Salem Hadgu | March 27, 2017
Salem Hadgu is a Rice University senior and a participant in the Kinder Institute’s Community Bridges program through which she interns with School Literacy and Culture. This article does not necessarily reflect the views or perspectives of the Kinder Institute or School Literacy and Culture.
Laughter punctuated the room as teachers recounted with another the most memorable moments of their careers in the classroom.
The group, a cohort of 20 teachers from across the Houston area, had convened as part of the Early Literacy Leadership Academy (ELLA), a teacher professional development program hosted by the organization School Literacy and Culture (SLC).
Throughout the seminar, instructors would ask for advice, and readily, other teachers would offer suggestions on how to navigate tricky situations in their classrooms.
“This group of teachers has always been incredibly diverse,” said Catherine Perez, a first grade teacher from Askew Elementary, a school in west Houston with a significant number of low-income students. “When you gaze across the room, you can see diversity in all the different backgrounds we come from, places that we come from, places we have taught.”
At my table – which included a teacher from a private school serving affluent students; a public school teacher; and a KIPP charter school instructor who worked with special needs students – I saw that diversity firsthand. This table became an inclusive place where every teacher had something to contribute.
The multi-year seminar is one facet of an innovative model of developing early childhood teacher leaders. Its philosophy is based on the idea that convening teachers from different educational settings is crucial at a time when racial and socioeconomic gaps in achievement continue to widen.
Through my sociology coursework at the Kinder Institute, I have learned that on average, low-income students (who are often minorities) have less experienced instructors and less educational resources allocated to their school than students of high socioeconomic status. They face the effects of concentrated poverty, including crime and less-educated role models. These disadvantages are often reflected in higher dropout rates, lower standardized test scores, less AP courses available to them and inadequate preparation for college. This education inequity will continue as upper and middle class people, often white, move to higher priced homes in the suburbs where the most reputable schools are. The schools that serve people with more wealth, usually defined by net value of assets, often have lower ratios of student to teachers and more educational and financial resources.
The potential solutions to this challenge are myriad. Often, when people try to make sense of the achievement gaps between high and low income students, blame shifts onto the teachers and communities who participate in low income schools – the very people who are trying to be part of the solution. As a result, instructors often burn out and leave schools with low graduation rates and significant populations of low socioeconomic status students in favor of more affluent schools. Ironically, it’s often individuals, such as students and teachers, who are closely scrutinized, rather than the racism and economic inequity fueling the educational problems.
School Literacy and Culture – part of Rice University in Houston – tackles this inequity by providing opportunities for teachers to create quality education for younger children in the greater Houston area. SLC understands the pressures these teachers face and aids them in making informed choices, based on research, in their classrooms. Participation in SLC programming helps to empower teachers to confidently lead their classrooms, even if they have little control over curriculum, district testing standards and school budget.
What distinguishes School Literacy and Culture from other organizations is its ability to draw teachers from schools in both high- and low-income areas. The purpose of bringing all these teachers together in seminars and conferences is to make sure that the teaching practices are not exclusive and can serve a range of educational needs. The teachers who participate in the the program’s ELLA academy attend seminars every other week at the School Literacy and Culture office where they learn how to foster the innovative and creative skills of students.
I spoke with Ashley Davis, a private school pre- K teacher at St. Luke’s Day School in Houston’s affluent River Oaks community. She told me that at her school, many of the instructors and administrators are familiar with education research. Teachers are encouraged to foster students’ creativity, rather than focus on test performance. She was surprised to learn about the pressure teachers at public schools face to ensure their students hit certain benchmarks.
Those revelatory experiences are common at ELLA. Teachers have the opportunity to compare and contrast their classroom experiences and learn strategies from one another. “I think it is eye opening for us because typically a teacher is not going to get to hear what’s going on in all these other teachers’ classrooms,” said Stephanie Briles, a kindergarten teacher at Memorial Drive Elementary, a school with affluent students. “You are in your own little bubble of your classroom. Now all of sudden, you are learning from people that are in it right now. Not somebody that taught 30 years ago.”
SLC emphasizes the importance of developing students’ imaginations through storytelling. “There are only ‘right answers’ when children share their own stories,” said Margaret Immel, the associate director of ELLA. “When those stories are acted out with the author and a few classmates filling roles, a deeper comprehension of the story may be achieved.”
Storytelling allows children to develop listening, speaking, reading, writing, and reasoning while also facilitating emotional and social development. Through storytelling, students learn the importance of their voice and their personal experiences, including their background, regardless of their race or income. This point is significant because even teachers from schools short on funds can teach the storytelling curriculum by using pen and paper, a few art supplies, and imagination.
The program’s goal is to empower teachers to provide inviting, safe and creative environments where students are free to learn. It seeks to provide quality education for every child, no matter who they are. “No matter where these kids come from,” Briles said, “they all need the same thing and the same opportunities.”