33: Growing Roots

33: Growing Roots

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Growing Roots

Teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden, and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.

~Author Unknown

Every morning, from the age of three to ten, I began my school day at Roots Activity Learning Center in Washington, D.C. by singing songs that exalted the African-American culture and spirit of goodness. In one song, we sang the words, “We are the ‘Roots’ of the flowers of tomorrow,” and in another, we sang the words, “Responsibility, Duty to our People… goes hand in hand with freedom.” During the down time of our day, my classmates and I enjoyed when our teachers pulled out the 12” vinyl record of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop;” and we all got choked up every time we sat to listen and learn the words to George Benson’s rendition of Michael Masser’s and Linda Creed’s song, “The Greatest Love Of All.” I still cry today when I hear:

I believe that children are our future.
Teach them well, and let them lead the way.
Show them all the beauty they possess inside.
Give them a sense of pride,
To make it easier.
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.

Those various teaching methods, along with the multi-level classroom and interdisciplinary curriculum, created a challenging and safe environment for me to learn and feel loved. Those methods instilled a sense of pride within me, and they convinced me that my teachers believed in me and my promising future, as I was taught to carry the torch of the greatness of our people.

My educational experience taught me that positive interactions, cultivating meaningful relationships, building self-esteem, and instilling pride in one’s heritage was vital to the learning process. These components of the learning process indirectly provided my teachers the opportunity to implement best practices that ensured that my classmates and I excelled academically.

During my matriculation at Spelman College, I read the research of Dr. Edwin Nichols, who researched why and how cultural competence in the classroom looks and works by exploring the logic systems, axiology (values) and epistemological styles of different groups. With this article, I learned the theories behind why my elementary school was so successful. I then took my personal experience, and the theories of Dr. Nichols, and applied them during my first year of teaching in Brooklyn, New York, and they worked. I have used these experiences and methodologies to guide and influence my interactions, best practices and expectations for the 1,200+ students I have had the honor to learn from, grow with and successfully teach over the last ten years.

Six years into my teaching career, I was a hired by an administrator of a start-up middle school, who understood the importance of cultural competence in the classroom, and I was thrilled. I received support for my culturally relevant, interdisciplinary curriculum ideas and pedagogical styles; I received support for cultural routines I established for the school; and the educational practice of looping was even supported. Looping, an educational practice that allows a class of students to be taught by the same teacher two or more years in a row, allowed me to forge vital relationships with my students and their parents, and to thoroughly assess, expand and address my students’ academic strengths and areas of concern. I taught these 120 students two years in a row, teaching both English Language Arts and Social Studies, and we (students, parents, and myself) enjoyed those years together tremendously. We challenged each other, supported each other, expanded each other’s minds, and accomplished many unfathomable goals together. We were a family, bonded through our challenges and commitment to see them through.

After developing a three-year curriculum for this group, I learned on the first day of their last year in this middle school that I would not be looping up with them. There are pros and cons to every educational model, and that year, our school decided not to loop me with my students. Though I was disappointed by this decision, I accepted and complied with our school’s new approach.

Throughout the school year, I heard stories about this group; I heard they were incorrigible, and were unwilling to complete assignments and to cooperate. That was not the group I knew, respected and loved so much. They were inquisitive, in-depth, eager to learn, overachievers, funny, sensitive and perfect representations of adolescence. Their display of normal adolescent tendencies was something I nurtured, embraced, laughed at, and allowed to “remind me of how I used to be!”

At the end of this group’s graduating year, my principal asked me to design a summer course for a small group of these rising ninth graders, who had received failing grades in their English and Social Studies classes that school year. These were students that I knew were capable of academic and behavioral success, so I was more than willing to develop a writing seminar course, which was designed to support those rising ninth graders for ultimate preparedness and success in high school. My ideas and plans for the course blossomed into a wide-ranging investigation of science and the environment with an emphasis on African and African-American history and the writing process.

I called the course I developed “African Knowledge and Action for Sustainable Development.” Students were required to analyze ten African-American literary works, attend seven intellectually stimulating nature field trips, conduct engaging hands-on science experiments, write a standards based ELA fifteen-page research paper, design a sustainable development innovation, and defend their paper and design to a distinguished panel. Through a chronological and historical interpretation of Africans’ and African Americans’ knowledge, use and preservation of the earth’s natural resources, students analyzed their contributions to agricultural innovations. Through the activities provided during the seven field trips, including the George Washington Carver Nature Trail at the Anacostia Museum, Rock Creek Park, NASA Goddard Center, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and more, students learned about the current greenhouse effect and its causes and effects, and were challenged as critical thinkers and scientists to devise a plan that ensures the preservation of our Earth and its natural resources for future generations—“Sustainable Development.”

We met on weekdays and weekends, during the height of D.C.’s extremely hot temperatures, walking throughout neighborhoods, conducting experiments outside, taking public transportation and walking miles on some days. When students became discouraged, I called them, sent encouraging texts and went to their homes to pick them up. One student, Tony, had his aunt call me to tell me he could not join us for our Saturday field trip to the U.S. Botanic Gardens. I emphasized the importance of the field trip, and he reluctantly showed up. At the end of the trip, Tony raved about how much fun the field trip was, about how much he had learned, and the valuable ideas he gained from the experience. When I dropped him off, he said to me, “Thank you, Ms. Worthy, for refusing to let me miss this field trip.”

Despite those who believed I was crazy for having such high expectations for these students, in just six weeks my summer school students accomplished these lofty goals!

That summer we had fun together; we learned about our people, our environment and ourselves. We challenged ourselves, and applied our knowledge to real-life problems. I demonstrated that teaching is not imparting knowledge to a bunch of empty vessels. Teaching is establishing relationships, instilling a sense of pride, challenging students, building on their prior knowledge, showing the usefulness of knowledge and the fun in learning, while empowering students with emotional strength, academic skills and information they need to be successful.

More importantly, that summer I reminded those rising ninth graders what they were capable of doing. I reminded them that they were NOT those failing grades they received in English and Social Studies, but that they are a part of a continuum of African and African-American genius. By believing in my students, insisting that they exceed my expectations and supporting them academically, culturally and emotionally, I actualized the words of that song my teachers at Roots required me learn, and my students learned the importance of “The Greatest Love Of All!”

~Kimberly A. Worthy
2009 Washington, D.C. State Teacher of the Year
Social Studies teacher, grade 7

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