Teaching Associate

Remembering a Hero

As we gear up for the holidays, let us take some time to remember those we've lost, including beloved Citizen Schools California Teaching Associate Lauren Abramson.  Lauren was a Team Leader at Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City, a role that enabled her to build incredible bonds with her students. Lauren taught and led the same team of students from 6th through 8th grade.  She was a cherished member of the Citizen Schools and Kennedy Middle School community for three years, serving as a teacher and role model to over 250 students during her service with Citizen Schools California. Please consider making a gift to The Lauren Abramson Memorial Fund to honor her memory and her passionate dedication to teaching middle school students. The Fund honors Lauren's contribution to Citizen Schools California and to her students, and advances Citizen Schools’ ability to achieve its vision to close the opportunity and achievement gap, ensuring all children graduate high school ready to succeed in college and career.

To participate in the Fund, you can donate online here. Please be sure to write, "In honor of Lauren Abramson" in the comments section. Finally, any questions about donations or the Lauren Abramson Memorial Fund should be directed to Lauren's cousin Jon Spack at jbspack@gmail.com.


Citizen Schools Illinois: The Struggles and Satisfactions in the Back of the Yards

Jake Oher is a Citizen Schools Illinois Teacing Associate at Cesar Chavez Academy in Chicago. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog. I came into the school year not knowing what to expect. As Citizen Schools Illinois was just about to enter into a partnership with Cesar Chavez Academy, I was a first time teacher who was anticipating the worst. During the first few weeks I experienced a couple bumps in the road, but a few things were made clear to me from day one.

First, Cesar Chavez Academy is a remarkable school that is led by an amazing group of devoted staff and teachers. I instantly knew that I was in the right place once I felt the warmth and love that everybody shares.

The second thing I noticed was that despite it being a launch year, the organization hired a strong group of individuals. Our friendships were almost instantaneous due to our shared passion for helping to close the achievement gap for students in Chicago. While my coworkers, atmosphere, and school are all great, the real reason I am working at Citizen Schools Illinois is for the chance to make a difference with students.

The students at Chavez are an amazing group of individuals who put in the work to advance themselves. Like all growing children, they still have some lessons they need to learn. However, for the most part, these kids care and respect themselves, their peers and the adults they interact with in their worlds. A few weeks into the school year, as the program began to pick up; it was already time to roll out our apprenticeship program.

The chance to be involved in an apprenticeship is what makes Citizen Schools such a unique and exciting program. Students are given the opportunity to work with and learn from experienced professionals across a wide variety of fields. As a Teaching Associate, I was paired up with one of our corporate partners, AOL, to teach a program called Brand You. The apprenticeship teaches students the basics of advertising while simultaneously teaching them to promote themselves with the same tools.

We wanted to challenge the students to think about themselves as lifelong brands who need to advertise their skills and abilities to help them get into a good high school and eventually a good college. We learned very quickly that the concept of advertising was new to these students. To start, we really had to drive home the basics. The three key concepts that we focused on were brand identity, brand promise and target audience. The basic definitions of these were helpful for the students, but it wasn't until after watching various TV and online advertisements that the students began to understand why commercials look the way they do -- i.e. the brand identity and promise -- and who advertisers are trying to speak to -- i.e. the target audience.

There were times when students would come into school, run up to me and say, "Have you seen the State Farm Commercial?" The target audience of that commercial is men ages 18-38 and their brand promise is that no matter what happens a State Farm agent will be there to support you. These types of interactions with the students are what teaching and mentoring are all about for me.

It was amazing to see my students engaged, taking information they had learned in their apprenticeship programs and applying it to real life examples. It became clear to me that because of this apprenticeship, some students are now looking at the world in a whole new way and words can't describe how great that makes me feel. I look forward to growing with Citizen Schools Illinois and helping develop the partnership that we have with AOL, because I have already seen the value it adds to our student's lives.

Harnessing Kony Buzz to Teach Critical Thinking

Jess Lander is a Teaching Associate at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA. Follow her regularly updated blog here “What’s that on your hands?”

My question was directed at one of my students who I noticed had a large inked “K” on the backside of each hand. As a teacher, I’m used to seeing sixth grade skin graffiti – phone numbers, assignment reminders, doodles drawn during class. My question was meant only as a quick check-in before class.

“It stands for ‘Kill Kony,’” she replied.

“Kill who?!”

