Fertile Minds Blossom in the Southwest

My older daughter, Nicole Kessler-Snook, teaches high school science at WILD (Western Institute Leadership Development) in Tucson, AZ. She recently presented a paper entitled “Promoting Youth Voice and Social Change in Science Through Participatory Research: Challenges and Opportunities of an Emerging University-school Partnership.” The conference organizers asked for a statement of her teaching philosophy. Here it is:

My first day on the job, I walked into my classroom armed with lesson plans, rosters, bathroom passes, and school supplies. The day before, I had spent time hanging motivational and procedural posters, making copies, and arranging 35 desks. I was ready to put into practice what I had learned in theory in my preceptorship. I had no student-teaching experience. I was being thrown to the wolves, per se, by a principal who was willing to forgo that deficiency in exchange for two years at her school. I was motivated. I felt ready. Melinda was the first student to walk through my door. About seventeen and ready to pop, she was pregnant with her second child; she was the first of many young mothers I would encounter during my tenure at the school. The room started to fill with bodies and voices and energy.
I finished my lesson plans for the entire week on that first day! I had to wing it since what I had planned took less time than I expected. By the end of the day, I was in tears. What was I going to do tomorrow? I had nothing! I learned very quickly that there is no such thing as over-planning and that the best laid schemes of mice and science teachers. . .

I also learned:
• If a tia (aunt) or a nana (grandmother) or any “family” member is sick, it is okay to miss school to hold a bedside vigil
• If there is a death in the family, expect a student to be out at least a week
• The drug of choice is rochas, not roofies
• Cargo pants pockets may contain large amounts of marijuana
• “A la verga” is a bad word
• The sudden sound of the metal legs of the students’ chairs scooting along the linoleum floor is a warning sign that someone is going to throw down
• The threat of pregnancy or STDs is nothing compared to getting shot across the street from school
• Or by the police
This was just my first year.
I had no textbooks or boxed curriculum to follow. I had state standards that needed to be met. The rest was totally up to me. I felt empowered to impart the wonder and excitement of science to my students in whatever way I could get them hooked. If it meant having students write down every euphemism they had ever heard for “penis” and “vagina” before a lesson on human reproduction so that they could get it out of their systems, I had them write. If it meant indicating that there were no public libraries, gyms, book stores, community gardens, businesses that offered green services/products or with green infrastructure, or stores that sold organic foods within a square mile of their school, I pointed it out. They mapped all of the smoke shops, liquor stores, tagged buildings, littered alleyways, check-cashing places and police presence.

Very few worksheets. Lots of hands-on. The dollar store was (is) my best friend! These activities revealed much to these students. Girls were having babies without knowing what a uterus is. They thought their baby was in their stomach. Even more, these same girls would bring their newborn baby to school within hours of being discharged from the hospital for all to see, hold, touch, kiss, and spread their germs. Students on food stamps had cupboards stocked with over-processed, sugary, salty, fattening foods and drinks. “Maruchan” (a type of ramen soup) was a staple in all of their diets. How was I supposed to teach standards to kids who were undernourished and bombarded with ads for alcohol (the closest liquor store was across the street), sugar, salt and fat. So I fed my students. I purchased loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter and jelly, gallons of milk and juice and had them serve themselves. More important, I decided to use their lives, their experiences to drive my curriculum. There was rarely a week that I could plan ahead.
I felt empowered by being able to bring unique opportunities to my students. Instead of dissecting a worm or a frog, we went straight to cats. Some of these kids wouldn’t make it to their 18th birthday, let alone go to college to do this type of dissection. I realized that an opportunity to dissect a cat is a privilege reserved for certain students. My students deserved this opportunity, too. I enlisted the support of experts in the community who came to my class or hosted my students in order for them to learn from authorities in the field. I went to endless professional developments to find new ideas. And I tried them. . .the next day. I read books to them. I shared collections with them. I opened my life to them, sharing personal experiences of my learning successes and failures so that they could see me as a person. With that came respect, responsibility, and a love for science many never thought they were capable of.
My trajectory as a science teacher is simple. Years from now, my students will remember their learning. They may lose pieces along the way. We all do. But I guarantee that my students can share a learning experience that was good, that was empowering, that made them feel successful, that opened their eyes, that made them question and not be afraid to be wrong, that made them want to do something. They will remember that I never asked them to do anything I was not willing to do myself because I was willing to learn right alongside them.
I have counseled students to go in one direction and watched as they chose another. I have given countless opportunities to right wrongs but to no avail. I have spent innumerable hours away from my own children trying to save someone else’s from failure, abuse, discrimination, police brutality, starvation, addiction and abandonment. I have attended five funerals. It is enough to make anyone in her right mind want to walk away from the profession. But I don’t because my good days in the classroom have far outweighed my bad. Always. And if it takes me opening their eyes to their potential, their opportunities, their strengths, and holding their hands along the way…it’s what I do. What did you do today?

Photo caption:

In March, University of Arizona professor Dr. Sara Tolbert (back row, 2nd from left, Nicole Snook (front row, right) and her 9th and 10th grade students presented their collaborative research project, Community Engagement and Youth Leadership through Science Education (CEYLSE), at the New York Collective for Radical Educators (NYCoRE) conference in New York City, a conference for teachers, students, researchers, and community members.


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