Emily Southerton

“Now I will do nothing but listen

to accrue what I hear into this song

to let sounds contribute toward it.”

-Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”

Walt Whitman taught us that the story of a stranger is as much a part of ourselves as our own story. He argued that we better know our own identity when we understand another’s, and for that reason, Whitman listened to others’ songs of themselves, and then in reply, vulnerably offered his own,

“I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

This National Poetry Month, TFA’s students are writing the stories of themselves, which in turn reveals the story of us.

Rachel Brody

Rachel Brody with her cousin and friend Gabriella, who inspired her to become a teacher and partner with kids to value their own unique potential.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.” 

- Temple Grandin, doctor of animal science, professor at Colorado State University, best-selling author, and autistic activist

Good teachers are essential for all students to reach their full potential – including the 67 million people living with autism worldwide.  April’s Autism Awareness Month provides an opportunity for all of us – special educators, general educators, and everyone who believes that all students can achieve at high levels – to reflect on our knowledge, skills, and mindsets around working with the 1 in 68 children who have autism. 

How are we learning from, and with, our kids with learning differences?  How are we recognizing the unique potential in all of our learners?  How are we setting a high bar for all students?

In the below reflections, two Teach For America corps members share the unique realities, opportunities, and celebrations of working with students with autism.

Mona Zahir

Bob (Robert) Bullington (Dallas-Fort Worth '13) teaches 3rd grade math and science at OM Roberts Elementary in Dallas, TX.

On Saturday, approximately 350 students, educators, and community leaders gathered at the third annual Wake UP! Student Empowerment Summit—an event hosted by Teach For America and the Possibility Project that gives students a voice in the conversation on education. Last year, I attended the event as a senior at Vance High School and Wake UP! student representative. This year, a few weeks from the end of my freshman year at Winston-Salem State University, I returned as keynote speaker—more convinced than ever of the role young voices must play in the movement for educational justice.

My awareness of differences in education opportunity started early on, as I moved between a few CMS schools. But it wasn’t until my senior year that I fully understood the economic inequalities built into our system. In middle school, my family moved from Charlotte to Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, home to one of the highest-ranked school districts in the nation. During my senior year, we came back to Charlotte and I enrolled at Vance High School, which serves a much lower income student population. Suddenly, the opportunities in front of me looked very different.

I began to make sense of all this when I met Ms. Gelinas, my algebra teacher at Vance and a Teach For America corps member. During class one day, she asked us to write an essay about our views on educational inequity. As I began writing, I started to realize that my anger and frustration weren’t mine alone. My experience was part of something much bigger.

A Chicago elementary school is banking on the idea that teaching financial literacy will lead to a big intellectual payoff. At Ariel Community Academy, students as young as kindergarten are taught financial concepts, and preliminary data shows the unique curriculum has improved student performance in all subject areas.

New York State’s governor wants to ensure that incarcerated citizens have access to a proper education, a factor known to reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo’s bill to introduce more college classes at the state’s penitentiaries has faced stiff political resistance because of the associated expenses. A New York Times op-ed explains why prisoners' education is worth the cost.

Emily Southerton

This National Poetry Month, TFA student poets across the country are boldly speaking out for change.

After studying poets who would write about identity, family, community, and place in order to powerfully affect our nation’s perspective of its own people, our student Poet Warriors are striving to do the same.

Brianna Carrier

I am Onkwehonwe. Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy and Turtle Clan. I’m also an Urban Indian. I’m from Niagara Falls, NY; an hour from the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario, Canada where my family is from. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t raised on our traditional territory, though. Everywhere used to be Indian Country. I feel kinship with other tribes and through my education I wanted to travel and contribute to other tribes as well as my own. When I heard about the Native Alliance Initiative (NAI) I looked at Teach For America as my chance to give back. Little did I know that I would be on the receiving end.

When I was in school I was one of few Native students in my classes. I was tracked into the Honors Program from third grade through high school graduation. At times that felt tokenizing. Did they just need me for their diversity numbers? When I got to college I knew I had to stop thinking like that. That was colonized thinking. I excelled in school because my teachers had high expectations of me and I met or surpassed them. This didn’t have to do with my race. I don’t want a new generation of Native students growing up thinking they aren’t excellent.

I currently teach second grade at a Tier 1 Bureau of Indian Education School, ChiChil’Tah Jones Ranch Community School in Vanderwagen, NM on the Navajo Nation. We have no cell phone service, and it would take police 40 minutes to respond to an emergency, if we are able to reach them. Most of my students do not have internet access, and some families struggle to pay for electricity and propane, which makes it hard for kids to live comfortably, let alone do homework or read at night. Our school has smartboards, but no software to work them. It was lost in the delivery; many of our school’s supplies are either lost or just don’t come because we are so far out there. It takes ages for anything to load on our school’s satellite internet.

This is the world my students grow up in, but they don’t let it define them. They are strong and brilliant. There is so much others can learn from them. I know they’ve already taught me so much and I expect a lot out of them.

Jennifer Monson, Teach For America ECE and STEM Initiatives Specialist

Teaching early childhood education (ECE) is a serious responsibility—preschool is often the first experience young children have with school. ECE educators have the incredible opportunity to partner with students and their families to set children up for academic and life success, before they even enter Kindergarten.

Eric Mitsch

Two months ago, I was offered the opportunity to participate in one of the most inspiring professional development experiences of my career: Teach For America’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) Retreat in Atlanta, GA. This three-day event gathered corps members, TFA staff, and ECE alumni from across the country in a forum that encouraged dialogue, reflection, and personal goal setting.

When I joined the corps after college graduation in 2004, my parents were pretty confused about the whole “teaching thing.”  As my two-year “phase” turned into three then six, and more and more 13-year-olds plastered my Facebook page with graduation announcements, my parents began to make peace with (and take pride in) the fact that teaching middle school was my calling.

And then I had to go and shock them all again.

I accepted a position as a pre-K teacher. My parents, along with former colleagues, principals, and friends from Teach for America became vocal critics of how I was choosing to serve in education.  They responded with a resounding cry:

“But that’s not real teaching.”

Thank goodness I didn’t believe them.

My three years at Liberty County Pre-K Center were truly the most pivotal and developmental years in my professional life, and I share a few rebuttals to some common ECE myths in hopes that you will join me, along with our co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard and our Early Childhood Initiative, in speaking out for the power of our littlest learners:

Teach For America co-CEO Matt Kramer announced the launch of the organization’s new special education initiative aimed at creating more leaders in this burgeoning education movement. In explaining the rationale behind the initiative, Kramer cites alarming statistics about the gap between SPED students and their peers, and shares his own personal experience going through the school system with an undiagnosed learning disability.

Illinois has removed the cap the on number of times aspiring teachers can take the state’s required basic skills test. The cap, which was placed as quality-control measure, ultimately posed a catch-22: it improved the quality of teaching talent, but it also decreased the diversity of the state’s teaching force.


About Us

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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The thoughts, ideas, and opinions expressed on Pass the Chalk are the responsibility of individual bloggers. Unless explicitly stated, blog posts do not represent the views of Teach For America as an organization. 

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