On May 16, 2018, graduate students, faculty, staff, mentors, family, friends, and members of the public gathered to view the culmination of the year-long experience of Brown Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and Undergraduate Teacher Education Program (UTEP) student projects. Director of Teacher Education Diane Silva Pimentel welcomed everyone and explained the format of the Teacher Research Projects (TRPs), while MAT alumna Darline Berrios delivered the keynote speech. After a brief reception, MAT and UTEP students launched into their presentations using a mixture of posterboards, video, and handouts. We captured some photos throughout the evening of the welcome, keynote, and the various presentations of our Brown MAT and UTEP students.
“Writing,” Clint Smith announced to a packed auditorium in Barus and Holley on Tuesday, Oct. 26, “is a means of wrestling with questions I don’t have answers to.” Smith – a writer, teacher, TED Talks speaker, Harvard University Ph.D. candidate, and 2014 National Poetry Slam champion – was presenting “Art and Critical Pedagogy: Using Poetry to Challenge Dominant Narratives” at the Education Department’s third Fall 2016 Speaker Series event.
Homer, Smith told the crowd, had an epic poem that was passed down from mouth to mouth. Writing only for the page is a false notion; poetry’s roots are as an oral art form. He then launched into a dynamic, thoughtful, and oftentimes hilarious presentation that had the rapt attention of more than 200 audience members, instructing his listeners on etiquette with a quick “snap during, clap after” request. During the rest of this talk, fingers snapped around the room at various times when his poems and statements resonated with audience members, quiet in sound but thunderous in reaction to and appreciation of his words.
Smith, who was born and raised in New Orleans, gave some background information on his relationships with his parents (urging audience members, when he spoke of his father’s experience obtaining an organ transplant, to sign up to be organ donors to help offset the transplant waiting lists that tend to be longer for people of color and people in poverty). Smith learned from his father at an early age – too early to fully understand at the time – that the implications of his decisions might result in different outcomes than for Smith’s non-black friends. Smith referred to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot dead by police two years ago for holding a toy gun. Smith’s father’s fears had been real. When he recited one of his poems following that introduction, two lines in particular drove home what Clint had just spoken of: “Someone’s idea of implicit bias might be the reason you might not wake up in the morning,” and “I want to live in a world where my son isn’t presumed guilty from the moment he is born.”
Smith thanked Christina Villarreal, Brown’s director of secondary history education, for helping to reconceptualize the notion of history. History, Smith noted, doesn’t always address what isn’t convenient to the narrative. Thomas Jefferson is celebrated as a president and historical figure, but many stories ignore the fact that he was a racist and a slaveholder. Jefferson didn’t try to hide this but in fact spoke his thoughts openly and published them. In his mind, black people didn’t have the capacity to create art; if they did put words on a page, it couldn’t be called poetry. Blacks, Jefferson believed, didn’t have the capacity to love. The dominant American narrative, Smith explained, was a state-sanctioned policy to marginalize and dehumanize a race. When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a celebrated figure – but at the time, ⅔ of Americans disapproved of King, just as many Americans today mischaracterize or judge the Black People Matter movement. In our collective American social memory, we don’t talk about these things. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is celebrated in history books, but the New Deal was written to deny black citizens access to the very benefits it promised Americans – Social Security, GI bill, mortgages, minimum wage, and more. The New Deal may have created the middle class, but it skipped a huge section of the country, and politicians legally enacted law barring blacks from social benefits – yet people today point fingers at black citizens, asking why blacks are more likely to live in poverty than others.
Look at our history, Smith implored. The first blacks were brought to America as slaves in 1619. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t pass until 1863. Voting and civil rights weren’t passed until 1964 and 1965 – only 50 years ago – and there are still issues of inequality today. America, Smith stressed, enjoyed 350 years of history in which it was legal to dehumanize blacks. We need to talk about this in our classrooms, and most of us don’t. In response to that propagation of myth, Clint read from his poem, “Letter to Five of the Eight Presidents Who Owned Slaves While in Office.” When talking about getting both sides of the story, the poem stated, “At some point, you have to question who the writer is.”
We live in a world, Smith said, where blacks can be stopped, can be frisked, can have assumptions made about their personalities at first sight. There is duality in our history; Jefferson was a good president, AND he was a racist and a slave holder. Both sides exist; both sides should be acknowledged. Smith then read five poems, each one on what an inanimate object – an ocean, a cicada, a fire hydrant, a window, and a cathedral – would say to black boys. The audience was spellbound at these unusual but powerful narrative views.
