Amanda Chavez Barnes

Amanda Chavez Barnes with her tio Paul

Pass The Chalk shares this reflection on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31st, in honor of Chavez and his legacy.

My mother was a huge fan of Selena Quintanilla Perez, and so, when the singer died at an early age in 1995, she bought every magazine she could find that had Selena’s image on the cover. We talked about Selena’s life and honored her memory by listening to her music.

But when Cesar Chavez had passed away just two years earlier, we didn’t see any magazine covers or newspapers with Chavez’s image emblazoned on the front, and we didn’t hear anything about him on the news or the radio. My mother—the woman who told me stories about being locked in a closet during the day with her younger siblings while her older siblings went out into the fields to pick crops with their parents—had never heard of Cesar Chavez. She had no idea who he was. And because the Metro Atlanta schools I attended never taught me about Latino history or celebrated Latino heritage, neither did I.

I didn’t know anything until my mom’s eldest brother, my tio Paul, came to live with us after serving a decade-long bid in a Texas penitentiary. Prison taught my tio what school never did. He learned about his heritage and himself in the oral histories that OGs handed down, and in the pages of the books that he had access to behind bars but had never seen in a classroom. And from the very first day Tio Paul arrived, he began to instill in me a deep sense of dignity and pride in my heritage.

A few years ago, well into my thirties, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

In some ways, this was not news. My memories of my own education primarily revolve around the ways I wasn't learning -- disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework and reading no books. I couldn't maintain focus on what a teacher was saying for more than a few minutes, and I couldn't read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Even the slightest distraction -- noise from a television a few rooms away -- would render me completely unable to concentrate.

But getting the official diagnosis turned out to be tremendously important. The story I told myself about my challenges in school was that I wasn't interested in anything that could be taught there, and so it wasn't worth applying myself. I'm embarrassed by the ways I wasted the opportunity to learn during my time in school. But with a diagnosis and treatment, I developed a new story: I love to learn, and I want to work hard to do so, and I can learn as much and as well as anyone else with a few simple accommodations, including a project-based learning environment and medication to help me focus.

I was fortunate to have family and teachers who helped me navigate my way through school and make the best of the situation, and things turned out fine for me in the end. But I often think back to those 17 years and imagine how they might have been different if there had been a good plan to tailor my education to the way I learned best. Unfortunately, too many students with learning differences, and in particular students of color and those growing up in low-income communities, aren't getting the supports they need and deserve.

On Monday, Illinois became the first state to opt out of the Common Core standards. Heated debates about the standards continue in many other states: this year only, there have been more than 100 bills introduced in state legislatures to slow, stop, or reverse the standards.

Cathy Kang

Nixlot Dameus

This school year, I was assigned to teach a course called “The Art and Craft of Poetry.” I was excited about the creative journey that could possibly ensue—but I also was dreading the daunting task of filling 90 minutes a day with poetry, five days a week, for five months. My first students had much the same reaction. They filed through the door—some misunderstanding the course as semester-long “arts and crafts” session—and were either excited about what the course would possibly entail, or clearly dreading the thought of poetry.

“Ms. Kang, isn’t this an elective?”


“I didn’t pick it.”

“Great. Welcome to poetry.”

One of those first students was Nixlot, a 15-year-old teenage body-builder who was always the first one to class, wielding his bulky gym bag. Recognized throughout the school for breaking lifting records, Nixlot was most known for his strength. In my classroom, however, he also proved to be a leader. While many boys were preoccupied with balling up paper and playing trashketball when my back was turned, Nixlot was the student picking up the crumpled balls and appropriately placing them in the bin. To me, his silent gestures of service spoke louder than the state records blasting through the school loudspeaker.

(Photo credit: Julio Ibarra)

Recently, Nashville had the pleasure of welcoming President Obama to McGavock High School, one of our local public schools. It was a moment of great pride for our city as the president highlighted the work in Nashville schools that he would like to encourage throughout the country.

The event was joyful, with plenty of happiness and buzz among the many people who work long hours and early mornings, and tackle intellectual, political, and societal problems to make sure every child in our city has a great education. These folks—teachers, students, parents, district leaders, school leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, nonprofit leaders—often work in anonymity toward this goal, so it was fun to take a moment to celebrate.

For me, the best part of the event was when President Obama recognized McGavock High School teacher Barclay Randall. Mr. Randall, a broadcast teacher (who was taping the event with a few students and wiped away tears of joy as he was being lauded) had transformed the lives of many students—and in particular, that of Sara Santiago.

“When Sara was in Mr. Randall’s class, he helped her discover this passion for filmmaking,” President Obama said. “And pretty soon, Sara’s grades started to improve. She won the school’s ‘Best Editing’ award. Then she got an internship with Country Music Television—one of [the school’s] business partners. And then she was accepted to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. And she gives credit to Mr. Randall for this. She says, ‘Mr. Randall gave me a second chance. He saw things I never saw in myself. He’s the person who helped me change.’”

