for the unit, I put up “Black Lives Matter” so the students could commit to the movement and process. I immediately got an email from my principal and I had to defend my position of incorporating Black Lives Matter in my class. The administration was not immediately supportive, but I did get a lot of support from other teachers in the school and community. A lot of parents would stop in and tell me they thought it was cool I was encouraging my students in this way, and some teachers brought their classes by our board to sign their names.

How have you advocated for what you know to be best for your students?

I just stood my ground. I knew this was something I thought was important to teach them so I wasn’t wavering. I was going to find a way to satisfy my principle. So I sent in my plans and said I want to instill self esteem, advocacy, and the “want” to be better in my students and I felt like this could be a learning experience that would yield these outcomes. Then, I went with it. Of course, I informed administration of how the unit aligned with content standards.

As an Inspired Teacher, why do you feel it is so critical to teach these lessons?

It’s important to teach activism to students, young students, so they can think about how they truly can make a difference. Instead of thinking they need to accept society, I wanted to teach activism because my students are imaginative and can really envision themselves as activists. I also wanted to teach it because of the community they live in, because of their backgrounds, and because I wanted them to have more pride in their identities. Those were the main motivators. I taught activism in the context of our school. We named several problems we noticed in the school and then voted on the factor most preventing us from learning, which they identified as disrespectful and disruptive behaviors in the school. We decided to be activists in our community and set out to change, which started by changing their own behavior. Throughout the unit, we really unpacked the characteristics and tactics of the activists we studied to apply that to how they will influence their community. I honestly believe they feel empowered.

How have your students responded? What have been their reactions?

This is going to be something that they remember for a very long time, maybe into adulthood. During our showcase day, they were all able to define activism and define what an activist is. They were also able to list traits that make a good activist, and identify ways they can change their behavior to influence others. They really made the connections I intended for them to. They are really proud of their work – they randomly say the class logo and rap we wrote for the culminating projects because it is that meaningful to them. They want to show their projects to friends in other classes- and I can see their pride and their intrinsic motivation has grown because their proud.

How will you continue to promote social justice in your classroom, this year and beyond?

I always refer to the work we do to reinforce the behaviors I want and to redirect students and I plan to continue teaching this and making adjustments to make it a better unit. I refined the lesson as we progressed, so I’d like to teach it again. I’d also like to connect learning about activism with modern day movements that are relevant to the students’ lives so they can actually understand this is applicable.

What advice would you give another teacher?

Great question! I have a bit of advice.

  1. I think because it is a controversial matter, you have to be aware of your identity teaching social justice and be aware of how people will perceive you and approach your facilitation of the subject based on your identity.
  2. Lesson should be student-led and student driven. Children are going to lead themselves to the answers on their own. Let it be discussion based.
  3. Create a culminating project that the students can see themselves in – like the video our class shot.
  4. Talk to administration about your plans and reasoning. Share your plans with the whole school.

If I were to do this again, I would have chosen more activists for the students to study — perhaps some that are alive today, with similar social issues that the students face now.

Apr 18, 2018

Inspired Teachers Teach BLM Equity Curriculum

Brittney H. and class read One
Brittney H. and class read One

Building on their commitment to be changemakers in the classroom, Inspired Teachers incorporated Black Lives Matter curriculum into their classrooms. This article in The Afro highlights how Inspired Teachers engaged their students in important lessons and dialogue about racial justice.

Inspired Teaching Fellow Brittney Henderson (‘13) One Read Aloud

For the DC Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, Inspired Teaching Fellow Brittney Henderson (‘13) and her kindergarten students at West Education Campus (DCPS) read One by Kathryn Otoshi, a book that addresses the importance of inclusion in a diverse community. Afterwards, the class discussed why everyone must be kind to each other even when people aren’t kind to them, and created posters to demonstrate how to be kind.

One is a favorite book among parents participating in Teaching for Change’s Roving Readers program. Parent readers act out the book with students and emphasize standing together in solidarity against a bully, while also showing compassion for that person.

Brittney incorporates Black Lives Matter into her classroom “to teach her students how to value every person and help them understand that being a good citizen means respecting all voices and valuing all people, regardless of their identities.”

Inspired Teaching Fellow Jay Banks (‘15) Crossing Bok Chitto Read Aloud

Inspired Teaching Fellow Jay Banks’ 2nd grade classroom at DC Scholars PCS focused on Black Lives Matter by discussing resistance and advocacy. The class read Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle, the fictional story of the friendship between a young Choctaw girl and and enslaved African boy. The students attentively listened and asked questions about how members of different cultures persevere in the face of discrimination and oppression. After the read aloud, students had the opportunity to write their own stories of time they helped somebody or sparked change in their community.

Through addressing Black Lives Matter in the classroom, Jay has learned that the students have so much to say and giving them the opportunity to discuss these critical topics invigorates them and helps them develop into well-rounded people. Jay chooses to be a part of this movement to help students recognize their agency and help them understand that can make change, even as a young person. Jay believes that engaging students in conversations about Black Lives Matter build empathy and shows each student that “no matter how they identify, they are included.”

Humanities Hub Teacher Topher Kandick #Last Words Lesson

As a part of Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, SEED Public Charter School educator Topher Kandik did a powerful lesson on the last words of victims of police brutality. Students started out the class by reading the poem “Bell Canto” about Sean Bell by Derrick Weston Brown. Students took turns reading the poem and stopped after each stanza to discuss imagery, tone and meaning of the poem. A student stated that the poem make them think “about exhaustion because [police brutality] is something that happens so often in so many places and people are beyond tired, they are exhausted.”  Next, students were given a paper that had the following quotes in boxes:

“Mom, I’m going to college.”

“I don’t want to die young”

“I love you, too”

“I didn’t do nothing.”

“Please don’t let me die”

“What are you following me for?”

“Officers why do you have your guns out?”

“This isn’t real.”

As Mr. Kandik discussed the quotes, he asked students to draw pictures to represent the quotes but didn’t give context as to what the quotes were about. Students were enjoying drawing images and coming up with creative ways to convey the messages of the quotes. When students finished drawing pictures for every quote, Mr. Kandik revealed that those quotes were actually the last words said by people before they were killed. There was a heavy sigh among students, realizing what these images and quotes represented. A student stated he wanted to “redraw the pictures” now that he knew what the quotes meant. The students had a discussion about how they felt re-reading the quotes and expressed reactions of frustration, anger and disappointment thinking about the stories of the victims. Students then looked at the Last Words Project by Shirin Barghi and matched the quotes with the actual victims. Students asked questions and discussed the different scenarios each victim was in when they said their last words. After going through the project a student stated “every person that is victim of police brutality is another chapter in the sad book that is American history.”  This was a powerful activity in imagery and poetry. Next, students will write their own poems.

Jay Banks and class read Crossing Bok Chitto
Jay Banks and class read Crossing Bok Chitto
Topher Kandick and class read quotes
Topher Kandick and class read quotes

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