Only moments later, versatile speaker Smith had the audience laughing at his descriptions of his failures as a basketball player. Smith had always been chosen among the first for teams – resulting in disaster, as described in one line from the next poem: “My jump shot be all elbow and no wrist.” Counting Descent, Smith acknowledged, was about speaking the truth – the whole truth.
Mike Brown was killed the same week that Smith started grad school, and Smith has been writing the book these past two years in a post-Ferguson context. Smith wanted to humanize death of and violence toward blacks; the feelings he is grappling with are real and visceral. We’re not defined, Smith stated, by the things that kill us or seek to render us obsolete. There is a U.S. history of violence against blacks, but it is also amazing how fundamental black culture is to U.S. history. Blacks helped build this country, and they are woven into its fabric.
My life has not been entirely defined by violence and fear, Smith continued. He has attempted to capture black resilience and joy amid the greater, sadder black American landscape. Both sides are important to understanding the black experience. He told of the sweetness (and, to his young self, embarrassment) of his parents dancing together in the kitchen to “Before I Let You Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze, which later inspired him to capture that moment in a poem he read to the audience.
The writer/poet label, Smith restated, doesn’t necessitate answers; it’s a means of wrestling with questions. If we ask questions we already have the answers to, we negate that process. We need to rethink concepts and re-imagine who police are and what they do. Look at us now, Smith, who works with prisoners, asked the audience. We are a society that puts people into cages for life. Remember how the French used to cut off heads with a guillotine? For us that’s barbaric; for them it was a normal way of life. Someday we’ll look back at life imprisonment with similar eyes to looking at guillotines. We have 200,000 people in the United States serving life sentences in jails, and we haven’t pushed ourselves towards different solutions to our problems. Don’t just tinker, Smith appealed; tackle.
Smith’s last poem was about the trauma caused by Hurricane Katrina, and the audience reacted with enthusiastic snaps at the haunting line, “Can you claim something as your own if you don’t remember how you found it?”
In response to Smith’s invitation for questions, someone asked about the influence of his father. Smith cautioned teachers to be careful about filling a parent role for students. Many of the prisoners he’d worked with hadn’t had biological fathers, and Smith recognized that and was careful not to position himself as anything but a peer; anything else would be disingenuous. Look at the Moynihan report, Smith said; black family structure is being blamed for problems in black society. Racism is the reason for those problems, not female heads of households or non-nuclear families. Neither he nor anyone else should seek to fill in a family gap; instead, Smith engages with prisoners and learns from them. The classroom isn’t one-way, Smith told the audience full of future teacher leaders. Students bring ideas and knowledge into classrooms, too; it can and should be a shared collective experience. Don’t set out to teach; set out to engage.
Another question addressed the balance between criticism and exposure of history. Smith acknowledged that it’s a difficult balance; we want to show students that the world sees blacks as less than human but let them know they’re not responsible. Students need to be shown both sides: the world is set up for them to fail, but they have the agency to change things. Different decisions can be made. They can wield their power; they can build a different world.
What’s the difference for you, another student asked, between writing for the page versus the stage? Also, regarding Smith’s Ph.D. research at Harvard, how does Smith use poetry with prisoners?
Writing is a process and a practice, Smith responded. Several times, he has made himself do a “30 for 30,” writing a poem every single day for a month. Just as with sports, you have to practice to write; in his case, he had to write 25 bad poems in order to write 5 good ones. You have to do the work to create the work, he advised the audience.
As for the written page, Smith cautioned against positioning the page as more valuable than the stage. They are different genres that feed in different ways, and appearing in a reputable publication isn’t necessarily a bigger indication of success than winning a poetry slam. Smith did acknowledge that he wrote for the page in the case of Counting Descent to break out of a competitive context. He’d been writing poems to fit the 2.5-minute frame for slams, and he wanted to experiment with other lengths, which led to other material and expressions.
In Smith’s Ph.D. program at Harvard, there is a relationship between the social scientist and the artist. Both are part of him. What he internalizes academically often surfaces artistically, and writing is a form of expressing both personal and political values. His next book, Smith revealed, will focus on the relationship between education and incarceration.
In response to a question about using pedagogy to become a better person and the relationship between art and ethics, Smith said he entered grad school committed to avoiding inaccessibility; he’d been seeking the intellectual toolkit to name and understand things. He has the language to argue against misconceptions and misnomers and to challenge ideas like that of “black-on-black crime.” Smith enjoys his work in the prisons because he had wanted to be in a space that reminds him of why he came to this field of study. He doesn’t want to just read books; he wants to ground the knowledge he’s seeking and stay in touch with the reasons why he’s there.
