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: 

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. 

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.”