I appreciate that President Obama took the time to recognize the work and accomplishments of a teacher. As districts around the country are deep in recruitment season, I am trying to reconcile the collective celebration and appreciation we seem to have for teachers with the reality that far too many prospective teachers still hear: “You are too”—fill in the blank: smart, driven, etc.—“to be a teacher.”

The Common Core, a new rigorous set of national standards for schools, has been one of the most polarizing introductions to the American education system in recent years. Four Teach For America corps members and Alums share their thoughts on the new standards, and how the Common Core has shaped their teaching.

Schools today are trying hard to make students uncomfortable. However, behind this seemingly sinister goal are the best of intentions. With extensive research data showing the importance of grit in determining students’ future success, educators want students to become comfortable with struggling, and to see facing obstacles as a natural part of learning.

Rachel Brody, Managing Director of Teach For America's Special Education and Ability Initiative

Over my six years of teaching and instructional coaching in Washington, DC, I met a wide variety of students across inclusion, resource and self-contained settings – who held a wide variety of learning differences, strengths, and challenges.  Ninth grader Vanessa would not talk for the first two months of school and was reading at a second grade level. First grader LaTanya cried when math time started.  Fourth grader Scott stuttered when it was time for him to share in class, and wouldn’t read for more than five minutes. 

By the end of the year, each of these students grew significantly.  Vanessa read at a fifth grade level. LaTanya shared that “math is awesome,” mastered grade level standards, and even taught a small group how to use a math intervention that supported her.  Scott voluntarily shared with the class, grew over 1.5 years in reading, and sustained reading for over thirty minutes at a time. 

Vanessa, LaTanya and Scott were able to fulfill their potential and reach milestones because they were held to high expectations and their instruction was differentiated to fit their unique learning profiles.  They are just a small sample of the fortunate students who have teachers, families, and supporters in their lives who believe in the potential of all kids. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case in all of our classrooms teaching students with learning differences.

All first year teachers can attest that October is one of the hardest months of the school year. I had just gotten 50 new students, I was teaching 10th grade Intensive Reading (one of the highest accountability subjects in the school) and my baseline interim data results made me realize I had a lot of work to do if these students were going to be ready to take their exams by the spring. While I was flattered that my administration believed I would have strong classroom management skills because I come from a similar background as my students, it was difficult to address all of their academic and behavioral needs.

I looked around at my fellow corps members, who all seemed to enjoy teaching honors and AP classes, have working systems, and stellar relationships with students and parents. I knew that something needed to change, but I was afraid to ask for help because I felt that it would imply that I was incompetent and not cut out for the job. In fact, I felt like black teachers in Miami in particular seemed to be praised for their management skills. At the same time, since we taught mostly intensive and regular classes, I felt like it was even more challenging for our proficiency data to reflect our actual teaching ability. The only thing I can remember thinking at that point was that I wish I had someone to talk to. I wish that there were a group of teachers who came from the same background who could identify with the particular struggles of being a corps member of color.

Enter Ujima.

Gerald Jean-Baptiste, ESOL teacher at Miami Edison Senior High School, got the idea to unite black corps members after attending “The Convening,” a conference for black males to discuss their place as educators in our movement. Jean-Baptiste, “felt more proud to be in TFA after that experience” and thought to himself, “Why don’t we do this in Miami?”

Mario Jovan Shaw (Charlotte '12) teaches English at Ranson IB Middle School.

I so admire people who have always known what they wanted to be when they grew up, and have been able to figure out how to get there without too many detours along the way. My friend Michelle, my brother Daniel—they knew instinctively that they were meant to be an educator and a musician, respectively. Near the other end of the spectrum are people like me, who struggle throughout school to pinpoint what it is we want to do with our lives. It wasn’t until my senior year in college and an internship at a suburban public school in Minnesota, followed by the transformational experience of teaching in a rural North Carolina public school, that I realized education was where I wanted to spend my life. Countless others that I know—through Teach For America and many other paths—had similar realizations after experiences in education where both the need and the hope, the unyielding possibility, became clear to us.

Now that I’m twelve years into my own career in education, the one thing I know for sure is that we can’t afford to wait for those experiences to happen. We can’t wait for people to decide that education is for them after they’ve made their way to our programs and institutions. We simply can’t wait and assume that the diverse leaders we all want and need in education are going to find their way into classrooms without encouragement or support.

Becca Bracy Knight, Executive Director of The Broad Center

I recently met with a fellow education wonk. We talked about the latest happenings in Newark and whether there’s a tipping point at which adding heavy cream to hot beverages becomes too much of a good thing. It was fun. I always enjoy connecting with and learning from others in education, discussing issues both big and small.


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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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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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