To Matter. To Connect. To Be Heard: How Shaping Authentic Experiences for Teacher Learning Drives Accessibility and Student Engagement



Group of Teens Walking to School

The former George Washington High School sits on top of a hill near the Cloisters, appearing palatial and important. Walk upwards and you’ll find The High School for Media and Communications (HSMC). While the grandiose exterior of HSMC is stunning, the synergy created within between students and staff is the thing that really permeated my soul.

HSMC demonstrates a lot of things I love about New York City: the raw comfort of authentic human connection, the palpability of being seen as someone who matters, the communal feeling that emerges through being physically present–that you are part of something important. Those elements are sought not only in this city but in life, and when we begin to find them and to feel them, we start to feel a great sense of purpose: Our world becomes a much friendlier place, encouraging our participation. It’s hard to measure a sense of purpose or a feeling of belonging, but those things are the type of complex phenomena that make all the difference in a young adult’s schooling experience: To matter. To connect. To be heard. However difficult those elements are to replicate and put on paper, teachers, and administration at HSMC have been developing those aspects for many years. They have been able to conjure those aspects for their students through thoughtful practice and planning. HSMC teachers who participated in TCICP’s High School Curriculum Design Team helped them along the way.

Yvanna Persaud and other NYC teachers discuss Dr. Gloria Ladsen-Billings ideas about Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy.

As a facilitator for TCICP’s Curriculum Design teams, it was important for me to help teachers balance the accessible pedagogy centered in both Common Core Standards with the humanity of their children. To do that, we planned our design teams around an inquiry question of our own: What happens when teachers experience inquiry-based PD that respects them and allows for their experiences and knowledge to be honored?  How does this translate into their own classroom practices?

As a team, we worked hard to honor the commitment teachers had to not only their students, to the standards, and to inclusive curriculum design. Teachers studied Universal Design for Learning, Understanding By Design, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Trauma Sensitive Teaching, and Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. When collaborating with their colleagues, teachers drew upon their own experiences and current students as they used these conceptual frameworks in their curriculum design. The teachers at the HSMC created an experience that allows for many of their students to find interest in their schooling experience and a reason to participate in their classroom communities. I had the opportunity to spend time in Yvanna Persaud and Marilyn Ramirez’ 11th Grade ICT US History class and Emel Topbas-Mejia’s 12th grade ICT ELA class, witnessing how their student-centered curriculum impacts both their colleagues’ and students’ engagement and overall sense of purpose.

Below, you’ll find a transcript of my conversation with Marilyn Ramirez, Yvanna Persaud, and Assistant Principal Emel Topbas-Mejia. You’ll hear about some of the powerful connections the staff and students have created, rooted in their participation in TCICP’s Curriculum Design Teams.

Kass Minor (KM): Students in both classes seemed very receptive to the learning activities you planned. Have you noticed a change in their participation based on new things you’re trying to implement from our Curriculum Design Teams?

Marilyn Ramirez (MR): I’m seeing that kids are a lot more motivated.  I’m seeing them a lot more engaged. They are reading.  They go into the classroom, and they’re like, “Oh, what are we doing today?”.  I’m seeing a lot more engagement and the quality of work as well.  They’re doing so many different things.  They’re in stations, working with their peers on Google Classroom, listening to music from the Harlem Renaissance analyzing art together.

Marilyn Ramirez supports a student’s interpretation of artwork created during the Harlem Renaissance.

KM: Students had different modalities to interact with to learn new information. You had music. You had pictures. You had poems. You had charts. You had a video. They were moving throughout the classroom in stations, engaging in a collaborative discussion led by their peers.

Yvanna Persaud (YP): We created the plan for the lesson you saw today at our most recent TCICP meeting. We were talking about cultural relevancy and the power of choice. We decided to give our students a list of seven books to choose from. Students chose to read the novel, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. There’s a large Dominican population in our school, so the book really spoke to them. The top two choices were Fences by August Wilson, which we just finished not too long ago, and In the Time of Butterflies. It holds a lot of meaning for them because they choose what they’re going to read.

KM: It’s clear the allowance for student choice is a powerful force for engaged participation, and that’s an important part of the Universal Design for Learning that we talked about in our team, that students can be facilitators of thought and of learning, and that positioning them as people who have power in the decision-making process in the classroom creates more investment in their schooling experience. It’s a dynamic that both of you created in your classroom communities.  

YP: We see that more and more, especially with our students who are English Language Learners. Previously, many were very quiet and barely spoke. But when it came to learning about the historical context of the Dominican Republic, they were voicing many opinions! In the Time of Butterflies takes place in the time of Don Trujillo’s regime, and a lot of things happened to their families during that time period. They’ve been hearing about it their whole lives from their moms and their grandmas. Now, in school, they can also participate in their family’s history, and they feel like their voice is being heard.

KM: It sounds like your pedagogy has really grown. Can you talk about why your membership within our TCICP Curriculum Design Team was important for your work, and how it might be helpful for other teachers in their work next year?

