Culture, Community & Context

Panelists at the final Culture, Community & Context class: Ariella Silverstein-Tapp (UP Academy-Holland), Anjali Nirmalan (UP Education Network), Edverette Brewster (Lila Frederick Pilot Middle School), Jawad Brown (Sposato), Simone Esteves (BB&N)

Panelists at the final Culture, Community & Context class: Ariella Silverstein-Tapp (UP Academy-Holland), Anjali Nirmalan (UP Education Network), Edverette Brewster (Lila Frederick Pilot Middle School), Jawad Brown (Sposato), Simone Esteves (BB&N)

How should teachers have answered students’ questions the morning after the 2016 presidential election? When an unarmed black man is shot and killed by police, how’s a teacher to respond? In the wake of controversial policies, such as President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” what responsibility do educators have to help students process the news?

Teachers are trained to teach math or science, English or humanities, but the realities of the classroom – and our world – dictate that they end up navigating much more than the academic disciplines in which they are trained. Kids are exposed to adult issues through social media, the internet and television, no matter how much we might prefer to shield them from ugly, painful stuff in the world.

This year, Match’s Sposato Graduate School of Education (SGSE) included a required course in its curriculum, SPO 100: Culture, Community and Context. (The class is a refined version of a similar course that Sposato has taught for the last two years.) 

Case study used in SPO 100 for in-class discussion.

Case study used in SPO 100 for in-class discussion.

Taught by Sposato faculty Elena Luna and Jawad Brown, the purpose of the class was to train rookie teachers how to confront their own biases and prepare their students – who are overwhelmingly students of color from low-income backgrounds – to navigate the “culture of power,” that in our society is European-American, white culture.  

Over six three-hour classes, Luna and Brown lead Sposato students through a series of readings, exercises and frank conversations designed to help them understand inequity in education, interrogate their own biases, and explore how their personal identities influence their relationship to the culture of power. Rookie teachers were also encouraged to teach their students to identify cultural and institutional inequities and to advocate for social change. And they learned how to build relationships with students and families, by venturing outside the walls of classroom and into a student’s life, by spending time on their home turf – at a soccer game, a family party, shopping. “It’s amazing what information you can gather from seeing students in their own communities,” one Sposato student explained. 

The final class of the semester featured a panel discussion among educators who regularly hold courageous conversations about race. These conversations were often in response to an incident (such as a police shooting or the election), but also came about in the course of class discussion. The deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the mass shooting at the AME church in Charleston, SC, the ongoing political debate about our country’s immigration policy – all events that occurred outside of Boston – were topics of discussion. 

Sposato students discuss a case study in class.

Sposato students discuss a case study in class.

The goal of this final SPO 100 sessionwas to create a forum where Sposato students could ask tough questions and hear how veterans handled these situations from the real-world. 

Here are a handful of key takeaways from the session: 

Have the conversation. The overwhelming message from veterans was to give students the space to discuss difficult news and events. They are experiencing trauma, and need a safe place to emotionally process and understand what they are seeing in the world. Be prepared to dive in.

Help students understand the facts. All sensitive conversations should be grounded in facts (an increasingly challenging ask in a landscape ripe with “alternative” facts). “Emotions run hot in first grade,” Silverstein-Tapp said, describing some of her students’ reactions to news of the Muslim ban; some worried about what might happen to members of their own families. “I did a ton of reading to understand what was going on, so I could answer their questions accurately,” she said. “I wanted to be factual, but not neutral.” 

Be sure to listen and validate students’ feelings. Conversations about race can become emotional among adults; imagine trying to keep a classroom full of 12-year old emotions in check. “I encouraged students to express how they were feeling, instead of saying, ‘you guys are XYZ!’” Brown said. That approach cut down on finger pointing and made conversations more about an internal exploration. Brown also gave everyone two minutes to talk, even if they opted to remain silent.

Teachers can introduce complexity into the conversation. Veteran teachers said it was important to remain true to their own emotions – in a way that was honest and age appropriate– but to also help students lean into the complexity of these issues. “Your job is to facilitate a conversation, and to help point out misconceptions, fears and lack of knowledge, and information is power” Luna said. Esteves doesn’t shy away from allowing students to share their thoughts – and pushing for clarity – and then allowing them to be held accountable by their peers.

