Nia Spooner '13, an Elementary Education Licensure Candidate, has been recommended for a Fulbright Grant by the Institute of International Education. Nia has applied for an English Teaching Assistantship in Taiwan for the 2013-14 school year. Congratulations to Nia and the rest of the Smith students moving on to the next round!
Urban Education Initiative – A Firsthand Perspective
The Urban Education Initiative, launched in 1999, grants January Interterm fellowships to Smith undergraduates, who intern with classroom teachers in urban schools in New York, Boston, and Springfield. Most fellows are placed in classrooms and schools of Smith alumnae - many of whom were introduced to urban teaching through their own fellowship experiences. The program was originally funded by a grant from Debra Gastler '75, with additional funding provided by Alison Overseth '80, Jane Cecil '50, Jeanne La Croix Crocker '45 and the family of Claire Abisalih '12. "The generosity of our alumnae have enabled us to provide students with an opportunity to learn first-hand about great teaching, school reform, and the critical issues facing urban educators," notes Urban Ed program founder Sam Intrator, Professor of Education and Child Study.
Urban Ed fellows lived with Smith alumnae in New York City while teaching at public schools in the city last month. Some of the fellows wrote about their experience for the Gate.
Every Day, Two Different Worlds
Dena Greenstreet ‘15 spent her January Interterm participating in the Urban Education Initiative.
Jumping out of bed at 5 a.m., I left my temporary Park Avenue residence to take the subway uptown for my job at KIPP Star Elementary School in Washington Heights, where I worked in January as a teaching assistant for a first-grade class of 28 students through the Urban Education Initiative program.
As I waited for the train, I thought about my new student, John. We had to learn to read 253 words that week. Would my class get it all done? Could I do this? Would it make a difference? Taking one last sip of coffee, the subway doors opened and my day began.
I pursued the Urban Education Initiative as a way to jump into the deep end of the fascinating education field, and as a way to help me define the next step of my journey as a student. Previously, my urban educational experiences included working as a guitar teacher for Girls Rock Philly, a rock n’ roll and empowerment summer camp for young girls in Philadelphia, and most recently as a personal academic tutor for Smith’s Project Coach in Springfield, Mass. Both of these experiences piqued my interest in urban education and pulled my heart into the matter, as I formed close bonds with my students and became aware of their individual challenges growing up in the two cities.
However, my time as an Urban Ed Fellow provided a challenge unlike any of my previous positions. Though I was officially a teaching assistant, my job description ranged from photocopying to first-aid to working one-on-one with students like John, who were just beginning to read. My classroom, called the Michigan Wolverines, was co-taught by two talented women, but its students presented deep behavioral and academic differences and challenges.
KIPP Star is currently in its second year of operation, and observing a school in its formative years was eye-opening. I had the privilege of working in the company of Katherine LeBron ’12, a Teach for America Corps member and kindergarten teacher in her first year.
The days are long at KIPP Star. Each school day is nine hours of classroom time, and several more hours of planning and grading work. Every day was a rollercoaster of interactions, as I came to know 28 students, two teachers, and many members of the administration.
The days began with morning program, a “pump-up” assembly where the students dance and sing KIPP songs that promote showing Character, one of KIPP’s five core values (the others: Choice, Curiosity, Confidence, and Community). The hours that followed were heavily scheduled with academics, and a few “specials,” such as art and fitness. It is a schedule that was an enormous accomplishment for 6-year-olds to complete each day. It was also an enormous challenge for me, and left me spent when I returned home.
Throughout my Urban Ed Fellowship, I often felt like I was straddling the border of two different worlds. I was welcomed into a community in a West Harlem school while living as a guest to a family on the Upper East Side, and frequently indulging in some of the finest food, art, music and sights the city had to offer.
My host, Anne Bodnar ’78, CAO of Towers Watson, graciously opened her home to me and fellow Urban Ed participant Gloria Lee ’15. She guided us in learning to navigate New York.
