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The students are clad in urban chic — hoodies, jeans, untied sneakers, leather jackets, Aeropostale everything. One student buries his head in his arms. One rocks in his chair. One fidgets. Many slump
and sprawl. It’s 3 p.m. They yawn. Giggle. Drum on desks. Discuss after-school plans.
Maynard (pictured at left) circulates. She answers questions. Urges them to work. “Miss, Miss,” they call to her.
“Turn around please. Put the crackers away. Group one, are you ready to present?”
“No, we need help.”
“No, we’re not ready.”
At 3:25, Maynard tells the class they must present the next day. No more delays.
“Read chapter six tonight. It’s good. It’s a big scene.” Banter increases. Maynard asks for quiet.
“Ago,” she calls, using the West African phrase for “Are you listening?” It’s a technique she picked up at Brown. The catchy phrase and required response helps redirect class attention.
“Ame,” they answer in unison. That is, “You have my attention.”
The bell rings. The class shuffles out. Is she frustrated when learning time is drained by behavioral indiscretions?
“I would love it if they all always wanted to really listen to my words, but in a way it would be a little creepy, too,” Maynard says. “I know I was often off-task in high school.”
The school day extends from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. here. Maynard says it’s difficult for many students to stay focused. Even for Maynard, the longer school day means she’s awake by 5 a.m., at school before students and still at her desk at 6 p.m.
“I forgot it took so long to grade papers,” she says.
She’s ever thinking of ways to inspire, prevent boredom and focus minds. In December, her students are studying Greek mythology and she’s doing her best to transform the ancient tales into something relevant to contemporary life. First, she asks students to assess a previous lesson, tossing a multi-colored, squishy ball to the student from whom she wants an answer. One boy who has slunk into class late catches the ball and asks: “What if I don’t do this?”
Maynard turns his question around: “What if you do?
You get smarter.”
With the ball back on her desk, Maynard explains the next mythology lesson.
“You might create a MySpace page for one of the gods,” she says. “You could connect Orpheus to being a rock star. What would his concert look like? Orpheus crossed the river Styx, but what if you put him in the current time and he’s playing live at Lupo’s?”
Just four days before a two-week break, Maynard also looks ahead. The class will soon read American Born Chinese, but a shortage of books means students must share copies. “It only costs $9 to buy it,” she says. “Or maybe you can ask Santa for a book.”
Her students look incredulous. Maynard enjoys gift books, but her students wonder aloud why anyone would waste a gift on something like that.
The bell rings, sending students to their next class. Maynard is looking forward to a rejuvenating break. “I’m exhausted,” she says. “I feel like Sisyphus.”
Always quick to empathize with students, Maynard recalls her own high school experience. She ranked in the bottom 10 percent of her graduating class and teachers frequently penned “this student does not work up to her potential” on progress reports. After graduation, she left her hometown of Onset, Massachusetts, to follow a boyfriend to New York City. She worked just outside of the city as a nanny.
“I wasn’t a great high school student,” she says. But by age twenty-five, the high school boyfriend was gone, and she headed home to study at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Later, she married and spent time as a stay-at-home mom. She became a volunteer mentor in New Bedford High School’s Twilight program, an alternative route to graduation for struggling students.
“It was easy to see their brightness,”
she says, “but also that they weren’t into school. That inspired me. I wanted to teach because I thought that I could bring some energy and passion for reading and learning into the classroom, but to also, ultimately, show the students that learning — something, anything — is entirely up to them. I really wanted to be that teacher who got to that reluctant learner.”
This sentiment is echoed many times throughout the year by Maynard and her classmates. Cozzarelli, a 2008 Swarthmore College graduate, is adamant the poor public perception of urban education emanates from problems with the system, not the children. Consider a test her friend gives to urban students; it asks children to write essays about ice fishing — an activity likely foreign to city kids.
“How can they do well on these types of tests,” she asks. Give them a subject they can dig into and they will astound, however. She recalls a discussion in her classroom that focused on Providence’s homeless. While officials mulled how and where to move them, Cozzarelli’s students zeroed in on its root causes.
“They talked about how home foreclosures in the city might be contributing. They were completely empathetic,” she says. Students are as young as nine when they enter Sophia.