Positive classroom culture is essential. Unless a teacher has already established a trusting, safe classroom culture, productive conversations about sensitive and emotional topics just aren’t possible. “Teaching and learning should be reciprocal, and that should be transparent to students,” Anjali Nirmalan explained. “I start with the basic questions: do you know what happened? How do you feel? Can you explain why you are upset?” Brewster added. “I run lots of Socratic seminars in my class and want my kids to know that I am comfortable having these discussions.” 

It’d be unrealistic to think that one seminar course could prepare rookie teachers to successfully navigate the complexities surrounding race and culture in the classroom. But it’s a start. And we hope the sheer awareness of their own biases – and the biases inherent in white, European-American culture – will enable them to run more effective classrooms and build stronger, more trusting relationships with students and families.

If you’re interested in some of the readings we assigned in SPO 100: Culture, Community & Context, here is a partial list: 

Match Export: An Education Start-Up Dedicated to Sharing Best Practices

Notes from a white board in our curriculum team's office.

Notes from a white board in our curriculum team's office.

There are no bean bag chairs at our office in downtown Boston. No ping-pong table or organic smoothie bar in the break room either. In fact, not much about Match Export looks like a “typical” start-up. 

Yet, looks can be deceiving. Match Export, the newest division of Match Education, is our attempt to do something big, bold, and (we think), new in the field of education. It represents our best attempt to scale rapidly and influence millions of educators and students nationwide—all without leaving the cozy confines of our home base in Boston.

Not Your Typical Education Website

Our team at Match Export has one mission: to share broadly the insights, practices, and resources we rely on every day to power high-quality teaching and learning in our school. To accomplish this, we have developed two websites to help educators improve their practice and, ultimately, improve the quality of learning in schools all across the country. 

Match Minis, launched a year ago, are short, animated videos that share what we know about classroom teaching, teacher training and more. They’re accessible and funny (or so people tell us). 

Cold Calling.png

Match Fishtank, launched last July, is our foray into the open educational resources (OER) movement. It’s a website that hosts – and shares for free – the curriculum and course materials we use at our K12 school in Boston. It’s much more than a series of documents on a Google Drive. It’s a full-blown website, with a search feature and download capabilities, that gives teachers access to full units and courses, or lets them pull a specific lesson or even a single math problem based on their teaching goals.

A Different Path to Scale

Many successful non-profits, and charter schools specifically, work to achieve scale through replicating. They take a model that worked well in one place, and try to make it work in as many other places as possible. KIPP is just one great example of this approach: KIPP’s impact comes by increasing the number of students who attend a KIPP school. 

We respect immensely organizations that set out to achieve scale in this way. It requires resources, expertise, and an infrastructure beyond what we will ever possess in our organization. 

At Match, we think about scale a little differently. We know we’ll never be big enough to reach every educator or student in the country directly. We believe, however, that if we create a digital product that is highly attuned to the needs of schools and kids we care about, and we work constantly to refine and spread awareness of our offerings, we have a chance to do something big and important. 

Creating, Packaging and Distributing High Quality Content

There’s a lot of education-related content on the internet today. A teacher who opens up his or her laptop and types “free curriculum resources” into Google is likely to be inundated with lesson plans, unit assessments, and study guides. Some of these resources are likely to be relevant, accessible, high-quality, and from a reputable source. Many of these resources, unfortunately, are not. Even in curated teacher forums or resource marketplaces, finding the right education tools and adapting them to a classroom requires far more effort from time-stressed teachers than it should.

The challenge then is not just creating high-quality content. To find success in the next few years, the task of Match Export is to create, package, distribute and promote high-quality content in a way that is accessible and engaging to educators nationwide. We want to become a one-stop-shop for rigorous curriculum resources and creative approaches to improving teacher’s professional development. For Match Export, the charge is to create an organization that is world-class at both curriculum development and digital product management, and to house it all within our small education non-profit operation. 

That’s why we have staffed Match Export with a cross-functional team. We have curriculum experts who have spent years in classrooms honing their craft, talented graphic designers and software engineers, and product managers with experience bringing new tools to market. 

