Shayla Yellowhair

As the daughter of a Law Enforcement Officer who has served for almost 30 years, I have always been keenly aware of the issues that affect the families of police officers. Growing up hearing the stories of my people and the difficulties of living in rural Native communities, as well as feeling the pain of loss, has colored the way I view the world around me and how I raise my two children.

But here’s the problem that I’ve encountered all my life:  despite the stories that are told in the media about poverty and alcoholism on Native lands, the vast majority of them are not ours. The truth is, as Native people, the fight for recognition as living, breathing, human beings in 2015 is real. We constantly fight against stereotypes created to erase individuality inherent in a Native person, created by those in power, and perpetuated by mass media. We have to fight to remind everyone that we aren’t ancient relics (though we strive to protect our traditions), that we haven’t died off (though we know death too well), and that we know the sides of history that are not told in textbooks. Our truth is often justified away, along with our rights as dual citizens, the original inhabitants and stewards of our land and languages, in the name of manifest destiny, assimilation, natural resources, and the economy.

So when Michael Brown was killed unarmed, in broad daylight, and left in the middle of the street to die, I wasn’t surprised by the hurt that I felt because I have known loss; or by any of the facts of his death necessarily. This is the experience of so many of our Native people, whether they die from the crippling effects of alcoholism, exposure during the winter, homelessness, overzealous officers, or simply being out numbered in cities that depend on the alcohol sales and the institutional racism to thrive. 

The Friday Five is Teach For America's weekly roundup of education news, stories, and links that made us think. 

With teacher tenure coming under attack in some of the country’s most populous states, researchers polled teachers to get their opinion on if and how the tenure process should change.

One of America’s most elite yet least economically diverse higher education institutions announced ambitious plans to get more students from less affluent backgrounds on campus.

Student testing is once again taking the floor in Congress as the Senate's education committee tries to decide whether students are being tested too much. The Associated Press breaks downs the five key things the public should know about standardized testing. 

Speaking of tests, months before nervous high school students get a first go at the new 2016 SAT test, unimpressed educators are worried that the new test is even more biased against students from low-income backgrounds than previous and current versions of the SAT.

Check out these stories from TFA that got us talking this week.

Nemer Tello

A 2015 TFA corps member, Nemer Tello will begin teaching in Dallas-Fort Worth in fall 2015.

This May, I will complete my dual bachelor's degree in Spanish and global politics. However, the odds were against me to achieve this degree in four years. As a first-generation immigrant with a low socioeconomic status and an agricultural background, it was unlikely that I would even graduate from high school.

I share Teach For America’s vision of schools in which classrooms are led by high-quality, versed, and committed teachers. I want to be a corps member because I feel responsible and passionate about helping close the gap in quality of education between privileged and disadvantaged students. My parents waited ten years for our family to come to the States so their children could pursue the careers of their dreams. My dream is to dedicate my knowledge and experience to students who need it the most.

I currently work 30 hours every week, take 19 credits as a senior in college, lead a group of ambassadors in my college as their elected president, and volunteer. When I visit my parents, I feel a deep appreciation because my 55-year-old father, who works 14 hours/day, is so generous. Many children do not have the fortune to have parents who are as supportive or involved; many don’t have figures in their lives who foster that potential to dream, work hard, and achieve their goals.

Dante Roldan

Dante Roldan is a 2009 Oklahoma alumnus.

August 3rd, 1967: the day that my father emigrated from Mexico to the United States. With no knowledge of the English language, he came from a home that could barely make ends meet. He attended one of the worst high schools in Kansas City and had a 1.2 GPA after his freshman year. His path was looking troubled until Mr. Haskell entered his life. Mr. Haskell tutored my father for three years in high school and helped him apply to colleges. The odds were against my father, but Mr. Haskell helped him overcome them.

This remarkable story was still fresh in my mind as I applied to Teach For America. Prior to joining TFA, I was working as a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley in New York City. I really struggled with leaving a profession that I had assumed was the perfect start to my career in the business world. But the hope to change a student’s life in the same way Mr. Haskell undeniably shaped my father’s life and my future was my reason to join.

I taught Algebra II and Geometry in a high school in Tulsa, OK with the most Hispanic students in the district. The majority of my students were four to seven grade levels behind a school that faced the reality of graduating only 50% of its students. By the end of my first year, more Algebra II students had passed the Oklahoma End-Of-Instruction exam than ever before. By the end of my second year, my Geometry students had also accomplished this feat.

A 2015 TFA corps member, Peter Simonse is currently vice president and treasurer of Land O’Lakes Inc., and will be leaving the company this year to teach high school physics in the Twin Cities.

When I graduated from college, I established three life goals: First, I wanted to marry and raise a family. Second, I wanted to have a rewarding career at companies that positively contribute to society. And third, I wanted to give something back to the community.

At this stage in my life, I am happy with the success I have made with respect to the first two goals. I've had a successful marriage and our four children are happy, healthy, and independent now. I have enjoyed and excelled in my career as a business professional. Yet I am still not satisfied with the progress on my third life goal.

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.”

A 2015 TFA corps member, Jacob Burdette will begin teaching secondary math in Eastern Kentucky in fall 2015.

Growing up in an economically-distressed Appalachian community, I did not have access to many of the resources that were readily available to my affluent counterparts across the country. There were no computers in my elementary and middle schools, no pre-professional programs in my high school, and there was little belief in my community that my classmates and I would have a successful future.

Despite all of the barriers I faced, there was one person who never stopped believing in me and who, in turn, helped me believe in myself. That person, to whom I owe an incalculable debt, is Benu Nanda, my high school chemistry teacher. Benu consistently treated me with respect and pushed me to better myself. 

When I think about why I want to Teach For America, I'm reminded of a conversation Benu and I had when I was struggling in chemistry. She pulled me aside after class and told me that I could do so much better than I was doing. I responded that I did not have the resources I needed in order to improve. Benu looked me in the eye and said, "Someone will always have more money than you, more access to technology, to resources; none of that means you should give up.”

The Friday Five is Teach For America's weekly roundup of education news, stories, and links that made us think. 

Bill Gates is hoping to make standard history lessons a thing of the past. The tech mogul has partnered up with an educator to promote a more holistic approach to teaching the subject.

"The dog ate my homework" is no more. Students can now submit homework with their smartphones via Google’s new Classroom app which debuted this week. The app promises to make organization easier for both students and teachers.

In 2004, Kimani Maruge was 84 when he entered first grade to begin his primary school education. Eleven years later, Google honored the world’s oldest first grader with a charming doodle.

Jasmine Sanders

Vivian Malone Jones: As a small child, I remember that name parting the lips of nearly everyone around me at least once a year. Heralded as a legend in our hometown of Mobile, Alabama, and a symbol of bold resilience to the millions around the world who witnessed her first steps on the University of Alabama’s campus, Vivian Malone Jones was the first African-American graduate in the university’s then-134 year history. Her entrance into the University prompted George Wallace’s infamous and unforgettable “stand in the schoolhouse door” opposition in 1963. 

Despite adamant national and local resistance, Vivian Malone Jones remained resolute in her attainment of an equal and excellent education. While this event predated even the thought of my existence, I remember always being particularly inspired by the level of fearlessness Vivian embodied.

During my junior year of high school, Vivian was set to be the keynote speaker at a local university to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education decision. This was my chance—and I begged my parents to take me to the event with hope of meeting her face to face. I ran—more like power walked—into the auditorium, with my parents lagging behind. I became more inspired after hearing her speech and, after the event, was insistent on waiting through the crowds of people hoping to speak with Vivian. I was finally up: I introduced myself, letting her know that I was also from Mobile and that I was forever indebted to her for blazing a path for women of color like myself. Without hesitation, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down her phone number with a simple “call me.” 

Chante Chambers

It was the summer of 1999, and I had just completed my sophomore year in high school. I was interning on Capitol Hill. Up until this point, I had buried myself in books and learning, but I honestly didn’t know much about the professional working world or the hustle and bustle of politics. As a 15 year old, somewhat sheltered teenager, I embarked on what I thought would be a 12-week stint of sorting mail for a big-name senator.

However, at an intern induction meeting, we were encouraged to seek council and support by finding a mentor or advisor on staff who would help make the experience more meaningful. Mentorship was a new concept to me, and as a reserved introvert currently questioning how I landed such a prestigious internship in which all of the other interns were savvy college students, I didn’t prioritize identifying a mentor. I just wanted to survive and do good work.

After a week or two, I was approached by a petite, spirited, assertive woman named Diane. She decided that she was not going to wait for me to seek out a mentor. Instead, she appointed herself as my internship mentor, and this was a critical day that impacted the rest of my life. Though I was initially intimidated, I was also completely in awe of Diane and her story. She had risen to be one of the most successful and powerful people I had ever met—all while raising two sons and financing her education. Additionally, as a Black woman in a predominantly white male-dominated field, she had achieved great professional success and was respected. Yet, she was authentic, quirky, bold, and an image of the type of person I wanted to become.


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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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