How Cobb Elementary Transformed Me

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Valeria Imendia, International Studies’18

I still remember receiving an email about a literacy internship opportunity during the fall semester of my junior year and thinking it would be a great chance for me to expand my experiences in education. As a student in the Dual Degree Program for Teacher Preparation, I decided to apply to be a literacy intern through Engage San Francisco but little did I know I would be embarking on an experience of a lifetime. I am now a senior, about to graduate this coming May, and I continue to learn so much about myself and my passion for teaching with every chance I get to walk the halls of Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School.

From my very first day of the internship, I was met with nothing but kindness and support. My first impression of the school was more than I could have hoped for, and it continues to be a place of unique learning experiences for me. For one, every day at Cobb is different—whether it is because I have to work with new students and create activities for them on my own or because unexpected situations arise where I have to provide care for students. I first went in thinking of myself as a tutor for my students, but it was not long after I started my work there that I realized this job required a lot more than just academics. Every single student I have had the privilege to work with at this school has sparked so much passion for teaching within me, and I continue to think about them in everything I do as I pursue my teaching credential.

Alongside my students, my mentor at the school and my internship supervisor always go above and beyond to ensure that as interns we are being supported and guided in the best way possible. It has been thanks to their warmth and guidance that I have been able to feel like I have agency in my position as an intern. From day one, I have felt like I am a part of the school community and that is because I have been given the tools and the trust to bring my perspective into the work I do with my students. Hence, this program has been crucial in my journey as a future educator because it has shown me first-hand that there is a lot of work to be done in the classroom. It has likewise shown me in practice what my responsibility as a woman of color going into this profession looks like in order to ensure I am doing my best to advocate for our youth. My students have therefore opened up new possibilities within me and they have taken me by the hand and walked me through their life experiences and their passions, which is something that will be forever engraved in my heart. I am honored and humbled to walk the halls of Cobb and get hugs from students I have not even worked with yet and to get high-fives from the older kids who normally like to tell me they are “too cool” for doing reading activities with Miss Valeria. My students give me so much joy with all their unique ways of showing me love and affection, and I have come to understand that with this care also comes responsibility. I strive to honor these demonstrations of trust by making sure to always keep my students and their rich knowledge and individuality at the forefront of my teaching practices.

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My time at Cobb has helped transform me in only the best way. I have been challenged by difficult situations; I have been put to the test as I have had to come up with solutions without much time to prepare, and I have most importantly been shown the most genuine and pure love from my students. Being at Cobb and experiencing the day-to-day routines and witnessing what my students go through both as students and as individuals with their own interests and stories has allowed me to step back and think about the privileges I hold in that space and also as I think about my own future classroom. My students have taught me to be humble and to understand that this work is in the service of every single person in my classroom, particularly of those whose voices have historically been left out. My students—all of whom are not older than eleven—have taught me far more than I could hope to learn from a textbook. I am grateful to have wonderful teachers who push my thinking and hold me to high standards, yet it is my students at Cobb who push me even further and keep me accountable in everything I do.

I continue to be grateful for every single day that I get to be a part of this literacy program because it means I am being challenged to question the ways I engage with this work in education. Regardless of the official expectations of my position or of any titles, this work goes beyond what can be seen as purely academic at a surface level. This opportunity has allowed me to immerse myself in hands-on experiences in teaching and given me a new sense of purpose. I have wanted to go into the teaching profession because I believe our youth has invaluable lessons to teach us and because they deserve to know that their voices matter. I know that this work is difficult, but we owe it to our students to show up for them and allow them to be visible in every way that makes them who they are in order to disrupt practices that have silenced much of our youth—particularly our youth of color— for far too long. This internship has therefore allowed me to work on the skills that make this ideal a reality and I am humbled to be able to experience this with the wonderful mentors I have gained and the students that make this journey worthwhile. This journey is a constant learning experience and I am grateful I got that email and decided to apply all those months ago because now I have a new community that has given me the best gifts: a renewed sense of purpose and a greater love for teaching.

 

Beginning a Literacy Partnership with Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School

Dr. Mary Murray Autry

Dr. Mary Murray Autry, Associate Director
Engage San Francisco Literacy Programs

 

When first visiting Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School (Cobb) in October 2016, with hopes of beginning a literacy partnership, I vividly remember entering the office area and being pleasantly surprised to see a wall covered with banners. These were not just any banners but banners representing various universities throughout the United States and graduates from this very elementary school. I had no trouble identifying the principal’s office door that had been labeled with the name of his alma mater. The banners clearly sent a message to me about the mission of the school and the value of education. Because I really did not know what to expect from this meeting, I began with, “The University of San Francisco, through its Engage San Francisco initiative within the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good would like to partner with you in creating a literacy program.”

We have made significant strides since our initial meeting. The literacy program began as a pilot with a shared vision to improve reading proficiency and support K-5 students to reach grade-level proficiency. We also agreed to place university students as volunteers in a first-second grade combination class and a third-fourth grade combination classroom to provide relevant literacy experiences for classroom students.