The contrast between my living and working situations was at times jarring, but one that enabled me to engage as a guest in two worlds I had never experienced.
I returned to campus this semester empowered by my realization that an education at Smith leads to invaluable connections and experiences that open countless doors. Also, I emerged from the January fellowship with a strengthened passion for education, a newly ignited interest in urban educational policy, and a desire to begin exploring the field of counseling, since I truly enjoyed the time I spent working one-on-one with children, and addressing their individual challenges.
I had the privilege of watching young students start their journeys to college, and the opportunity to observe a system of education that was foreign to me. I now see the world of education and my own educational journey with fresh eyes, and I am ready to take on my next challenge.
Making the Shift from Student to Teacher in NYC
Emma Kimata ‘14 spent her January Interterm participating in the Urban Education Initiative.
This was my second year participating in the Urban Education Initiative after a rewarding experience last January teaching at P.S. 24 in the Bronx. My interest in returning to the program was to further my teaching experience and continue to study the politics, policy and educational reform in the New York public education system.
I was generously welcomed into the home of Ruth Turner ’46, who allowed me to live with her during the program. Far more than just having a place to stay, I was given the opportunity to form a relationship with a truly impressive woman, who, 67 years after graduating from Smith, continues to have a powerful connection to the college.
For this year’s Urban Ed fellowship, I taught at Shuang Wen P.S. 184m, a dual language school on the Lower East Side, Manhattan. The school, founded in 1998, was the first public elementary school to offer an English and Mandarin curriculum. Part of the mission of Shuang Wen is to contribute to nationwide efforts to educate globally conscious, culturally diverse and multilingual citizens. I was particularly interested in working at Shuang Wen, a top-ranking NYC public school, because it is a Title I school, with more than 70 percent of its students living under the poverty threshold.
As a Title I public high school graduate myself, I have personally experienced the challenges of a school system struggling under chronic underfunding and lack of resources. My current interest in teaching is greatly influenced by the teachers and figures of support that have encouraged me along my own educational trajectory. Their dedication helped me realize the potential for all students to overcome racial, gender and socioeconomic disadvantages if given adequate support and encouragement.
As I shift from the role of student to teacher, I hope to be able to kôkua - a Hawaiian word, from my upbringing, meaning “to help” or “give back.”
My official role in the P.S. 184m classroom was as a student teacher, but my responsibilities required significant adaptability. Something that I admire about great teachers is their capacity to perform a diversity of tasks, including social worker, therapist, parent, mentor, friend, role model, custodian, secretary, referee and much more.
One of my charismatic 8-year-old students told me that rather than a “teacher” I should call myself a “T.O.S.H.A.C.,” his invented acronym for Teacher-Older Sister-Helper-Artist-Comedian.
While working with the co-teachers, Ms. Kahn and Ms. Michaels, in the third-grade ICT (integrated co-teaching) classroom, I found that grade level to be a year of many different types of learning. In addition to acquiring the fundamentals of reading, writing and math, third-grade students are developing their learner identity, sense of responsibility and awareness of the world.
As Ms. Michaels explained to me one day, “We as teachers are given the responsibility of helping to develop a full human being in a student.”
This can be especially challenging when the curriculum for these New York third-graders is heavily structured according to the h igh-stakes standardized English Language Arts and Mathematics tests. Administered every April, some critical information that these standardized tests will never be able to measure is student initiative, imagination, grit, kindness, curiosity and creativity.
Smith (in 2009) is among a handful of schools nationwide that have adopted SAT-optional admission policies, de-emphasizing standardized tests as a predictor of academic ability and potential, and acknowledging the correlations between race, household income and test performance.
The past two years of participating in the Urban Ed Initiative and teaching in two different third-grade public schools has taught me invaluable lessons about urban education and my possible future as an educator.
While it may have been my third year repeating the third grade, I hope it’s not my last.