Coming Full Circle — Former Students as Teachers Redux

Below is the text of an email I received a couple of days ago from a former student from Masterman. She was in my Freshman English class in 1998-99 — the first year that I taught at Masterman when I was still trying to figure out how to teach for social justice in a site of relative privilege. During those early years, I often found myself not “liking” my Masterman students — getting upset with their sense of entitlement and regretting my decision to leave Simon Gratz.

One night, I had a dream. In the dream, I was on the ground trying with all my might to get up. Suddenly I heard a voice. “You’re a bird stupid! Fly!” I raised my arms and up I went, no longer paralyzed or stuck to the ground. As I was driving to work the next morning, I remembered the dream. I was also thinking about my struggles with my new students. This time the voice said, “You’re a teacher, Marsha. Teach .” From that moment on, while it didn’t become easier, at least I accepted the challenge of meeting my students where they were, accessing their prior knowledge, learning about their past experiences and realizing that they too were negatively impacted by the inequities within the school district that privileged them. What I perceived as their arrogance was in part a function of the way in which they had had their identities constructed for them by the school.

That first year, after my freshmen students read To Kill a Mockingbird, I assigned an I-search paper. They were to pose a question about a topic related to the novel. The young woman whose email I share below chose to research John Dewey and progressive education. In the beginning of the novel, Scout talks about her new young teacher who says that she has been influenced by Dewey and Scout mistakenly thinks the teacher is referring to the Dewey Decimal system. It’s a funny moment, with a sly critique – one that could be overlooked by young readers.

This student researched John Dewey and read about progressive education. She wrote an excellent paper and I still remember that she ended the paper by acknowledging that she was in the midst of receiving a progressive education herself. Reading that paper was a turning point in my sojourn at Masterman. I realized that inquiry based teaching and learning could be enacted there and it could have a positive impact on the students and perhaps even the school community at large. It gave me hope for the future.

Ten years later, this student emailed me. She’s currently teaching at a private school in the area. She agreed to allow me to share her email without naming herself or her school. It’s early in her career. She’s still assessing her context and hoping to find ways to effect positive change without alienating anyone.

She writes:
It’s been a long journey since I left Masterman. I initially left after 10th grade because my family was part of the big exodus out of the city. My parents had finally achieved the great American Dream and bought themselves a house in a working middle-class neighborhood. The dream even came with its own white PVC picket fence. I finished high school in Bensalem, followed in my older sister’s footsteps and enrolled at Swarthmore.

My narrative begins during my freshman year of college. I thought I was going to major in Economics, learn to make tons of money and create a great foundation in my name. In high school, I used to carry in my wallet a Chinese fortune cookie slip that said, “You will become a great philanthropist in your later years.” One of my goals coming out of high school was to donate money back to schools like Masterman. Naïve, I know.

It wasn’t until my Spring semester that I realized I couldn’t see the world through graphs and economic models. My world was revealed to me through Intro to Educ. I spent every semester looking into the inequalities of education from many angles. I did a special major in Political Science and Educational Studies, focusing on ed policy, teacher retention in public schools, and media literacy.

During my sophomore year, I took an honors seminar on the sociology of education and learned the power of ethnography and personal narratives. I wanted to learn everything about the role of school in society. I thought then that I could do educational research to inform policy. I have always taken an inquiry stance when it comes to policy work. In order to create effective policies I needed to understand schooling from multiple contexts. Having attended urban and suburban schools, I felt like I was missing a rural perspective. During my junior year, I traveled to Perth, Western Australia to examine rural education and teacher retention.

By senior year, there were so many paths that I wanted to take — school administration, ed policy analyst, researcher, etc. I was struggling with trying to find the best position to affect social change. I ended up getting a certification in teaching and decided to spend my first few years understanding the work of teachers. My study of teacher retention taught me the importance of working in a supportive environment as a novice teacher. Unfortunately, I knew that environment wouldn’t be a Philly public school. I joined Abington Friends thinking that I’d teach there for a couple of years, grow as a teacher, and teach in Philadelphia. Going into my third year of teaching, I can see that’s no longer the case.

As I am learning this year, the work of social justice needs to be done everywhere regardless of class and socioeconomic status. The students whom I teach grow up in privileged settings that are rarely examined. Getting them to examine their and their parents’ white privilege is the reason I get up every morning at 5am. It’s nice to know that I am not alone in this work. Tim Wise came to speak at our school last year and the school has been critically looking at white privilege and diversity.

Just last year, I enrolled as a part-time Master’s student at Penn. I wanted to challenge myself a little bit so I joined the reading/writing/literacy program. I’m taking a course with Susan Lytle this semester on Adolescent Literacy. We read some articles by Bob Fecho and I began to connect some dots. I struck gold when I saw your name in his acknowledgment section. In writing about my own adolescence, I spent a lot of time reflecting upon my experiences in your English class. I feel like I have come full circle. (Lytle gives out writers’ memos when we hand in our papers.) At 14, I was doing an inquiry on teen culture. Now at 24, I am doing an inquiry into adolescent literacy.

I first wrote to you because I wanted to thank you for your work. I finally came to this great revelation about that Dewey paper that I wrote for your class. I re-read it last week and saw my research question – “Does progressive education still exist in schools today?” In my concluding paragraph, I said that it does and that this paper is an example of progressive education! That was such a meta-conclusion! Little did I know that I was the lucky few to receive a progressive education.

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