Early Signs of Success

We launched Fishtank and Minis in summer 2016 and have been creating and adding content ever since. As of March 2017, we’ve had more than 60,000 unique visitors. Over the next few months, we will be working to double the number of grades and subjects we cover on Match Fishtank.

In these early days, we have been struck by the range of ways teachers, curriculum directors, school leaders, and district administrators are putting Match Export’s resources to work. For example:

  • A 3rd grade teacher in Georgia who found us through an internet search just a few months ago is now using our full 3rd grade course.
  • A team of teachers at a school in New York City is using our 8th grade math unit assessments.
  • One veteran teacher in a rural school district who was recently assigned to teach a new grade told us how thankful she was to find our "Of Mice and Men" unit - a book she had not yet taught.

Match Export operates from the principle that there is no one “right” way to use our resources. Accordingly, they are built to be equally useful to the 8th grade teacher who needs help teaching “To Kill A Mockingbird” as they are to the district curriculum director working to overhaul math curriculum across grade levels. 

Match Minis, by design, can be plugged in anywhere educators are working to improve their practice— whether it’s a charter network looking to transform its professional development offerings, or a brand new teacher prepping for her first day in the classroom. 

Hard Work Ahead

The feedback we’ve received from users so far gives us confidence in the quality and design of our resources. Still, we know we have a long way to go if we are to achieve our goal of reaching 10% of educators in the U.S. over the next five years. 

In the coming months, Match Export will continue to make significant investments to build out both its curriculum development and product management teams. We will be bolstering our customer acquisition operation to better target and reach a larger audience of educators, adding more programmers to rapidly improve the our website design and functionality, and supporting our curriculum team to help get our unit plans, assessments, and guides up on our websites as quickly as possible.

Building an education “unicorn” takes work. 

Coaching Teachers

Laura Mahajan, the director of coaching at Match's Sposato Graduate School of Education.

Laura Mahajan, the director of coaching at Match's Sposato Graduate School of Education.

A young teacher, Ms. M, was struggling to hold the attention of her sixteen elementary school students. The kids were chatty, fidgety and off-task, failing to follow along with the day’s reading lesson. No matter how many times she said, “Eyes on me” or reminded students to “keep voices off” they wriggled on the carpet. Sitting cross-legged among the throng of little bodies, was Laura Mahajan, calmly and persistently redirecting students.  

Mahajan is the director of coaching at Match’s Sposato Graduate School of Education. She’s the coach of the coaches (she also observes and coaches graduate students, like Ms. M). 

(If you’re sensing a theme in our recent stories, about the time we spend coaching teachers at Match, you’re not wrong.) 

Mahajan describes the job of teacher as “master juggler.” “Teachers are using so many discrete skills all at the same time,” she told me. “There’s so much going on that the skills can become invisible, so it’s hard to actually pull them apart and isolate any single one.” 

Mahajan has all training and academic credentials you’d expect of someone in her position: B.A. from Princeton, M.A. in teaching from Columbia, teaching experience in a high-need, urban school. What makes her good at her job is her intuitive understanding of the alchemy of skills that makes for an effective teacher. And, most important, her ability to pull them apart: to prioritize the key element of a teacher’s practice that is off track at a particular moment and deliver concrete, actionable feedback to immediately address it. She translates this skill to her coaches -- master teachers in their own right -- helping them better advise their trainees. 

In one coach-the-coach session, Mahajan complimented the coach’s method of answering a trainee’s questions in a way that put the hard thinking back on the teacher. But she also cautioned her not to slow down the conversation too much and to do more direct narration, to ensure the trainee understood the larger principle of the “teacher move” in question.

With Ms. M, who like many rookie teachers was struggling with the basics of classroom management, Mahajan focused on helping her improve her ability to use nonverbal cues, including proximity, touch and frequent but fast redirection of students’ noises.

Here are Mahajan’s notes from that day’s coaching session: 

When there are noises that prevent you from teaching, neutrally state: “Noises off and tracking the page, please, so we can read the words together.” Then:

  1. Quietly narrate 2 friends with noises off.
  2. Quietly redirect each friend making noises with a What to Do.
  3. Move towards friends who continue to make noises and use non-verbals to get them back on task.

