Pass The Chalk Editorial Team

In April, 14-year-old Christine Vela, a student in Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project, shared a poem called “Breaking the Silence.” It included these lines:

With one heart-wrenching throwback of this closet,

I’ll say the words I’ve been meaning to say

My whole life.

I’m lesbian.

Christine recorded a video reading of her poem for the Poet Warriors Project, and this act of bravery garnered national attention (a BuzzFeed staff writer, who highlighted the video in an LGBTQ poetry roundup, said, “Seriously, I have nothing more to say—just watch.”) This June, as TFA celebrates Pride Month, Poet Warriors founder Emily Southerton asked Christine about social justice, SAFE classrooms, and more.

Emily Southerton: With your poem, you broke the silence and shared your own personal story. What role does personal storytelling play in social justice movements?

Christine Vela: Personal storytelling, especially in social justice movements, plays the role of illustrating day-to-day oppression in a relatable way. This concept is manifested in a variety of art forms, and is especially prominent in spoken-word poetry. I believe it somewhat relates to the concept of “show, don’t tell,” as well, however simple it may seem. One of my favorite slam poets, Guante, has just begun a series on the art of spoken word poetry. In his very first video in the series, he explains the difference between showing and telling, and to summarize this concept, I’ll simply use a quote he says in his video: “Don’t write a poem about war. Write a poem about what it’s like to stand in your brother’s empty bedroom.” In the former example, it is easy to dismiss the concept in question, whereas in the latter, it is more emotionally insightful, playing upon the audience’s feelings in a way that they can better understand. The concrete imagery of a brother’s empty bedroom makes the concept of war more real to one who has never experienced it. It is the authenticity of one’s personal narrative—the good, the bad, and the ugly—that advances movements, and not simply the discussion of ideas in a way that leaves out the humanity of the people in question, though the discussion of those ideas is certainly important as well.

There’s no denying that there are differing opinions about “what works” in education. At times, the voices of teachers—the ones who most intimately deal with these complex issues—are lost in the mix. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with three State Teachers of the Year from across the country to pick their brains about teaching, continuous learning, and the state of American education today. An edited version of our conversation appears below.

Joshua Parker is a Compliance Specialist in the Office of Title I of Baltimore County Public Schools and adjunct professor at the Notre Dame of Maryland University. He is the 2012 Maryland State teacher of the year.

Luke Foley, the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Alternative Program at Northfield Middle High School in Northfield, Vermont. He uses a creative and experiential place-based curriculum to engage his students in their education, their school, and their community.

Jonathan Crossley, the 2014 Arkansas State Teacher of the Year, teaches English, oral communication, and drama at Palestine-Wheatley High School in Palestine, Arkansas. By using Socratic seminars, student-led questioning, and relationship-building, Jonathan led his students to the title of Most Improved for Literacy in the entire state of Arkansas (36% to 90% proficient or advanced). He is a Delta '10 TFA alum.

You’ve all had rich, exciting careers in the classroom. What are three things that you wish you had known when you first started teaching?

Joshua Parker:. Throughout teacher-preparation programs, most of what is emphasized is the content knowledge and pedagogy, but I find the soft skills and traits are what really make the difference between good and great. Brilliant lectures have died from the lips of apathetic teachers. Teacher-prep programs are great and necessary for being a teacher. But they are only the beginning of knowledge needed to become a great teacher. You need to be fueled from a desire within to research books and articles that are pertinent to your particular area. The knowledge you receive before you teach can’t match the knowledge you self-select after you start teaching.

Joseph Wilson and Anne Jones

It's easy for industry leaders to forget that discovery and innovation often start in the classroom.

This post originally appeared at U.S. News & World Report.

Our kids are amazing consumers of technology. With a few taps and swipes on their mobile devices, they have nearly instant access to much of the world’s information via downloadable apps and websites. But with a projected 8.65 million U.S. workers needed by 2018 in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively referred to as STEM), they need to be more than just consumers – they need to be makers.

On Wednesday, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire, bringing together tinkerers and entrepreneurs of all ages to share their creations and find areas of collaboration. The “big idea” of the Maker Movement is simple: to encourage people to seek solutions to everyday problems, identify new areas of opportunity and offer contributions that advance society – in ways both silly and significant.

