Agents for change

HANNAH LEE / AGGIE

Students make a difference in community classrooms

As part of an internship, Rebekah Roh, a fourth-year english major and Teach for America campus campaign coordinator, worked in a classroom that provided iPads to its students. Later, she visited a classroom that was struggling to even provide resources to all students. This discrepancy, along with other experiences, led Roh to Teach for America.

A handful of UC Davis students get involved with Teach For America during their time on campus and after they graduate. Teach for America is nonprofit in which those who are accepted into the organization commit to teach a subject to students for two years in a high-need community anywhere across the nation.

“At Teach for America, we recruit diverse and talented leaders who are very committed to expanding opportunities for our nation’s highest need children,” said Taylor Weeks, the recruitment manager of Teach for America.

Teach for America celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Over the years, about 200 Davis students have participated in Teach for America. Once accepted into the program, students are called corps members. Corps members can teach in different classroom settings ranging from preschool to 12th grade.

Corps members can also give a preference of where in the nation they would like to teach and what they would like to teach. Although Weeks went to school in Boston, when she taught she was very open with her preferencing and was thus placed in Alabama.

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Weeks said.

Roh is going to be a 2017 corps member for Teach for America. She’s set to teach in Los Angeles.

“For me, I wanted to stay in California,” Roh said. “I’m from NorCal but I wanted to go to LA because I wanted to move to another part of California just for my personal growth. I was also interested in particularly urban education.”

Teach for America accepts students from all majors and backgrounds to join its corps program. However, applicants must have a 2.5 grade point average. According to Weeks, the organization looks for individuals who’ve made the effort to have an impact in some way on campus or in something they’ve been involved in.

“There’s really not a cookie-cutter specific profile for somebody that does Teach for America,” Weeks said. “Across the board, everyone is a leader.”

Roh heard about Teach for America as a senior in high school. According to Roh, her time spent at UC Davis and in many internships led her to recognize big inequalities in education.

“I think there is the element of my personal experience,” Roh said. “I [looked] into the broader section of things and I [learned] things in classrooms and I [saw] statistics about access to higher education being almost like reserved for people of privileged groups. I [learned] about minority groups being far less represented in their pursuit of opportunities to learn and to grow. I think those are also things that shaped my decision to particularly partner with Teach for America.”

Teach for America corps members receive the same salary and health benefits as any other first-year teacher in the district. However, not every corps member stays in the classroom after their commitment. Some choose to pursue other fields and interests, but remain a part of the huge Teach for America alumni network.

“I think people want to get on the front lines of change and have that impact right away,” Weeks said. “I think what it comes down to is that they can have an impact from day one with Teach for America. I think teaching, regardless of what their background, is a really valuable experience that going to launch them into whatever career and field they want to go into down the road.”

The Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) program also gets UC Davis students into the classroom. SAYS services are set to improve schools through professional development programs for teachers, classroom instruction and after school programs. SAYS hopes to transform education into a tool of empowerment.

“[We] work with upwards to 5,000 young people every year through our in class residency program,” said Vajra Watson, the SAYS founder and the director of research and policy for equity at UC Davis. “In those spaces we really focus on using literacy to connect them to their own leadership abilities. We’ll do a lot of hip hop activities, we’ll do spoken word, we’ll get the young people writing about their lives in order to engage them in school and engage them in the curriculum.”

SAYS also hosts Sacramento’s slam poetry season for the region and Sacramento’s youth poet laureate program.

“There’s a lot of facets of our work, all of it though kind of intersects in […] how [we] help young people become the authors of their lives and agents of change,” Watson said.

Watson founded SAYS over nine years ago. After getting her doctorate in education from Harvard, she wanted to find a way to take what she learned in her dissertation work, which was on community based organizations, and apply it to her work in Sacramento. After meeting with various superintendents and educators, Watson learned that Sacramento was having a literacy crisis specific for black and brown youth and needed new ways of engaging them. Watson made a flier for a spoken word performance poetry meeting and five students came.

At the next meeting, however, there were 57 attendees.

“Those five students said that they were starving in Sacramento for youth empowerment programs and for social justice,” Watson said, “It really just started growing exponentially and that gave me the ability to get some funding and hire some community based poets and really take what I learned from my dissertation and apply to a model that brings the community into classrooms.”

Students from UC Davis can get involved with SAYS as interns or through work study. UC Davis interns are treated just like staff, and work with kids in the classroom and after-school programs. However, they go through about two to three weeks of training, less training than a normal staff member.

Interns also plan the SAYS Summit College Day, which is on May 19 this year. About 1,000 high-risk youth will visit UC Davis to explore the campus, attend educational workshops, participate in spoken word poetry and critical literacy activities and experience higher education.

“We couldn’t do it without the UC Davis students,” Watson said “[They] are just so critical to that mentoring component and showing the students that there’s like really cool relatively young adults on the UC Davis campus.”
Written by: Fatima Siddiqui  — features@theaggie.org

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