(Photo: Flickr)

It almost sounds like a cheesy summer action flick: “Institute ... this time, it’s personal.”

This summer, I am serving as a Corps Member Advisor for the incoming 2014 corps. I am thrilled that institute is in my hometown of Chicago this year; my placement school for the summer is in the neighborhood I grew up in. Yes, I am making my epic return to Englewood, seven years later. When I graduated from Walter Payton College Prep and left for Oberlin College in the fall of 2007, I vowed that one day I would return to my roots and work to make my community a better place. Atonement comes this summer. Although institute is only five weeks long, the seeds that I will plant can impact a generation of kids and their families.

(Photo credit: docentjoyce)

"If there was a gay dude in here, it’d either be me or him,” my student declared vociferously. I took a deep breath—I had anticipated this. We had just finished our last unit on Death of a Salesman, we were done with the End of Course Exam, and we had about a week and a half left until finals. I’d decided that we would do thematic days until it was time to review, and today was Worldly Wednesday. In small groups, my 11th graders chose whether they would read about Iranians being detained for making a cover of the music video of “Happy,” Chipotle banning guns from their stores after gun rights activists in Texas came into a restaurant with automatic rifles, a stay of execution in Missouri triggered by the botched execution in Oklahoma, or the recent overturning of gay marriage bans in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and my current home of Arkansas.

Teach For America recently introduced a national LGBTQ pilot in several states to empower corps members, regardless of personal identity, to better support their LGBT or questioning students.  In Arkansas, the participants talked about introducing LGBTQ literature to the classroom when anticipated resistance to the reading could be high. We talked about introducing choice—if the students chose to read about the LGBTQ community, then parents can’t really be all that upset at the teachers, right? We talked about using articles instead of books—shorter texts mean less time for opposition to form. We talked about queering the traditional canon of literature—to show that LGBTQ lit isn’t just its own genre and to have an expert backing up the content. And, finally, we talked about bundling the issue into a larger unit on identity and potentially bullying. I’d spent the year talking about Safe Space with my students in a general sense, but I’d just put up a GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) sticker on my door and I was ready to intentionally bring up a conversation about the LGBTQ community in class. Now, here we were, and a student who had only looked at the headline of the article was in full-on opposition mode. I opened my mouth to respond, but another student beat me to it.

Blair Mishleau portrait

(Photo: Flickr)

I’ve always wondered how much I work a week as a teacher. Last week, I sat down with six other teachers (at different schools, different grade levels, etc.) and asked them to track their hours worked.

Two things shocked me.

Alex Fenn, Colorado '12

Alex Fenn's students. (Photo credit: Teach For America)

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school includes visiting the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in first grade. Much of my first-grade experience is a relative blur, but the image of a diplodocus skeleton is one I’ll never forget, as it sparked my lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. 

Experiences like this, ones that will make my students remember my class for years to come, are something that I strive to create in my third-grade classroom at College View Elementary School in Denver. So when I learned that Teach For America-Colorado, Subaru of America, and Leave No Trace, an organization that conducts trainings on outdoor ethics and environmental responsibility, would be partnering to bring a classroom to their Western Regional Offices, I jumped at the opportunity. This year, Subaru donated $10 million to ASPCA, Make-A-Wish, Meals On Wheels Association of America, National Park Foundation, and Teach For America as well as more than 240 local charities across the country. Teach for America regions, spanning 34 states, will receive over $1 million from Subaru. In addition to providing an environmental enrichment opportunity for my students, Teach For America-Colorado received $50,000 to help recruit, train, and provide ongoing support to teachers who commit to teaching in high-need schools and subject areas in Colorado’s public schools.

Pass The Chalk Editorial Team

Over the next two weeks, we’re introducing you to the 10 finalists in the Symantec Innovation in Teaching Awards. Meet the teachers who are changing the way their students learn and vote for the most inventive to win!

Hardy Farrow, government and economics teacher at Power Center Academy High School in Memphis, TN

Hardy created the Let's Innovate Through Education program (LITE) to empower students to develop their own businesses or nonprofits for their communities. The goal of the program is to inspire students make their community a place they’ll want to live in for the rest of their lives while developing their leadership potential. LITE students compete against each other for the chance to present their ideas to the community at a spring gala.

Dr. Eric Lander with Brandon Podyma and Kathryn Davis.

In the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—collectively known as STEM—Dr. Eric Lander needs no introduction. He is one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, and is the founding director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. As a very proud MIT and Teach For America-STEM alumni, you can imagine that I jumped at the opportunity to participate in Dr. Lander’s massive open online course (MOOC) “Introductory Biology: The Secret of Life.” I had missed the chance to take a course with Dr. Lander as an undergraduate, and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by.