One freshman and four juniors comprise the pilot of cohorts and began as interns working with elementary students and our community partners in spring 2017. These interns are undergraduate candidates in the Dual Degree in Teacher Preparation Program at the University of San Francisco. Under the guidance of Engage San Francisco staff, the school’s literacy coach, and classroom teachers, interns work six to twelve hours a week to improve K-5 literacy proficiency while fostering competent communication while speaking, reading, writing, and listening. Interns, required to complete the entire semester must consistently demonstrate the same professional and ethical behaviors expected of teachers, and are enrolled in a 1-unit Directed Study course. The course, Literacy, Environments, and Assessments, emphasizes the basic history of the community, literacy instruction, social emotional development, trauma informed approaches, and effective use of the learning environment.

Several questions guide the development of the literacy program. These include: What would this literacy program look like? How do we define literacy? What are the literacy goals of the school? What is best practice for TK-5 students? What are worthy and reasonable goals for university interns? How do we involve teachers? How do we build a relationship of trust with the school in light of the fact that a previous partnership folded? From these inquiries, these key questions emerged:

  1. How do we create a literacy program for traditionally disenfranchised K-5 students who consistently perform lower than their white counterparts in spite of laws and policies designed to support their academic achievement?
  2. How do we create a literacy program for teacher candidates, that models effective teaching, embraces diversity, addresses biases, and focuses on community?
  3. How do we move the conversation from “volunteers” in the classroom to members of the school community?

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The initial launch of the pilot has been far from perfect, but we have learned as we face challenges, and we make changes and restate our commitment to moving from the pilot stage to executing the literacy program in the fall of the 2017-2018 academic year. Feedback from school administrators has led to discussions on expanding the program and including two prekindergarten classrooms. Initial findings thus far suggest that although only 20 percent of interns had any involvement with the school community prior to placement, 100 percent see themselves committed to continuing the internship during the 2017-2018 academic year. We have also learned that the school’s literacy needs were broader than the original plan. Instead of teaching in only two classrooms, interns work in classes across the grade span and have begun the process of seeing themselves as more than volunteers in the school but actually members of a community.

Learn more about Engage San Francisco’s literacy programs and other community partnerships by contacting Karin Cotterman, Director of Engage San Francisco <kmcotterman@usfca.edu>

Profiles in Community Engaged Learning- Nicola McClung

Nicola was asked, what inspires you to integrate service-learning or community-engaged pedagogies into your courses?

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Nicola McClung

Assistant Professor, University of San Francisco- School of Education

Excerpt from the August 2016 Profiles in Community Engaged Learning. Professor McClung teaches Early Literacy.

I was first inspired to integrate community-engaged pedagogy into my course when looking for books for my daughter. She is a beginning reader, and I had difficulty finding books I wanted her to read.

Although multicultural children’s literature clearly makes an important contribution to the pursuit of equity and justice for all, it continues to be limited in several ways. Enter any classroom, home, or pediatrician’s office where an effort is being made to include diverse perspectives, and one will typically find books about able-bodied heteronormative white children living “normal” lives: a new puppy; bedtime; mom, dad, and baby; expressing emotions; going to school. In the same room, recent titles reflecting diversity might include: Heather has Two Mommies; Don’t Call Me Special; Black, White, Just Right; It’s Okay To Be Different; I Love My Hair; Day of the Dead, The Skin You Live In, Some Kids are Deaf, or Everybody Cooks Rice.  That is, few books include characters that come from diverse backgrounds in which their social markers (e.g., the disability, being black, having gay parents) are not the focus of the book. Furthermore, when diversity is reflected, many authors fail to write in such a way that allows for independent reading and maximally supports children’s literacy skills. For example, although there are some picture books that contain anti-oppressive themes (e.g., African American History) they are almost always books that must be read aloud to children.

I also draw from my experiences as a teacher in San Francisco schools, including at Rosa Parks Elementary in the Western Addition.  The project is based on the assumption that having access to texts that reflect diverse perspectives is motivating; in addition to high quality multicultural literature, we need books that contain universal themes depicting minority characters living everyday lives—e.g., a scientist who is a black female, a school principal who is multilingual, a soccer player with a disability, a mailperson who is trans, or kids simply having fun! These types of books are greatly needed for children from minority backgrounds to identify as readers and to see themselves as valued members of society. At the same time, such books allow students who identify with the dominant culture to come to see their minority counterparts as central to a well-functioning society (Dean-Meyers, 2014).

At the end of the summer, seeing the Prince Hall students excited about being authors, and seeing themselves in the books, inspires me to continue to the project and sustain the community partnership. Likewise, knowing that we are in some small way closing the cultural/linguistic distance between teachers in training and students in urban schools provides a purpose to the work that is important to sustain.

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