In response to the final question – about whether he writes to challenge and assert himself – Smith stated that people write about poverty to legitimize themselves and their social institutions. Those people use narratives to benefit themselves without helping the people to whom the stories belong. It’s important to illuminate those people. It’s important to think about and account for the fact that this is people’s lives and not just a vehicle for people to gain tenure or publications or a name for themselves.
Smith thanked the crowd for coming and for asking great questions, and he offered to sign copies of Counting Descent. Thrilled by Smith’s performance, autograph seekers filled the hallway.
Please consider joining the cause! Participation in this national effort is as simple as teaching a media literacy lesson in your classroom during the week of October 31st.
Andrea Flores will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Brown University starting this Fall 2016. Her research focuses on how Latino youth who participate in a college readiness program in Nashville, Tennessee conceptualize the value of higher education and civic engagement for themselves, their families, and their communities. In particular, Andrea focuses on how educational aspiration is tied to Latino youth’s senses of self and feelings of socio-civic inclusion in the United States. Andrea is also interested in the role of school-community partnerships in both facilitating persistence in school and reshaping public education. Her next project follows a group of students she previously worked with as they transition into private religious colleges.
Prior to graduate school, Andrea worked as a research assistant at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she worked on projects on youth’s online ethics and young people’s conceptions of trust. Her work at Project Zero inspired her to pursue graduate work related to adolescents and education. She received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Harvard University and her doctoral degree in anthropology at Brown University. An NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a grant from the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund, and fellowships from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation have supported her research. This fall, she will teach Education 1450, The Psychology of Teaching and Learning. As the sister of two elementary school teachers, she is very excited to be teaching in the MAT program. She is looking forward to getting to know the MAT students this fall and follow their progress during the year!
Allie Curry is a current Master of Arts in Teaching student concentrating in Secondary English Education. During her time student teaching at Brown Summer High School, Allie discovered a passion for the backwards-design approach to curriculum development taught by the Brown MAT Program.
Allie was kind enough to share with us some of her thoughts and reflections on this approach to teaching. Read her words below!
“I often think of K–12 curriculum as too important. In the hotly contested era of the Common Core, the American public debates whether curriculum is too important to be left to states or too important to be promoted by the federal government. In some urban school districts, curriculum is viewed as too important to be developed by teachers in the community, and so many cities are purchasing boxed curricula.
The Brown MAT program has taught me that curriculum is too important in a different sense. Beginning last summer in the first days of the program, I learned an approach to curriculum design that centers around Essential Questions—challenging, relevant, and authentic questions we ask about the world—and understandings, which, in the discipline of English at least, are rarely simple answers. With my talented teaching partner (another MAT), I developed a unit for a book we would teach to a diverse classroom of 9th through 12th graders over the course of Brown Summer High School, a free summer enrichment program for Providence-area youth.
In the afternoons, we paused our planning to take a Secondary program-wide course that has greatly influenced my teaching. Literacy Across the Curriculum challenged me to rethink my understanding of literacy and create curriculum that reflects and supports the community I teach. (I’ve thought about that class a lot in the first days of February. Curriculum—culturally relevant curriculum, that is—is too important to designate only a month of the year to the accomplishments of Black Americans.)
I posed the question in the picture above (“Does the identity of the authors we read matter?”), as a part of a unit I designed during my student teaching semester last fall at a suburban public school south of Providence, North Kingstown High School. In my student teaching semester, I iterated and refined my curriculum design process to the point that I now feel prepared, confident, and excited to begin my first teaching job in an environment that will empower me to develop curriculum of real significance to my students and community.
The Brown MAT program will teach you to design and carry out lessons, units, and learning experiences that matter. Over the course of the program, I’ve seen many times how an Essential Questions curriculum encourages students to discover and construct knowledge in ways that will transfer to their lives beyond school. Ultimately, curriculum is too important because all students deserve access to challenging, relevant questions about the world and safe, supportive classrooms in which they can develop and express their diverse understandings.”
Director of Science Education and Professor Dan Bisaccio, two current Master of Arts in Teaching students (Erin Capra and Kay Holland, Science MAT ’16), and an Undergraduate Teacher Education Program student (Emile Blouin, Science UTEP ’16) attended the Inspiring a New Generation (ING): A North American Summit on November 6-8, 2015. Dan Bisaccio was one of the organizers of the summit.