Among these “makers” were a significant number of teachers and students, reminding us that the classroom is often the nucleus for innovation.

(Photo credit: FutUndBeidl)

The first time I stepped in front of a class of 27 seventh graders—all at different levels, with varying needs and wildly diverse backgrounds and personalities—I knew this job was going to be anything but average. No matter how tired or stressed-out I was about making a particular lesson perfect, my students counted on me every single day to bring my “A game.” This meant figuring out on the fly how to teach mitosis when the light bulb on my projector burned out. Or hitching a ride to school from a tow truck driver after my car broke down so that I wouldn’t be late to my students’ first frog dissection. Or painstakingly figuring out exactly which student still needed help on which standard, unit after unit.

I still look back on my three years in the classroom as both the hardest and most rewarding years of my professional life. The skills I acquired—quick-wittedness, leadership, relentless prioritization—all set me up for success in my current role in the policy world. Yet, despite what current and former teachers know to be true about the demands of the job, data from a new Third Way poll of high-achieving undergraduate students shows that most Millennials have a very different, and somewhat alarming, perception of the teaching profession:

Companies normally love when their social media forays go viral, but Delta Airlines would have preferred for its celebratory tweet after Monday’s USA-Ghana World Cup game to remain low key. The airline juxtaposed two images that symbolized the competing nations - the Statue of Liberty for the USA and a giraffe for Ghana. The use of a stereotypical image to represent the African nation offended many who pointed out that there are actually no giraffes in Ghana.   

The Washington Redskins trademark was cancelled by the US Patent and Trademark office this week. Declaring the name “disparaging to Native Americans,” the board ruled 2-1 in favor of cancelling the trademark. The ruling did not deter the Redskins owner who vowed to the appeal the decision, and keep the controversial name.

(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.

Josh Anderson

At its most recent board meeting, Chicago Public Schools approved a one-year extension of its contract with Teach For America. In the past, we’ve seen district contract considerations in Chicago generate some confusion—and even misinformation—about Teach For America. Given the importance of transparency in fostering meaningful debate about how best to pursue educational equity for local students, I wanted to share an update on the contract, along with how it fits into our broader work in the region. 

As local principals look to meet their staffing needs for the upcoming school year, the extension gives them the option to consider up to 325 first-year corps members and 245 second-year corps members (for the full text of the contract, see p.251 of the May 28th board agenda). An exact replica of our 2013-14 agreement, the extension holds the number of incoming corps members available for hire this year steady, while allowing our second year corps members to continue their work in the schools where they’ve spent the last year partnering with principals, parents, fellow educators, and students.

(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.

Sometimes the only way to learn how to be better in engaging with your community is to dive into the deep end. In Baltimore, we're 18 months removed from an event that showed us just how much we needed to learn.

In October of 2012, Teach For America Baltimore hosted the Baltimore Educational Equity Summit in honor of 20 years of TFA in our city. We wanted to bring together a diverse cross-section of Baltimoreans invested in our education system—students, parents, organizations, teachers, principals, district officials—to unite behind a vision for improving educational outcomes for our city’s students. The weeks leading up to the summit were terrifying. As we convened thought partners, steering committees, and critical friends, I started to think, “This feels necessary. And challenging. And we are in a bit over our heads.”

In the end, I was proud of the event and the opportunity it created to celebrate with 1,000 members of our growing TFA family. But my team and I also came away from the day feeling that, as we entered our third decade in Baltimore, we needed to be doing more as partners with our community. The process of planning the summit not only gave us the opportunity to forge stronger relationships with many people and organizations we admired, it also illuminated where we were and were not living up to our values in terms of community engagement. 

There were two major lessons that stood out from the summit in relation to our work as a region.

In a ruling that sent shock waves across the country, a California judge deemed the state’s teacher tenure unconstitutional. The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed by in 2012 by a nonprofit group, Students Matter, on behalf of nine students. Plaintiffs argued that the current tenure laws occluded poor and minority students from receiving a quality education.

Despite the prevalent notion of social mobility in American society, researchers have found that children’s life trajectories are largely determined by their parents’ socioeconomic status. The 30-year longitudinal study of 800 Baltimore school children showed that overwhelmingly poor students became poor adults, and more well-off students also eventually ended up in the same income bracket as their parents.

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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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