First Person

Voices: I love you too much to let you fail

Denver teacher Vanessa Lugo-Acevedo was recently honored by the White House. The daughter of immigrants, she describes why a child’s cultural background must be viewed as an asset.

There are no words to adequately express how deeply honored I am to be receiving the Champions of Change award. As a Hispanic female, a child of immigrants and an English language learner, I feel that my entire life I have been preparing to engage in this work in our community.

Upon graduating from UCLA in 2010, I entered the profession of teaching through Teach for America, an alternative licensure program founded by Wendy Kopp, whose mission is to place high-achieving college graduates as teachers in our highest-need schools. I was placed as a bilingual educator, meaning I could be hired as anything from a pre-K teacher to a high school Spanish teacher.

I will never forget my first and only teaching interview with the staff at Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. It lasted for about 15 minutes over Skype. It was the last question and my answer to that question that changed my life: Why should we hire you over anyone else?

My response: I see myself reflected in the students that I will be teaching. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood and I received free lunch at school. My parents are immigrants from Mexico and when I began school, they did not speak English and neither did I. I want to demonstrate to my students and families that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. 

Querer es poder. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Reflecting my students racially, culturally and linguistically

In my classroom, grassroots transformational change has revolved around the idea that a student’s background and culture should be an asset. It should never be considered a barrier to success. This mindset has illuminated my path in education both in and outside of the classroom.

In my practice as a bilingual educator, my belief is carried out in viewing and using my students’ and families’ native language as a sacred tool to learn English and in English. It has helped increase student engagement in my classroom by ensuring that the lessons I teach my students are reflective of who they are racially, culturally and linguistically.

As a first-year teacher, this began as simply making sure the classroom environment was representative of the students in our classroom as well as being intentional about the texts that I selected for our read aloud, making sure that they reflected my student’s cultures and their interests.

When I saw how much more my students enjoyed the books that had characters that looked like them, I was motivated to make my curriculum student-centered. I began to design more learning experiences that affirmed the diversity within our classroom incorporating students’ native language, musical interests as well as favorite foods.

In order for students to value and see their background and culture as an asset, we as educators MUST see our students’ cultures and backgrounds as assets.

The tragic effects of sympathy and excuses

Culture and background can only be seen as an asset when, as a nation, we cease to look at our students and families of color from a deficit perspective. I have seen firsthand the tragic effects of sympathy and excuses for why students cannot learn. I believe that this is part of the problem in our education system today.

Sympathy and excuses must stop.

As a nation, we must come to terms with the fact that our kids and families do not need our sympathy. Let us vow to take an asset-based perspective, seeing our students and families for who they are: strong, intelligent, and capable human beings with rich, vast, and varied life experiences.

In my time as an educator and my lifetime as a student, I have found that the key to success in school lies in building solid, positive relationships with students, families, caretakers and the community at large and maintaining high expectations for all regardless of circumstance.

Our students and families need to know that we love them too much to let them fail, the future of our nation depends on this. To do this, we must know who our students are and what their hopes and dreams are – because if we cannot motivate them and inspire them, how do we expect to teach them?

More than a mouthpiece for the powerless

Outside of the classroom, my work in education has revolved around systemic transformational change in the realm of teacher education and support.

As a Teach for America corps member, I felt that the program’s programming around diversity, community and achievement left much to be desired especially since the students we were about to teach were children of color. As a result, I have spent the past two years working with Teach for America to increase corps members understanding of our students of color and our English language learners.

This past summer I worked as a corps member advisor, partnering with 12 promising new teachers from Hawaii, Ohio, Indianapolis, Colorado, New Mexico and Phoenix to support them in developing the skills they will need to feel prepared to enter their classroom this fall.

Additionally, I worked closely with an amazing team of our 14 staff members charged with the task of facilitating a series of sessions on diversity, community and achievement. The sessions explored topics of race, class, and real and perceived lines of differences, all topics that are pertinent to both new and current teachers in the landscape of our public schools.

In my work, my goal is to be more than a mouthpiece for those who often feel powerless. My goal is to empower them so that they feel the confidence and exuberance to share their stories, their hopes and their dreams.

This blog is cross-posted from the White House’s Champions of Change website. For more stories by educators, visit the site.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede