Boston Pulse Youth Poets on the American Dream

Ny’lasia Brown (L) and Sumeya Aden deliver their poems at "Speak Up! Art is Action" in October.

Ny’lasia Brown (L) and Sumeya Aden deliver their poems at "Speak Up! Art is Action" in October.

By Tony DelaRosa

What if students had the chance to interrogate the American Dream? Would they accept such an immense and overwhelming task? Would they be able to address power and privilege?

Ny’lasia Brown and Sumeya Aden, Match Charter Public School eighth graders, grapple with these questions almost every Monday after school during our Boston Pulse Youth Spoken Word Club meetings. Boston Pulse, like its predecessor and sister organization Indy Pulse (www.indypulse.org), works to empower youth voices in Boston.   

Last month, our students  were invited to perform for Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell at “Speak Up! Art is Action” organized by Mass LEAP (Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective) and hosted by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Ny’lasia and Sumeya were two of 11 students to perform, and the only middle school-aged poets to take the microphone.

To prepare for the event, every student poet was asked to respond to the prompt: “What does the American Dream mean to you?” Through the Boston Pulse curriculum, we studied the works of famous and local slam poets including Paul Flores, Melissa Oliva-Lozada, Clint Smith, Denice Frohman who all write about identity, history, citizenship, and oppression.

Specific lines from thirteen-year old Ny’lasia’s poem, “The American Nightmare,” react with a sharp awareness of the perception of being Black in America today:

CAN’T wear a hoodie without being looked at the wrong way

they are looking at us the wrong way and now i have the potential

to be stopped and frisked at any given moment. CAN’T make mistakes

CAN’T take risks

CAN’T BREATHE…

These haunting lines from thirteen-year old Sumeya’s poem, “The Cowards vs. Those Who Struggle,” pay homage to those those who she doesn't believe are protected by the American Dream:

Aren’t we the land of the free, home of the brave?

Or are we the cowards who hide behind money,

power, privilege, fame, and the government?

The ones who stopped listening

The ones who stopped caring

While people have suffered and are suffering,

waiting for your attention.

You can watch them deliver their full poems here.

Amanda Torres, executive director of Mass LEAP, hosted a Q&A for student performers, where they had an opportunity to not only to talk about “why they write,” but also to share their opinions about current events, including the presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. You could see the pride students felt as the adults in the audience listened carefully and weighed their perspectives.   

Torres said during the ceremony: “Art is linked to social action, and young people have the power to shape the world we exist in…” As their former English teacher and spoken word coach, it has been my pleasure to learn from Ny’lasia, Sumeya and their classmates, as they shape the work I do everyday.  

Tony DelaRosa is a 2012 TFA Alum, Indy Pulse and Boston Pulse co-founder, and 7th Grade English and Composition Teacher at Match Charter Public Middle School. 

 

Reimagining the Classroom at Match Next

Garrett Schilling works with one of his students.

Garrett Schilling works with one of his students.

Garrett Schilling is a tutor at Match Next this year. He has hipster beard and a brown leather notebook with refillable paper he carries from class to class. Garrett grew up all over the United States, but calls Oklahoma home. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Science from Southwestern Oklahoma State University and after several stints as an outdoor educator, decided he wanted to become a teacher. He applied to the Match Teacher Residency – the first year of Match’s Sposato Graduate School of Education – and asked to be placed at Match Next, because he knew it would require even more one-on-one interaction with students than Match Corps tutors do. 

Match Next is Match Education’s latest K12 innovation: it’s our effort to reimagine how to organize the human resources in a school. Instead of the traditional classroom, with one teacher in a room of 25 students, we’re building a new model. In one grade, three master teachers oversee 30 tutors (all AmeriCorps members), who work with 100 students. In a typical class period, students are organized into groups of three or four, overseen by one tutor. 

To see Match Next in action is to see a totally different kind of classroom, one with a lot more adults than a normal classroom has. Students and tutors sit at desks configured into pods. Every kid has a Chromebook and all of the class materials – lessons, assessments, classwork, homework, etc. – are housed in the cloud, on Google Classroom. Master teachers check in on students individually and spend a few minutes with each pod of kids to see spot-check their progress and check for understanding.  

This year, Garrett has worked one-on-one with 10 fifth graders in English and social studies. He spends hours with his kids each day working through the day’s lessons and independent work. He talks and texts regularly with their parents. As a result of spending so much time in close proximity, Garrett and his kids know all sorts of things about each other: favorite bands, interests, food, weekend plans, siblings, struggles at home.

Garrett spends a lot of time on his right knee during the day, kneeling down next to his students as they get to work. “About 60 percent of my job is poking and prodding and course correction,” he says. The group of four boys he’s working with today have diverse needs – one student is a plodder; another works fast (Garrett describes him as a “grumpy old man in a 10-year old body”); the third boy is capable, but has a hard time staying on task; and the fourth boy, who is new to Match this year, is catching up academically and adjusting to the high expectations of his new school. 

He has a few constant refrains (he must say these things hundreds of times a week): “What are you having a hard time with?” “What is this trying to teach us?” “You can do it, try again.” “I’m not telling you – look it up.” “Ok, that’s pretty good!”  

The big lesson students are working on today is identifying and interpreting poetic devices in songs. Each student was supposed to bring in a song from home to analyze – those who forgot to pick a song are given a copy of “Happy” by Pharrell. As class gets underway, Garrett reminds his students to pull out their poetry glossaries to use as a reference tool. He pushes them to think through the use of things like repetition, metaphor and simile to influence the mood, tone, theme and point of view of the song. 