While Cozzarelli and Maynard work to carry out the Brown program’s goals inside classrooms, two of their no-less-passionate classmates work on a broader educational vision. Heather Johnson and Drew Allsopp taught in urban schools following undergraduate studies, but Johnson, a Wrentham, Massachusetts, native who taught low-income middle school girls for two years, began a job in June 2009 as a Mathematics Specialist at the Department of Education. Here she served as the state coordinator for the Mathematics and Science Partnership grant.
“Education is a vehicle through which to work for social justice,” Johnson says. “When you are in a classroom, you can really see the direct impact you are making, but I also had a desire to be part of something bigger and to look deeper at an issue.”
Allsopp grew up near Princeton, New Jersey, and taught five years in a public high school in East Harlem after earning his undergraduate degree from New York University. He began working in the summer of 2009 as director of school support and accountability for Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, which opened Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley, a college-focused kindergarten for children from Lincoln, Central Falls, Cumberland and Pawtucket with plans to open another grade each year until it becomes a full K-12. The school had some 160 applicants for seventy-six seats its first year.
The Brown graduates’ first year on the job includes challenges. Johnson frequently wonders whether she made the right choice to take a policy job instead of teaching. Maynard sometimes feels she doesn’t have a complete bag of tricks to keep her students excited. Allsopp says that the requirements to start a school have presented him with many challenges in navigating the day-to-day operations.
Cozzarelli works to devise lessons — without black and white answers; ones that instead present the shades of gray and aim to have the girls draw their own conclusions. A January day finds her leading sixth graders in a policy-making lesson. When it is time for discussion, the girls are eager to be heard.
About gun control: “If people have guns they could shoot each other.”
About abortion: “If you get pregnant, it’s your fault.” Another girl: “But what if you are raped?”
About gay rights: “Not giving gay people rights is like not giving black people rights.”
After class, Cozzarelli says she includes provocative issues in lessons when applicable because the girls demonstrate an interest in such topics.
Despite classroom success, however, larger realities can interfere. During the April school break Cozzarelli worries about her eighth graders. They began the high school application process full of hope, but were smacked with cold fact; the recession reduced scholarships to private schools. The girls end the year sad they will head to public high schools this fall.
“They’ve been working so hard to go to a better school and then to find out they can’t, it just means there’s less incentive for any of them,” Cozzarelli says.
Despite setbacks, Cozzarelli says she is regularly impressed by student maturity, her greatest first-year surprise. Students pondered contradictions of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who was both slave owner and progressive democrat. They launched a fundraising project after discovering that African girls can be homebound during menstrual periods because they have no access to sanitary products. For these reasons Cozzarelli plans to stay at Sophia for the foreseeable future.
A year after graduating from Brown, Johnson also remains committed to the goals of her fellowship. She will return to the classroom in the fall, teaching grade seven students at the Learning Community, a Central Falls charter school. She glows as she shares the news.
For Allsopp, a deep belief in mission became one of his biggest first-year challenges. “I really want the pace of this to go even faster,” he says of establishing charter schools to serve disadvantaged students. “It can be frustrating, but it’s never hopeless.”
In April, Allsopp joined Democracy Prep’s teachers, parents and volunteers walking door-to-door through poor neighborhoods to spread the word about the charter school. The effort resulted in 570 applicants for 180 spaces in the school that is expanding to include grades one and five.
The Providence Career and Technical Academy school year is drawing to a close. Maynard contemplates her first year. There was always more work than time to complete it, she says. But she’s never second-guessed her career choice; never doubted her students’ potential. She and her three classmates began the year wondering whether their Brown education fully prepared them for their professions. They ended the year concluding that it had.
“Teachers never know if or when the students are going to get it,” Maynard says. “It’s like a virus. You never know who will be infected or when. You hope to infect all students. But really, if all of my students told me they loved books and reading, that would be like an April Fools’ joke.”
It’s an unseasonably warm spring day when her students finish watching the 1996 movie Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. The class read Shakespeare’s version, but Maynard says the film with its contemporary setting full of Hollywood gunplay and screeching vehicles will help students better grasp the 400-year-old play.
The movie ends. Student chatter begins. There’s no way that sniper wouldn’t have killed Romeo. Romeo should have known Juliet was not dead. The bell rings. Students grab book bags, notebooks and folders and head for the door. One boy lingers. He tells Maynard his thoughts about Romeo and Juliet. The book was better.