What made the MOOC even more exciting was that Dr. Lander wanted to involve teachers, allowing them to take the lessons of STEM’s premiere leaders back to their P-12 classrooms. He and his team made an incredible opportunity available to corps members and alumni: take the course, take the information back to your students, and be eligible to win a trip to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), tour Dr. Lander’s laboratory, and meet the man himself!

While many teachers signed up for the MOOC, two stood out as having exceptional visions for advancing their students’ STEM work: Amgen Fellow Brandon Podyma (Eastern North Carolina Corps ’12) and 12-year veteran teacher Kathryn Davis (Bay Area Corps ’02).

Aaron Bos-Lun

(Photo credit: ganeshaisis)

I often say that a gay-straight alliance is like an iceberg: you can only see a small part of it, you can only imagine how far it goes, and you have no way to tell how big it really is.

During my first year of teaching, I was asked by multiple students to sponsor a GSA, which is a student-led organization that creates a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ students and their allies. As a gay teacher who kept my personal life private, I didn’t necessarily feel ready to attach myself to the word “gay,” but I realized the kids needed this space and my only option was to sponsor it. After all, these students were in a much more difficult situation than my own involving identity and personal safety.

I got the GSA approved at the beginning of my second year, and I had no idea what to expect. In talking with my students, we all had similar anticipations: that this would be an important club for a small group who really needed it, the handful of students who, at the high school level, already knew and had accepted that something about themselves was different, and needed a safe environment in which to navigate those choppy waters. 

My first indication that the GSA was something bigger came when signs went up advertising our first meeting. A supportive TFA colleague had hung a sign advertising our first meeting in her classroom. Without exception, she had a student in each class see it and shout out some version of, “Why are you hanging that up?” (sometimes phrased more offensively). But also without exception, she’d have another student respond with, “Where else do they have to go to feel respected?” This exchange was always followed by silence—hanging that sign was the first time a lot of students had ever thought about an LGBTQ student not as an abstract gross thing but as a fellow student.

A little bit more of the iceberg was being revealed.

Trevor Sprague

Sports were almost a rite of passage as I grew up. As a high school athlete, I learned skills like teamwork, time management, and how to handle failure. It never crossed my mind that other students might not have access to the same opportunities.

So you can imagine my surprise when I became a teacher and found out my school didn’t offer athletics. I felt my students were missing a key educational opportunity and I wanted to do something about it.

That’s when the robots came in.

After doing some research, I learned about FIRST Robotics, a program that brings thousands of high school students together from across the world to test their engineering, programming, and critical-thinking skills. The more I researched, the more I realized FIRST—with its rule of gracious professionalism—combined all the benefits of athletics while giving students skills to succeed in an increasingly technological society.

So with the help of two other members of our school’s science department and grants from JCPenny and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, Team 4780 was created with 12 student members.

During my spring break this year, I traveled to Mexico to collaborate with first-year corps members in Enseña por México, one of the newest additions to the expanding Teach For All network. I saw firsthand that there exists more than one oportunidad to improve Mexico’s educational standards. Just like in Teach For America, corps members, or PEMs (Profesionales en Enseña por México), are among the top university graduates, all enthusiastic and impassioned to fight against the social and economic injustice of education inequality in their country.

One of the most rewarding parts of the exchange was hearing the stories of others who are devoted to the Teach For All cause. My host, Luis Miguel Reyes Loyola, became aware of the importance of education at the late age of 18. Luis Miguel decided to dedicate himself to his studies, a decision that paid off when he was admitted into UNAM, Mexico’s premier institution of post-secondary education. Led by these transformational experiences, he began teaching and became a member of the first cohort in Enseña por México. Like many of us, Luis Miguel moved away from his urban home to rural Puebla to become a corps member.

Farrow and his students.

Let me let you in on a little secret: education takes more than classroom management. Education doesn’t stop with 100% proficiency on end-of-course exams. Education requires empowering your students to invest in their community so that we can make it the place they want it to be.

Considering this broader purpose pushed me to think beyond the confines of my classroom to the project that has helped give my students voice and agency.

On the first week of school, I asked my 55 students about their assessment of Memphis. I would guess that only about five students admitted to liking Memphis. I found this quite alarming. I’ve always prided myself on being an active member of my community, and I took this statistic personally. I decided that I want to change the way my students thought about their community by giving them the chance to pursue their passions while also improving Memphis. I decided to name this project, “Let’s Innovate Through Education.”

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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