“Kill Kony. Kony, he is a rapist in Africa who steals children.”

Recently the non-profit Invisible Children released a thirty-minute video indictment of the Ugandan warlord and rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. The filmmakers’ hope is that social media, including Facebook and Twitter, can successfully galvanize the public into demanding and ensuring Kony’s arrest by the end of 2012.

Within one week of its posting on YouTube, the video had gone viral with over 75 million views. Looking across the sea of sixth graders in the cafeteria I realized my students were part of that wave.

As my students explained, a Facebook call to write double Ks had gone out the night before, and by my students’ reckoning, almost three-quarters of the sixth grade now had ballpoint tattoos.

Perhaps the filmmaker was right. Social media had helped spark the anger of eleven and twelve year-olds about a cause halfway around the globe, in a country most of them had never heard of. Yet, as I questioned my students, I grew unsettled. “What country is Kony from?,” I asked. “Africa.”

There is both great power and great danger in social media. I was thrilled that my students had suddenly united around a global cause far removed from their lives in Boston. But I was also disturbed by how their demands for the death penalty were supported by few facts and only one source.

We needed a lesson on critical thinking. The order of mathematical operations could wait a day.

“Write down everything you know about Joseph Kony,” I instructed the class. Creep, weirdo, bad, kidnapper, criminal, evil, kills people, devil, shoots girls, abuses kids, rapist. “Ms. Lander, are we allowed to write the word ‘rapist’?”

I began to probe how much they knew. Only one student knew Kony lead the rebel force, the LRA. Only two students knew that he came from Uganda. Another student believed Kony was hiding out in New Hampshire. It quickly became apparent that the majority of my class had taken all of their information from the single YouTube video put forth by Invisible Children. Some had not even watched that in its entirety.

I decided to see if I could rally their support for another cause.

“Imagine county R,” I encouraged my class. “There is a political party fighting against the elite for the rights of the poor working class. They say that the elite have kept the poor from going to college, from getting high paying jobs, from being respected. They say that the elite have worked with other countries to ensure that they will stay in power. “It’s time to remove the elite from power, raise your hand if you will support this party.” The entire class thrust hands into their air. “Tell me why you are supporting them.” My students responded with passionate defenses for why it was important to support these workers. Finally I cut them off with a question, “do any of you want more facts before you make a decision about supporting this group?” Two tentative hands went into the air.

Only then did I reveal that “Country R” was a real place. That it was a country called Rwanda (I had them locate the country, noting its adjacency to Uganda, on maps I passed out.) “The political party I just described to you,” I went on, “is actually a group called the Hutu Power Party that seventeen years ago convinced about half of the country’s people to rise up and kill the other half of the country’s population with knives.” I went on to describe how the Hutu Power Party helped kill 800,000 people – more than the population of Boston, in just a hundred days.

My students were appalled, and I think, began to see why it was necessary to do their research before supporting a cause. The evidence against Kony is indeed overwhelming, but one video is not enough to condemn anyone.

What stood out most from our discussion though was not my students’ ignorance, but their engagement. Usually by the end of the day, in the minutes before the buses arrive, my students have energy only for games. After eight hours of class, who can blame them? Yet at the end of this Monday, after lessons in math and lessons in main ideas, I was barraged with requests: “Please Ms. Lander, can we keep talking about Kony?”

And so we did. We continued to discuss Joseph Kony, we continued to discuss the Hutu Power party. We broadened our scope and began discussing other world atrocities, other causes my students were passionate about. It was the most engaged I have ever seen my students.

Social media has ensured that my students are inundated by world news, but it has not taught them how to evaluate what they watch, or read, or listen to.

In six years my eleven-and-twelve year olds will be old enough to vote. In the intervening years before 2018, the onus is on us teachers to ensure our students have the tools to be critical thinkers and discerning stewards of the world.

Share - In what ways have you harnessed kids' captivation with trending events on social media to teach a lesson or discuss a concept?

The National Teaching Fellowship: Service That Closes The Gap

The Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship is a two-year AmeriCorps service opportunity that allows committed people to support students in their critical years by building relationships with their families, their teachers, and an extraordinary range of community members. Here's former Teaching Fellow Lia Sheperd, who served as part of a team of caring adults who invested their time, talent, and resources to put students on the path to success in high school, college, and career.

