Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit preschool teacher tries to meet her students’ needs

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Detroit preschool teacher Dawn Bruce said she was inspired to teach by her first-grade teacher.

Dawn Bruce, a prekindergarten teacher in Detroit’s main district, fondly remembers her own first-grade teacher, Miss Kessler, who treated her students as if they were her own children.

Decades on, Miss Kessler remains a touchstone for Bruce, who strives to nurture her four- and five-year-old students in much the same way.

“I want them to know they’re loved, and that they’re safe,” said Bruce, who has been teaching for 26 years. “I teach children that from day one. I’m a safekeeper. If they feel safe, they are more inspired to participate and to learn what they need to learn.”

Bruce recently spoke with Chalkbeat about how she assesses and works to meet the needs of her students, and why she sometimes feels like a rock star on the school yard. The interview is part of Chalkbeat’s “story booth” series that invites students, educators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Detroit Story Booth

Watch this Detroit student read his poem about teachers who thought his differences were ADHD

PHOTO: Damon Hogan
Damon Hogan was so energetic and impulsive in classrooms, his teachers thought he had ADHD or autism.

Damon Hogan often was misunderstood in school.

He frequently found himself in trouble because when he finished his school work faster than other students, he made funny noises to ward off his boredom. He perfected sounding like a barking dog, chirping cricket or car alarm, all the while his classmates finished their work.

Teachers thought that Hogan, 19, might have autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD. 

He shared his story of getting tested — and read the poem he wrote about that experience — at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the Detroit Parent Network. Watch the poem below and scroll down to hear Hogan tell the story behind it.

“The doctors never could find anything wrong with me,” said Hogan, who attended the now-shuttered Nsoroma Institute, and graduated from the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine in 2016.

His lack of a diagnosis didn’t stop other students, who thought he was weird, from picking on him and bullying him; Hogan even recalled teachers telling him he would never amount to anything. He recounted feeling demeaned and isolated, describing that experience in a powerful poem:

Despite his challenges in school, Hogan discovered he was a talented poet and honed his craft in the InsideOut Literary Arts Citywide Poets Program. InsideOut Literary Arts is a non-profit organization that helps young Detroiters explore their inner lives through written and spoken poetry.

Just about every week since he was in eighth grade, Hogan has met with the group at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. It helped immensely when his coach, Ben Alfaro, a celebrated poet and author, told Hogan he was perfectly normal.

“He told me I was just different, and that’s OK,” Hogan said.

A member of the 2018 Detroit Youth Poetry Slam Team, Hogan competed for the final time in the 2018 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in July. At age 19, he’s aging out of the program, which serves 13- to 19-year-olds this year.

Since those days when teachers and students labeled him as strange, Hogan said he hasn’t changed much. Except that now, he’s a sophomore business major at Wayne State University. Even there, he relishes being silly, now and then.

“A lot of times I’m doing something I’m probably not supposed to be doing, but it’s just who I am,” he said, recalling playing his music too loudly on campus and attracting the attention of campus police.

“I’m just wild and spontaneous.”

Story booth

This ex-Detroit cop-turned-teacher left in distress. Now, she’s ready to return to the classroom

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Sandra Cooper ponders her past as a district teacher, and hopes for a brighter future upon her return

After 14 years as an English teacher in Detroit’s main district, Sandra Cooper, mother of nine children, found herself under so much stress that she left her job last fall.

Now, half a year later, she’s considering a return to the district, driven by a belief that she can still make a difference in students’ lives.

Cooper, who also is a former police officer, quit teaching because of the stress from dealing with disorderly students, lack of administrative support, and poor building conditions. But she believes the district is now offering teachers more backing and training — and she didn’t even realize until she turned up at a recent job fair that an amended union contract means experienced teachers will soon be paid more

Cooper is among hundreds of prospective teachers who have attended one of the job fairs the district has hosted in recent weeks as it steps up its recruiting efforts.

Chalkbeat spoke with Cooper as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, educators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Here’s Cooper’s story, which has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

“The Detroit Public Schools Community District is changing. That’s why I’m coming back, and I’m coming in at a higher pay rate now. When I left, it was too stressful for teachers. Everybody was stressed out. We weren’t getting any support from the administration, especially about students’ behavior. We didn’t know what to do with them.

We didn’t want to kick them out, but we kicked them out. They tell us to give them some work while they’re gone, and they’re gone two weeks. It meant you’ve got to do this and do that. It was just too much. So I took a break from it for a while.

Now that they are changing the district and giving teachers more support, and allowing them to do more professional development, well, maybe it’s better.

I live in Detroit, and I love Detroit. I have nine children and my kids were here. They all graduated from Detroit Public Schools. They all went to college. So I know it can be done.

I’m not rich. I didn’t go to college until my kids were older. So it’s not like I’ve been working for 25 years and about ready to retire. No.

I really love Detroit and the kids, but it’s a big problem here. I know it is. The school system has a lot to do with it. Because the kids are not getting what they need. They are going to raggedy buildings. They’re dirty. They’re nasty.

If you’re a teacher, you don’t even want to get dressed up to go to work because you don’t have the proper stuff there. You don’t have any place to put your coat. Where’s a locker? Can I lock my stuff up? It’s just little things that annoy you that happen with this school system.

But you know, everything is hard and I want to help. I’m just, maybe a teacher at heart. My kids, I was helping them with homework anyway. I said I may as well go to school and get a degree in education.

Before I had my children, I was a police officer. I got married and started having children, and I said, ‘I can’t do that and be a police officer.’ So I quit that to raise my family.

I was drilling in them that education is important. It worked because they all graduated high school, and went to college.

That’s why I’m back. It’s about helping other students do the same thing, and reach their potential. I’m back because so many students need that. Maybe I can help them in some way. I guess I have. I’ve had so many students come to me and ask ‘Do you remember what you said to me?’

I don’t remember what I said, but I know it was something that made them go to school and take care of themselves.

That’s my joy. When students click with what I’m trying to teach them. They say, ‘Oh, why we gotta write that?’ They are always complaining about their assignments and asking why they have to do it.

Why? So you can communicate. You might be somewhere and see a crime, and you have to write a story about it. If you can’t write it on paper, nobody will know what you’re talking about.

Then there’s that day. They write something. It’s flowing. It’s coherent. And you say, ‘Oh, my God, you got it!’

It makes it worthwhile because they need to know these things. Certain things need to happen for a person to be successful.

It’s stupid for people to say, ‘I’ve got mine; they have to get theirs.’

They are children, and they are not going to see a lot of things. You have to put things in a way where they can see it. This generation now, they are not sitting at a desk reading a book all day. That worked for me and my generation. It’s not working for them. They’ve got too many brain synapses going off to just sit in one place.

So you have to meet them where they are. I’m coming back to do that.”