A few weeks ago, a student changed my life. I’m currently in my sophomore year at Cornell University and have been considering exploring my passion for education and community building through Teach For America.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in a TFA teacher’s classroom through TFA’s One Week For America program, which paired 31 selected college students with TFA teachers across NYC. We spent our winter break immersed in New York’s public schools, getting a hands-on feel for what it’s like to be a teacher. We spent our days in the classroom with students, and our evenings in workshops where we learned more about the teaching profession.

As a product of New York City Public Schools, I was moved by the students I met. I grew up in a low-income community just like theirs, and I stood in their shoes only a decade ago. I know their struggles, their doubts, and the life they are dreaming about. I was determined to prove to them that they could exceed their own expectations. There was one student in particular who stuck with me, but I wasn’t sure she saw the potential in herself that I did—so I wrote her a letter.

Raven Bailey

Raven Bailey is a 12th grade student and member of Let’s Innovate Through Education working to empower students to develop their own businesses or nonprofits for their communities. Hardy Farrow is a Social Studies teacher at Power Center Academy in Memphis, TN. He is also the creator of Let’s Innovate Through Education, and a 2013 Teach For America-Memphis corps member.

When I was in the 11th grade, I was plagued with a rare affliction that attacked my work ethic, corrupted my judgment, and induced a state of severe lack of interest and focus: I had a bad case of Junioritis. As a result of this truly devastating condition, I began to suffer fits of procrastination, which often led me to neglect most of my academic responsibilities. In some classes I was able to conceal my problem and get by without the slightest effort. Unfortunately, it was in my most important classes in which I had begun to submit to the condition and fall through the cracks.

Pass the Chalk

We can’t breathe

when we think of Martin Luther King and what he did to change the world

when we think of young folks getting killed for no reason

when we think of people who tried to help the world.

-excerpt of “We Can’t Breathe” by Astarea J. Wright, 6th grader at Learn 8 Middle School in Chicago, IL

When Chicago middle schooler Astarea J. Wright thinks about Martin Luther King, she thinks about a man who “tried to change the world.”  More than 50 years after King’s march on Washington, protests in Birmingham, and peaceful fight for justice and civil rights, his words still ring loud and clear for young people like Astarea.

Supported by her teacher, TFA alumna Alyson Makstein, Astarea recently wrote the above poem, “We Can’t Breathe,” as part of the Poet Warriors Project, a program that introduces poetry to middle school students across the country as a means of positive expression. Astarea, who has lived in Chicago her whole life, describes her neighborhood as “not a good place for children…with a lot of shooting, fighting, and drama.”

School, on the other hand, is a refuge. Astarea says, “The best thing about school is learning new things with your friends.” She decided to include Dr. King in her poem because of his efforts to end segregation, and because “it’s important for students to learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., so they can try to be like him and change the world.”

Cristian Lopez is a recent high school graduate from Canyon Springs High School in the Las Vegas Valley. His love for design, which started to truly bloom during high school thanks to the encouragement of his friends, family, and teachers, was born from tattoo and street art. This is the story of how Cristian, in collaboration with THE UT.LAB, took a step forward in the STEM field.

I grew up in Watts in Los Angeles, but about four years ago, when I was 14, my family moved to Las Vegas searching for a better future. When we arrived, I began attending school at Canyon Springs High School in Northern Las Vegas.

It was at Canyon Springs High School where I really began focusing on my passion for drawing and art. Drawing became an important aspect of my life and who I was as a person. I would spend hours each day drawing designs, doodling in class, and honing my talent.

By my senior year, my talent was also apparent to my teachers, and they would often find me sketching during class. Rather than discouraging me from drawing, they would find ways to integrate my passion into the classroom—from leveraging my skills in Trigonometry class to finding innovative ways for me to incorporate art into my English course.

Catherine Ordeman

Catherine Ordeman is a Teach For America corps member and an art teacher at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama. Last week, she launched We Are The Ones, a photography project in which nearly 200 students posed for Instagram portraits in front of a quote by Barack Obama. We caught up with Catherine earlier this week, and she told us about her inspiration behind the project and its impact on her students.

As teachers we are faced constantly with the issue of teaching our kids about the world, while also allowing them to form their own opinions. This issue is one I grapple with frequently in Art class: how do I teach my students to create without stifling their creativity?

In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, many of my students were confused about why so many of these deaths were happening in the North. As students in Montgomery, Alabama, they were under the impression that racism existed in isolation in the South. They learn about the Civil Rights Movement and hear all about why their state and city are so incredibly significant. In their eyes, it wasn't a northern problem; it wasn’t a national problem. I wanted to address all of these issues, but most importantly, I wanted to give my kids a chance to say what they were feeling and thinking—no matter what it was—and that's when I decided to launch We Are The Ones.

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.

Emily Southerton

To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

Then rest at cool evening

Beneath a tall tree

While night comes on gently,

Dark like me—

That is my dream!

—Langston Hughes, from “Dream Variations”

Langston Hughes dreamed of a world where his being was not seen as a harsh contrast to the norm, but one where his story was understood to be as much a part of the universal fabric as night was a part of the day.

This April, the Poet Warriors also had a bold dream—we dreamed that we’d be heard, that we’d be understood, and that our dreams would matter as much as any other.

Christine Vela framed our month by calling the nation’s attention to the silencing effect of the single story, showing how our booming national dialogue so often excludes diverse voices and closets America’s truths: “It’s dark and it’s lonesome and it’s not at all where/I want to be,/But most of all, it’s silent/It’s hushed down to a nearly inaudible whisper.” Like Hughes, Christine used metaphors of darkness and light to dream of a better America, one where all can speak boldly and be heard. She spoke of an experience that many can identify with, “waiting for that door to burst open and let light come in,” but then stepped forward to be an example; she brought her own story to light, she offered it to all of us, and claimed her place within the American story. “With one heart-wrenching throwback of this closet/I’ll say the words I’ve been meaning to say/My whole life.”

Christine opened the door for herself to enter the national dialogue, and she led the way for many others to follow. Throughout the month, hundreds of Poet Warriors boldly stepped forward and added their stories to our story, and we even had the privilege of watching as they did.

Emily Southerton

"This whole idea of place and identity and what's home and what's not home, [is] such an American question that we've been asking since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America.”

-Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco in a 2013 interview with NPR


“Nothing can stop me from living here

In Westwood,

Not the money

Or the drugs

Or even the guns.

This is my home.

The one I grew up in.”

-Lilia Duran-Cabral, Colorado Poet Warrior, excerpt from “Westwood”

Whether it’s the story of a secret space, our collective spaces, ours homes, our streets, or our borders—stories of place are as unique to the writer as they are universal to us all. Across the country students are writing about their place, and within these stories, we see the story of our nation as a whole. Students grapple with the questions that have gripped our nation since its founding—what is home? What is my place? What effect does this place have on me? And what effect do I have on this place?

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.


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.

Learn more about Teach For America


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. 

Read more »