Over 200 key stakeholders, many under the age of 35, gathered at the National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to design strategies to build life-long relationships with nature for current and future generations. Participants represented primarily the United States, Canada, and Mexico with several from other countries including China, Australia, Brazil, and Peru. The World Parks Congress, held in 2014 in Sydney, Australia, set the stage for the Summit by focusing a major strand on “Inspiring a New Generation”. The 2015 ING Summit built on the issues identified by the Congress and determined specific strategies to address them in North America.
The unique conference agenda was structured with brief provocations followed by facilitated whole-group discussion regarding what’s working well now; identifying gaps, successes and aspirations; brainstorming initiatives that would help the ING movement gain momentum; overcoming significant barriers to success; and identifying and paving the way for new initiatives. The resulting North American Framework for Action includes 15 initiatives that participants prioritized and committed to carry out in the next five years.
The Brandwein Institute hosted the conference in partnership with the National Environmental Education Foundation. Sponsoring organizations were the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, the American Nature Study Society, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and supporting organizations included Canadian Parks Council, Children & Nature Network, Parks Canada, IUCN Commission on Education and Communication, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, U.S. National Park Service and The Corps Network.
The 15 initiatives will be posted on http://ingsummit.org. The results and progress of the North American Framework for Action will be reported at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in September 2016 and will serve as a model for other countries.
MAT Science Mentor Erin Escher has been named by the White House as one of 108 recipients of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching! This honor is given annually to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers across the country. Winners receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation, and are invited to Washington, DC for an awards ceremony, educational and celebratory events, and visits with members of the Administration.
The award is a part of President Obama’s initiative to strengthen education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in order to fully harness the promise our nation’s students. Read the official White House press release to find out more about the award and the President’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign.
Erin Escher has been teaching at Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Middle School for the past 14 years. As an eighth grade science teacher and leader of the school’s garden and hydroponics club, Erin shares his curiosity in science and enjoys playing an interactive role in his students’ discovery and generation of knowledge. He has been influential in promoting STEM at his school by leading STEM workshops and serving on the school improvement technology committee. In his free time, Erin acts as a Mentor to Science student teachers in the Brown MAT Program.
In November, the MAT Blog covered an amazing feat — 11 English MAT/UTEP alumni, faculty, and current students descending on Washington, D.C. to attend the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention.
Since then, one of our current English MATs, Brittany Brewer, has graciously recounted her experience workshopping, networking, and even presenting at the convention. Read her words below!
The MAT Program at Brown University strongly advocates for student attendance and participation in professional development opportunities. This past November, thanks to the kindness of a respected educator, I was extended the opportunity to present during a roundtable session entitled, “The Future is Now: Exploring 21st Century Teaching Ideas with the Next Generation of English Teachers,” at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention: Story as the Landscape of Knowing. My experience at the 2014 NCTE convention was an invaluable one, particularly as a new teacher, as I had the opportunity to practice presenting my research, observe and participate in workshops, meet numerous young adult authors, and learn about the happenings of Brown MAT secondary English education alumni.
On the third day of the NCTE national conference, Saturday, November 22nd, I presented my teacher research project, “Navigating Non-Fiction through Drama: Using Choral Reading to Create a Transaction with Text,” at the roundtable session to a small but very engaged and supportive audience, which included Brown’s English MAT Director, Laura Snyder, as well as three of the program’s alumni. My teacher research project addressed the essential question: How can drama be utilized to create student understanding of purpose in non-fiction texts? Presenting at NCTE aided in the development of my research as it drove me to complete my research earlier, to seek constant critique and feedback, and to present the material in front of several different types of audiences.
When I was not presenting, I was exploring the numerous workshops NCTE offered its conference attendees. I participated in many presentations, from several created by diligent graduate students to those created by educational “celebrities,” including Jim Burke and Kelly Gallagher. After reading a sizable portion of these authors’ texts over the past summer and fall as part of the MAT curriculum, it was great to see them in action, discussing and developing education with fellow advocates. During the workshops, I filled my journal with pages of notes and afterwards, I waited for the opportunity to converse briefly with presenters. During exhibit hours, attendees were also offered the opportunity to meet various authors of all genres of prose, from children’s books to poetry, fantasy, and non-fiction. Not only did I fill my canvas bags and arms with all of the complimentary copies of young adults’ novels that I could carry and meet my favorite childhood author, T.A. Barron, but I was able to meet and briefly talk to Jeffrey Wilhelm, an alumnus of the Brown University MAT English program! Dr. Wilhelm’s publication, “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, greatly informed my teacher research project and I relished the opportunity to discuss the program and the influence his text had on my research, even briefly.