This incredibly detailed feedback is the magic of Sposato training. Here the philosophy is that smart, hard-working people, with proper training, adequate practice and an ability to digest criticism, can become effective teachers. 

The entire program is oriented around a near-consistent loop of practice and in-the-moment feedback on everything from a trainee’s intellectual preparation for a lesson, to her tone and physical presence with students, to the way she goes about engaging kids in a productive in-class discussion. Those practical, repeatable skills, in our view, are more valuable to a rookie teacher than the more esoteric conversations common in a traditional graduate school of education. 

Mahajan should know. She has a degree from one of the nation’s storied teaching colleges. “I knew I wanted help with the practical aspects of teaching, but that’s not what I got at all,” she says about her graduate school experience. “I had none of the skills of a 5th or 6th grade teacher need -- I didn’t know what I was doing in so many ways.” 

As the no-excuses charter movement has evolved, so has Sposato. The school has a much greater focus these days on helping our graduate students learn how to build strong relationships with kids. “Ross Greene, in his book Lost & Found, talks about the idea that kids do well if they can, not if they want to,” Mahajan says. It’s an important shift in thinking. 

It’s also the big thing holding back the young teacher, Ms. M. Mahajan and her team of coaches are working, one session at a time, to help Ms. M internalize the idea that young children are still developing the skills to sit still, and not talk, and read along. (Their fidgeting isn’t personal.) At the same time, the Sposato coaches are helping her see the connection between the relationship she has with her students and how they interpret her direction. “It’s not just ‘cause I’m telling you to do it, right? It’s important that they're able to hear the words,” Mahajan told her. “Get kids invested in the purpose of the expectation (‘Ms. M is helping me read, she has my back!’), instead of going to consequences.” 

Building relationships with students doesn’t always come naturally to first-year teachers, who are worried about the zillion other things they have to master about their new craft. But it’s a critical skill. “Teaching is maybe the only profession where you have to willfully smile at a kid who is scowling at you,” Mahajan says. 

A Summer at Crossroads Leadership Camp

Last school year as a seventh grader, Mya was nominated for the Crossroads C5 Leadership program. C5 is a summer and school year program that helps young leaders hone their leadership skills over the course of five years. It is a very competitive program. After applying, the candidates have a group interview with other applicants and current C5 upperclassmen before finishing the day with a one-on-one interview.

The interview committee looks for a particular type of student. When asked what she believes C5 saw in her, Mya replied, “I’m like, a very up person. I don’t have negativity in my life, I live positive. I laugh everyday. I just like helping people and being there for people. When I make friends, I like, cherish it. I do everything for my friends. I get kind of protective.”

Mya wasn’t a stranger to the Crossroads community. A couple of years ago, she attended Camp Wing, a different Crossroads camp that her mother heard about through a family friend. She enjoyed herself, but her homesickness led to her only attending for that one summer.

It seemed unlikely that Mya would willingly opt to attend another summer overnight camp until she was nominated for C5. “I was nominated by the principal, the old principal of this school,” she says with pride as she sits up straighter in her seat. She was nominated, her mother liked the program, and she got accepted, so she was willing to try she recalls with a shrug.

But making it through the 25 days of camp this summer was not as simple as that. It took Mya, a self-proclaimed shy person, time to adjust to the very intimate and intense environment. She expressed her desire to go home and her counselors were very patient with her as she worked through her feelings of homesickness.

One of her counselors recalls a moment when she was seriously considering leaving and after having a heart-to-heart with the counselor, she realized that she had been selected for a reason and decided to stay. Her counselor marks that moment as a turning point for Mya. She began making new friends and building a home with the C5 community.

For Mya, a different moment proved to be her most salient memory. Every evening, the students engaged in a discussion about a topic. These discussions, called Insight, were a challenge. Mya didn’t want to open up and share her thoughts with her peers. She worried that they might judge her.

But, after finding a safe space in Insight, she began participating. One night they had a very emotional discussion around bullying. She vividly recalled the night they discussed bullying. “Every single person in the cabin was in tears. But it wasn’t a bad thing!”