Garrett has learned a lot about teaching and about how to connect with kids this year. But one of his biggest lessons has to do with how he presents himself. At the beginning of the year, Garrett’s eyebrows were permanently furrowed, his mouth fixed in a perpetual grimace. It was a look of concentration, and he was concentrating a lot! Sposato faculty identified this tendency and gave him feedback. “I think I was scaring the kids,” he says.  Now he smiles more and tries to ensure his “resting face” is a friendly one. It seems to be making a difference in his daily interactions with his students. 

The hardest part of the work for Garrett has been learning to not give kids the answers. His teacher persona is athletic coach – firm, but fair, and caring. “I’ve learned that it’s a long game to get kids to do the work themselves,” Garrett explains. “At the beginning of the year I was doing too much scaffolding - too much work for my students - but now they’re developing enough stamina to do their own work.”  

Next year, as a second year graduate student at Sposato, Garrett will be teaching middle school science at UP-Boston in South Boston. Meanwhile, the work at Match Next will continue. Over the next couple of years, we’ll integrate some of the best practices we’ve learned about technology in the classroom and individualized learning at Next across all our grade levels.

Becoming a Teacher

Miranda-Gomez directs students in her class.

At barely five feet, Brenda Miranda-Gomez is smaller than most people. But she moves faster, and with much more purpose. Trailing her around Match High School is to see a young woman who has found her calling: teacher. 

She’s already developed eyes in the back of her head. During the four minute transition time between classes she doles out a series of instructions, reprimands and encouragement to students as she weaves her ways through the crowded hallways: “Tuck in your shirt, Israel.” “I’ll see you in tutorial later, right?” “Where are you supposed to be right now?” “Hey, I consider freakin’ a bad word.” “High-five, let’s go.” 

Brenda has two little brothers. She credits this with her natural tendency to be in charge. Brenda grew up with her two brothers, and her mom, in an urban and largely Latino neighborhood in Riverside, CA. Brenda knew from an early age that she wanted to move away from her home city, in her words, “to get out and be successful.” She excelled in high school and attended UC-Berkeley, where she majored in math.  

As graduation approached, she started researching education-focused organizations and got curious about charter schools. “I wished I’d had the ‘no excuses’ charter model for myself growing up,” she says. She had friends who’d done Teach For America, but nobody she knew stuck with teaching after they’d completed their two-year TFA commitment. She knew she wanted to try something different. And she knew she wanted to live on the East coast. So, she applied and was accepted to the Match Teacher Residency (MTR), the first year of the Sposato Graduate School of Education

Miranda-Gomez meets with her Sposato coach, Jawad Brown.

Miranda-Gomez meets with her Sposato coach, Jawad Brown.

MTRs spend the first year of Sposato’s two-year Master’s program working full-time as a tutor at a Match campus or teaching assistant at one of our partner schools, and completing coursework and practice (including Group of Six) on the weekends. During the spring semester of the school year, MTRs also teach at least two full class periods a week. During the second year of the program, Sposato graduate students work as full-time teachers, continuing their coursework online and receiving regular feedback and coaching from Sposato faculty.  (Brenda has accepted a job teaching 9th grade math and Excel Academy High School next year.) 

The culture of continuous feedback is one of Brenda’s favorite things about Sposato, along with her students, the good friends she’s made and the opportunity to live in a new city. (Her first time in Boston was when she moved here.) “I love how immediate and specific the feedback is,” she says. “I can implement it quickly and keep getting better.” 

The day we visit, Brenda has several tutoring sessions and is student teaching a 9th grade algebra class. Brenda can do high school math in her sleep, but during tutorial, she slows down the pace of her kids.  She bounces her right knee under the table as she works and clicks her four-color ballpoint pen from red to blue ink. “We’re going to go through it step by step so it sinks in a little more,” she says.  Together, they work through math problems that require students to factor out the leading coefficient, write equations as binomials, identify the vertex and write quadratic equations for given points on a graph. 

In class, Brenda immediately gets her kids to work on a “do now.” She gives a kid with the sniffles a tissue (early-spring colds are hanging on), and walks to the back of the classroom to stand next to a student who looks disengaged, slumped over in his chair. The aim of the day’s lesson is to transform quadratic equations. Her class is an energetic mix of lecture and independent practice. It’s orderly and you can see how hard she works to put the thinking work – the cognitive load – back on her students. 

Being a teacher, especially a new teacher, is hard for many reasons. But it’s especially hard because of the thousands of decisions teachers are required to make every hour. Sposato gives its students lots of on-the-job and simulated practice to help many of those decisions start to feel instinctual. Before every student teaching day, Brenda’s faculty coach from Sposato gives her something specific to concentrate on- an instructional move or a classroom management technique called a big takeaway – during class. On this day, Brenda is working on setting clear expectations by being more intentional about how she uses the white board at the front of the class.  This is the kind of nitty-gritty, specific feedback she loves, because it’s so actionable. 

After her lesson, Brenda has a 45-minute feedback session with her Sposato coach, Jawad Brown. (Jawad was a 7th and 8th grade math teacher for several years before joining Match).  He starts off the coaching session by asking Brenda how she thinks the class went – what went well, what could have gone better, what she was thinking and feeling at certain moments in the lesson.  He congratulates Brenda on a great day.  Her big takeaway for the next lesson? Challenging students to use more mathematical vocabulary. She’ll implement it during the following day’s lesson. 

“In middle and high school my teachers kept me going,” Brenda says. “They helped me believe I could go to Cal, that I could major in math. When I look at my kids, I know I want to do the same thing for them.”