Finally, the NCTE Annual Convention provided me with the opportunity to meet and learn about the endeavors of recent Brown English MAT alumni, who, among those I met, are teaching in locations ranging from California to Maryland to Massachusetts to Africa. The presentations and stories of these fellow MATs from years past revealed dedication and compassion that (like my audience’s support of my presentation, the workshops I attended, the speakers I met, and the hundreds of educators in attendance) further fueled my dedication and passion as a new teacher!
Thank you, Brittany!
Current Elementary MAT Emma Gonsalves completed her fall practicum this semester at Sophia Academy, a small, nondenominational, independent middle school for girls from low-income homes in Providence. Emma was kind enough to share her experience bringing guest speaker Dr. Shelley Cyr into the classroom, who reinforced to the students that they can achieve their dreams with hard work and persistence. Read Emma’s words below!
Sophia Academy, an all-girl independent school in Providence, is the ideal location to encourage young girls to be strong, determined, and ambitious individuals. Over the past few months, the 5th graders have been learning about Elizabeth Blackwell and her admirable persistence in becoming the first female doctor. For our class book bag project, we read the story Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone and discussed the meaning of persistence. Each week, three girls bring home the book bag, read the book to a family member, and write a story of a time when they were persistent.
In order to reinforce the importance of women in the medical field, I invited Shelley Cyr, a doctor at Brown University, to talk about her experience in pursuing a career as a doctor. Beginning at a young age, Shelley was driven to prove her worth as a female by fighting to join the all-boy track team in high school. She was the first and only girl to run alongside the boys, proving she was equally capable. Shelley explained to the 5th graders that although she faced adversity as a female, she never gave up her dream of becoming a doctor.
After answering questions the girls previously prepared, Shelley passed out stethoscopes and penlights for the girls to experiment with. Each student had the opportunity to listen to a classmate’s heartbeat, and examine how their pupils contract when exposed to light! Not only was Shelley’s story motivating, but the hands-on experience inspired many of the girls to consider becoming doctors one day. One student even exclaimed, “I want to be a doctor just like Shelley because I want to help kids feel better when they are sick!”
Watching my students become excited about their future proved the power that teachers have in encouraging their students to reach their full potential. I hope they always remember this experience and the wonderful stories Shelley shared with us! As Shelley wrote in a letter to the 5th graders, “You can do anything if you follow your dreams with persistence.”
Each year, many members of our vibrant MAT cohort consist of the the Science concentrators: students focusing on broadening and deepening their knowledge in Biology, Chemistry, or Engineering/Physics while training to become secondary school teachers. We asked a few of our Science MAT alumni to share their thoughts on how their Brown education influences their current experiences as educators in science.
Thanks to my experiences with the MAT program, I have entered my first year of teaching with confidence, focus, and, most importantly, an ability to reflect on my practice. The MAT program has taught me to be a conscious educator, and I am grateful that I am able to use the skills I have been taught to put together a strong lesson, and then afterwards to think critically about how I can improve upon it. The quality of reflective practice made me a strong candidate for teaching positions, and has been invaluable in the classroom. I am teaching 7th and 8th grade science, and I feel that the MAT program’s emphasis on reflection has helped me become more responsive to my students’ needs. During my year in the program, I was pushed to take risks and try new things with my students, and this also has been a great asset to my classroom teaching. I am having so much fun during my first year of teaching, and I really do feel I can attribute that to the attitude that the MAT program instilled in me!
When I started the MAT program in 2012, I had a strong sense of what kind of teacher I wanted to be, but lacked the practical skills to transform that idealistic vision into reality. The MAT year provided me the opportunity to develop those skills in a supportive environment, while also pushing me to deepen and broaden my sense of how I could be a powerful agent of social change in the classroom. I am particularly thankful for the opportunities I had to engage with incredible faculty, mentors, and thoughtful, passionate teachers around what it means to create equitable, student-centered, inquiry-based classrooms that focus on students as individuals. The relationships I built with my faculty, mentors, and fellow teachers continue to sustain me in my teaching practice today.
Last year I taught at a school in my home state of Colorado, but I am now back in Rhode Island, teaching at Blackstone Academy, where I did my student teaching two years ago. I loved my student teaching experience so much that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return as a full-time teacher when a position became available. I could not be more excited to be at a school that shares the same values as the Brown MAT program: a focus on community, equity, positive school culture, and individualized learning.