Making friends made all of the difference for Mya. She started to relax and enjoy the fun activities. She is looking forward to four more summers with the program and the person she will be when she graduates. “I think and I hope I can be a very caring helping person and like, fun. I don’t want to be boring and grow old. I want to have fun and be there for people.

Learn more about Match's work to enroll all of our students in high-quality summer programs at

Returning to Match as a Teacher

Before Shaniqua Choice enrolled at the Sposato Graduate School of Education, she was selling cars at the Herb Chambers Infiniti dealership in Boston. She didn’t know much about cars, “but I was learning,” she told me. A 2009 graduate of Match High School, Choice attended an event celebrating Boston charter schools nearly a year ago when she bumped into her tutor from senior year, Ray Schleck, who is now a principal at Match. As the story goes, Schleck asked what she was up to, and encouraged her to return to her alma mater, this time as a teacher-in-training. 

Studying to become a teacher wasn’t a random suggestion for Choice, a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA. She’d taught for a year at a charter high school in central MA after college graduation. But a poor experience in her first year had her questioning her long-term dream: to teach history, and African-American history in particular, at the college level. 

Choice has great physical presence. She is tall with a powerful build, big gold hoop earrings, chunky glasses and a headscarf (“because I haven’t had time to get my hair done in forever.”) You’d never guess from watching her move around the classroom and interact with students, that she spent six weeks in the hospital earlier this year after doctors discovered -- and removed -- a fifteen pound tumor in her intestines. She left her hospital bed two weeks early because she was so eager to get back to work. 

Choice works with one of her fifth grade students.

Choice works with one of her fifth grade students.

In the spring semester, like all first-year Sposato students, Choice student teaches twice a week. This week, her primary focus (what we call the “big takeaway”) was lesson preparation -- mastering the material, having a clear “target task” and planning the cognitive steps she wanted students to take  -- with the end goal of enabling students to do the deep thinking on their own. Her preparation worked. Transitions between whole-class instruction and small group work were smooth, and the resulting conversation, about whether or not an actor who voices the characters in animated movies should reflect the same race as their characters, was robust, but respectful. “You did an awesome job,” Christine Schepeler, a Sposato instructor, said to Choice in a coaching session later. 

When Choice isn’t student teaching, she works intensively with 10-12 fifth graders, usually, three or four at a time. In Hansel, Adrian, Rayven, and others, she sees herself: a kid of color who grew up without a lot of money, who wasn’t used to the intensive one-on-one attention that students at Match receive. “It can feel like a lot to have someone in your business all the time,” she says. “I really hated it at first and used to get in trouble all the time, but eventually I learned that my tutors were giving me feedback to help me be better.”

Choice says the similarities she and her pupils share, surprisingly, isn’t the connection point you’d think it would be. Building respectful, trusting relationships with kids by establishing a tone that is a blend of warm and strict is something she’s had to work at. In her first teaching job, she tried the approach lots of first-year teachers gravitate to: being cool. “It didn’t work -- the kids didn’t respect me,” she says. “This year I’ve made a conscious effort to marry high expectations and love: I love you, so I want you to do well.” 

Schleck, Choice’s tutor during her senior year, leads Match Next. The campus, which is Match’s home for all of our fifth graders, is a new model that relies on tutors to provide individual and small group instruction to students. This is all to say, Schleck has seen nearly 100 tutors cycle through his campus in the last three years. What makes Choice so effective with his students? He highlighted three things: first, as a Match graduate, she has a baseline understanding of what kids are going through (and isn’t surprised by much); second, she’s self-reflective and able to internalize and implement feedback quickly; and third, she’s good at advocating for herself, so she’s able to ask for the support she needs from her supervisors and mentors.

That last piece, about asking for support from her supervisor and mentors, is a big reason why she chose Sposato instead of another program. Choice is explicit about her long-term goals of teaching at the college level, but as a step towards that final destination, she wanted to build her teaching skills first, including the organizational and classroom management techniques she knows she’ll need. 

For now, though, she is getting excited about her new job next year, as a 10th grade history teacher at Community Charter School of Cambridge. “I’ll continue to give people lots of grace,” she told me.