corps values

After welcoming almost 150 undocumented teachers, Teach for America starts planning for a Trump reality

PHOTO: TFA
Teach For America's DACAmented corps at its 2016 convening

Among the many people in America reeling from today’s presidential election results: The 146 Teach For America teachers who work in classrooms across the country but are not documented citizens.

Teach For America deliberately created this corps over the last three years — the work largely of one woman, Viridiana Carrizales, whose day today became a worst-case scenario she’d first charted over the summer.

Like many Americans across the political spectrum, Carrizales did not expect Donald Trump to become president. And like many immigrants, she hoped that he would not. But months ago, she began planning for what Teach For America — the national organization that recruits and trains teachers for schools serving poor students — could do if he did.

Her plan, which she expects to introduce to corps members this week, outlines responses to Trump’s vow to immediately end DACA, the Obama administration program that allows young adults who came to this country illegally as children to temporarily live and work without fear of deportation. Efforts could include helping Teach For America teachers relocate to be closer to their families and working with school districts to navigate tricky immigration waters, she said.

“I was hoping never to use this plan, but I knew we had to prepare,” Carrizales said. “I’m so glad that we did. Back in the summer I had a little bit of a clearer mind.”

Teach For America first got involved in immigration policy in 2012, when the organization lobbied for the DREAM Act, which would have created a path toward citizenship for people who came to the country illegally as children.

That bill failed, leaving Teach For America’s leadership and members deeply disappointed. “We knew that all children meant all children,” Carrizales said — and the group could not achieve its mission of helping every student succeed if large numbers of immigrant students could never go to college.

So when DACA became an option in 2014, Teach For America quickly lined up resources to help aspiring teachers go through the onerous and expensive approval process. The DACAmented corps went from two teachers in Denver to 146 across the country today, from 37 different nations.

Their status is weighing heavily on Teach For America’s top executive, Elisa Villanueva Beard. “When the executive order came for DACA for the first time, they walked the streets with their heads up and not hiding in the shadows,” she said. “And now with this, it’s a question. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But they’re terrified for their lives and for their families and for their security.”

Like the majority of Teach For America teachers, DACAmented members have undocumented students in their classes. They discuss the issues that they share in a private Facebook group and, once a year, when they all come together in person. And this past summer, the group members taught more than 3,000 new teachers about the challenges facing undocumented students.

Those are issues that Carrizales knows well — she came with her family from Mexico illegally herself, when she was 12. After graduating from college in 2010, she considered joining Teach For America before realizing she would not be able to work legally. Instead, she spent three years working as a babysitter and doing odd jobs before marrying a U.S. citizen.

Now, she is safe from changes to immigration policy. But she has family members who remain in the country illegally, and she worries about the 146 DACAmented teachers and their families as well.

Late Tuesday, DACAmented’s Facebook group buzzed as members shared their sadness and fear. One reported crying from the floor of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s election party in New York City.

“Many of them decided not to go to school because they didn’t know what to tell their kids today,” Carrizales said. “So many of them just had no more strength.”

But she said she also heard from one teacher who forced herself to go to school because she worried that her students’ fears might be stronger than her own. And on Facebook, DACAmented teachers laid bare the resilience that Teach For America famously values.

“I am so hurt by this election,” one teacher wrote. “But I know we will come through this stronger. We have to, we have to.”

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.