Learn more about the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship here

How An Accident Brought Out the Best in Students

Tom Anderson is a First Year Teaching Fellow and Former Teaching Associate at United for Success Academy in Oakland, CA. He has AB Negative Blood.

While helping out in a reading intervention classroom, I bumped my head rather severely on a television set twice in a span of forty minutes. I wasn’t rushed off to the hospital mainly because I had thirty-two nurses in training who assisted me. It wasn’t just the caring nature of the dedicated and passionate 6th grade students, but two of my coworkers, Darielle Davis and Mica Warton who remained cool, calm and collected during this outrageous accident.

I grabbed three napkins and tried my best to hide the blood from the students. This incident taught me that it’s not always about teaching fractions and why a comma doesn’t belong in a certain place, but that when someone falls down and gets hurt, we stand together to help them out. Our expectations at United For Success Academy are R.I.S.E. (which stands for Respect, Integrity, Scholarship and Enthusiasm). Each student showed respect by checking to see if I was okay. They showed integrity by acting like leaders and staying clam in the situation. The students showed scholarship by remaining on task with writing their 'choose your adventure' stories. And, the students demonstrated enthusiasm by remaining positive about the situation and asking if there was anything they could do to help.

Ms. Davis notified our Campus Director who took control of my classroom while I went to the health center. I was overwhelmed by thirty-two faces who were genuinely concerned for my well-being. There constant questions of, “Are you okay Mr. Anderson?,’’ made me feel cared for and showed me that there are positive lights to the end of the tunnel even if some days it doesn’t seem so.  After the Health Center cleared me to return, I rushed over to my team because I wanted to help my students and staff who quickly responded to my distress. Throughout the day, my staff made sure I was okay and in a challenging job like the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship, it’s nice that you can count on the people you work with to help make the days a little more bearable even if you happen to bonk your head on a television set because you’re too tall and lanky.

Was there a time when an unfortunate incident led to you realizing the people around you care for and support you? Share your experience here. 

Making the Video: How Students Grew While Making a Documentary

Jessica Lander is a Teaching Associate at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA

What happens when you pass out hot fuchsia flip-cameras to eleven sixth graders with the plan to make a movie?

If you are in Room 213 you might see shots of bright yellow Jordans, impromptu rapping, or angled dance moves filmed covertly while a teacher is talking.  There will be close ups on a nose, or a blinking eye, and classroom whiteboards spun into vortices.

Having grown up assembling Marx Brother-esque shorts and PlayMobil stop-action epics, I jumped at the opportunity to co-teach an apprenticeship on documentary filmmaking.  Little did I know what I was getting into.

Our class of eleven was a middle-school microcosm.  There were the best friends and the loners.  There were the troublemakers and studious types. There were students so quiet it took minutes of cajoling to get them to share a thought and others who required constant reminders not to call out.  We had Spanish SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) students, Chinese SEI students who spoke limited or halting English, and one autistic boy who dreamed of becoming a filmmaker.

By week five I was dubious that any movie would result.  Class seemed to be more about juggling emotions and attitudes than an intense study of cinematography.  We finally settled on a fitting topic: what it was like to be a sixth grader.

And, slowly, a movie emerged.

Students climbed onto chairs or lay, backs flat to the creaky wood floor, to capture the most interesting angled shots.  They fanned out silently to record daily life: homework help in the cafeteria, the step-dance team in the hallway and a range of apprenticeship lessons in the classrooms.


At the culmination of ten weeks, we presented our movie to students, parents and teachers.  All the elements were there: a storyline, interviews, b-roll, voiceovers, odd angles, even bloopers so as to include the yellow Jordans and the covert dance moves.  But more than that, the movie held together as passionate and playful portrait of 6th grade life.

What the audience did not see, however, was the ten-week transformation of the film crew who sat, bashfully, near the front of the stage during the premiere.

No, they weren’t suddenly all best friends. But over ten weeks I had witnessed subtle shifts in their attitudes and their assumptions of each other.  I saw mainstream students reach out to Chinese SEI students and take the time to listen and respond to their halting English.  I saw the shyer students improvise eloquent voice-overs when the talkers of the class grew hesitant.  And I watched as the autistic boy in our class, who struggled constantly to stay on task, walked purposefully and silently through the halls and classrooms of the school, camera in hand.

It is this still-unmade documentary I wish the audience could see.

Here is the documentary that the students did create: