Learning to Teach (Again) in Watts
There is truly power in numbers, I’ve learned this past week.
And then it hit me: this exact scene is also happening right now in New York and Houston. 1500 of us heading to work this morning to eradicate the achievement gap. And when school starts in just a few short weeks, there will be 3000 of us. That’s six times the number of us here at Long Beach, six times this enormous crowd sweeping me off to LA on a wave of purpose. 3000 following in the footsteps of nearly 10,000 alumni who have affected over 1.5million children. 3000 of us working to narrow the achievement gap of three grade levels that separates low-income children (most of whom are African-American and Latino) from their more affluent peers. 3000 of us teaching over 300,000 students—who are seven times less likely to go to college than their more affluent peers—that they can read, they can write, and they can succeed.
I am teaching in Watts, a neighborhood I only know for its riots. I am teaching in Watts, a neighborhood that conjures up images of violence and racial tension and poverty. Maybe this is all true about Watts, but it is my mission in these five weeks to know it as something more than that. To know it in the complex way that my students are bound to know it. The Watts I see from the school bus and the schoolyard looks a lot like Soweto, with similar stucco houses and steel-fenced yards. And the school itself looks a lot like a township school near Cape Town, with brown dusty pathways and layers of fences and barrack-like buildings. It is like no school I have ever attended, I thought to myself repeatedly last Monday. But all week long, we were reminded: It should be just like any other school. We must expect that it can and will be just like any other school.
And so for all of our first week here, we—adults of varying ages and life experiences—went back to school. And in our schools, former corps members drilled into our heads that we must have high expectations for our students. And then they modeled how, from maintaining a positive, encouraging tone and celebrating every small success to giving every lesson plan serious thought and always striving to usher students to the highest cognitive levels. There are moments where I pat myself on the back, pleased to see what I incorporated intuitively into my classes at LFA. And other moments turn a light bulb on for me; in retrospect, I understand the ways I was too unflinching, too serious in my lessons, too oblivious to behavioral expectations. Indeed, every day has taught me something astoundingly important, about my style, my self, my students, and my assumptions.
For a week, I got to be a middle school student again, shuffling between classes with my lunch pail, participating eagerly as our instructors model for us engaging lessons, creating planning, and genuine concern for and encouragement of our success.
For a week, I went back to middle school, but today, I began teaching middle school. My students this summer—all nine of them—are spunky and sassy and challenging.
There is Takeima, who bounces out of her seat to participate. There is Ricardo, who quietly but deliberately offers on-point observations and analysis. There is Juan, who eagerly looks for affirmation of his thoughts at each step of the way. There is Willneisha, whose mischievous smile alludes to a world of complexities behind every comment. There is Larry, who wants to be an artist and can describe in detail every event in “Around the World in 80 Days.” There is Albert, who has such practical and funny ways of improving life at Imperial Courts, his housing project in Watts. And there are Raven and KaldeRome, both brilliant, both beautiful, both sullen and ready to test me. I feel lucky to work with them this summer, but also a little daunted. They are all failing English. How am I going to get them to succeed? How am I going to get them to want to succeed?
I am a little daunted, but I am also exhilarated. This summer is going to be difficult…the next two years are going to be difficult. But, for the first time, I am part of something bigger than myself. In addition to the communities that are allowing me to join them, I am a part of this corps, this TFA. I am one of 3000, supported by nearly 10,000 alumni and countless advocates. I am “building the movement,” in TFA speak. We are a corps, a movement 13,000 strong that is devoted to social justice. I am part of a movement, and that is what will continue to inspire and exhilarate me. That, and KaldeRome and Raven.
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While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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