YP: I’m going to say the same thing I said in our department meeting: I think we’re all human. And sometimes, there are students that we’re not always thinking of that can slip through the cracks. I feel like since I started going to the TCICP team, it made me so much more aware of each and every student in the classroom. The ELL learners, our students with disabilities, our students who are bored. I’m always thinking, what about that kid? Is that kid going to get it?

MR: I think that sometimes we as teachers, we don’t want to try something new because we think it’s difficult. It’s something else we have to do on top of what we are already doing. However, in the TCICP Curriculum Design Team, you’re not doing something else in terms of the content, instead, you’re planning lessons you already have to plan in a way that students are going to respond and become engaged. And we’re planning for all students, not just those who are labeled as struggling. For example, what about the learners who are just bored? Right? I always think about that kid. When you go into a class, and the kid has his head down, and the teacher may say: “Oh, that kid never wants to do any work.” I don’t blame them,  I have to look at myself. What am I not doing? We have to pull that kid into the lesson! Just today, there was a kid listening to some music we had in one of our Harlem Renaissance stations, and he didn’t want to take his headphones off! He was like, “I’m feeling this so much!”  When he leaves our class, he’s going to say to himself, “I want to go back. What will they have for me tomorrow?  They’re going to do something fun in that class where I’m going to be enjoying myself.” I feel so good when kids tell me: “That’s it! The class is over? This class goes by so fast!”

Students in Yvanna Persaud and Emel Topbas-Mejia’s 12th grade ICT ELA class analyze photos of Rafael Trujillo (ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961) and his family.

KM: When every child has an entry point to the information and it feels purposeful to their lives, to their background, to who they are, it makes sense for them to learn what their teachers are presenting to them. Of course, they’re going to want to engage and talk about class content with their peers! It was really exciting to see that kind of investment from students in the work they were presented within core content areas.

YP: Something else that really stood out to me during one of our sessions was giving children the opportunity to disconnect to content as opposed to always asking them to make connections. I’ve struggled getting kids to make connections. Before, I started by prompting them, telling them to try to connect. And then I started phrasing it, “Well, why do you disconnect?” Then, they felt more apt to say things like, “Well, this is why. This is my experience.” They felt like their voice was being heard. It’s okay to disconnect because we all have a different story.

KM: What kinds of teaching and learning practices have you seen enacted in the community through teachers who have been involved in our curriculum design teams?

Assistant Principal Emel Topbas-Mejia (ET): I’d say the first is the creation of dialogue between the teachers. What’s been really beautiful is seeing them when they come back from the monthly workshops, interacting with one another and engaging in dialogue about what they learned and how they want to incorporate those practices in their classrooms, which is wonderful because we have this cross-disciplinary conversation taking place, which is our goal. People are now giving more attention and time in planning better in order to meet the needs of every child in the classroom. Between encouraging dialogue and increasing awareness of every child in the classroom, two major impacts have happened so far.

KM: Have you seen a direct impact on specific kids, or do you have any anecdotes to describe how you may have seen a teacher practice as evidence from our teams directly impact a child’s experience in your school?

ET: I see the impact in the senior English class that Yvanna and I teach together, especially with giving them different approaches to use to communicate their thinking and their ideas. With our class, we’ve been using TodaysMeet frequently for students to participate. We’ve seen some of our shy and quieter students who don’t typically communicate orally share earlier in the semester. One of the things we’ve been doing a lot within our class is using a Socratic Seminar or more discussion oriented approaches for the students. I would say our group is an interesting group because we have students with IEPs, and students who are English Language Learners, who are probably at an intermediate level in regards to their English Language acquisition. Especially with the young women in our class, they’ve become more vocal and more confident in sharing their ideas in class over time as a result of the use of different approaches.

KM: The level of engagement from the teachers in your school is strong, and it is clear that their thoughtful practice has benefited your students. How do you think their participation in TCICP Curriculum Design Teams helped center their work on students?

ET:  It deepens teacher learning to prepare for more meaningful student learning. It really has opened up spaces for dialogue. We know how important it is for teachers to engage in professional conversations about practice and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Not to get all philosophical, but theorizing, like teachers as theory agents makes a difference in how they think of themselves. Our days can be so frantic in schools. We’re so busy, we’re always on the run. When you’re always on the run, you don’t have time to stop and think and reflect. One of the biggest impacts I’ve seen with the work with our teachers in TCICP Curriculum Design Teams is having one day a month where you are going to be forced to stop and reflect and think to deepen your own learning as a teacher makes your teaching experiences and your learning experiences in your classroom much stronger. Slowing down, having space and time to think allows you to make a stronger impact on your kids and engaging in those professional conversations with colleagues from your own school, but also colleagues from other schools. Teaching can be isolating, so being able to hear the struggles and successes of your colleagues in other schools can deepen your own learning too.

It’s hard to do that inside a school at all times. To have that safe, sacred space to engage in those dialogues, thinking time, and planning time is critical. I’m telling you, teachers come back so excited the following day!

*Interviews have been edited.