What I learned at TEACH

This was my first AFT TEACH conference, and I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude for the experience. I learned so much from the sessions, particularly from the Project-Based Learning Design Lab workshop. I was thrilled to learn about a great project-based learning activity to create public service announcements about important issues, such as the spread of the Zika virus. It was in this session that we were shown how to do a great team-building simulation, where we used pipe cleaners to build the highest freestanding tower. Cool, right? Sure, but to make this activity authentic and applicable to the real world, the facilitators added in problems like a labor strike, where we had to work with one hand behind our backs, and a language barrier, which forced us to work silently. I can’t wait to do this with my students this year. I usually begin with this Marshmallow Tower activity, but this new activity takes the authenticity to a whole new level with real-world problems integrated.

The sessions, the speakers and the plenaries were exhilarating and inspiring. But, as I’m sure you know, there are also all sorts of “aha” moments that come in those in-between moments. Here’s mine:

Is anyone sitting here?

            It was hot. Really hot. I didn’t want to leave for the #KidsNotCuts rally any sooner than necessary. I’d already slathered on the sunscreen—thankfully provided by the AFT. The next obstacle to getting to the rally was the bus ride from the conference to Capitol Hill. I don’t know about you, but I find it a bit daunting to get on a bus without my “bus buddy” all lined up. I was determined to participate, even if I was nervous. I boarded the bus and asked the woman sitting in the very front seat, “Is anyone sitting here?” Luckily, she and I hit it off right away. We chatted about her daughter, who had attended college near me, and she asked if I was a crazed Buffalo sports fan, which we are quite known for. She put me at ease, only telling me that she “worked for AFT.”

Right at the start of my experience, she made me feel welcomed to an event that I wasn’t entirely sure about. I knew I agreed with the topic #KidsNotCuts, but I had never been to a rally in D.C., and having a friendly conversation put me at ease. This is how we must treat our students when they come to school. Just because they are there does not always mean they know just what to do, or how to handle the situation, but how we welcome them makes a difference in how they choose to participate.

            At the rally, I was awed by the enthusiasm, the crowd and, frankly, the solidarity that went into making this event work. I was standing behind my new friend, and a tall man walked up to her, looking concerned. I heard her say, “Well, Amber’s from New York, let’s talk to her.” Long story short, another AFT member who was supposed to meet with Congresswoman Yvette Clarke was nowhere to be found, and they were looking for someone to fill in. A few phone calls later, I was on my way to the Rayburn building to speak to the congresswoman about why #KidsNotCuts is important. I studied the talking points, but it didn’t take me long to know the story I’d tell.


            You can read about the impact of President Trump’s proposed education budget cuts here, but one of the areas that really hit home for me was the cuts to Title III funds, the part of the Every Student Succeeds Act that specifically funds programs and services for English language learners. I live in a second-ring suburb of Buffalo, in a fairly homogenized school district, and we have recently had an influx of ENL (English as a new language) students. Buffalo’s urban schools are educating students from around the world who have found a safe haven here, and we need funding to help us reach these students. It is a newer responsibility for me, and I can’t imagine how we’d meet the needs of students without the appropriate professional development (another area on the chopping block) and funding for students.

            I talked to Clarke’s staff about Khaled, one of my ENL students this year. I shared my belief that helping ENL students create a digital identity will help them to meet their social and emotional needs, as well as ensure college and career readiness. (To learn more about this idea, and Khaled, click here to see the mini-documentary I made via the NoVo Foundation’s SEL in Action Grant during the 2016-17 school year.) I was able to talk with Clarke briefly as well, and it was clear immediately that I was “preaching to the choir” when it came to her feelings on the proposed cuts.

            This opportunity to be a part of the process—to truly engage with politicians and share my voice and experiences in the classroom with policymakers—was eye-opening. However, that opportunity may never have presented itself had I not felt welcomed and encouraged that I did, indeed, have a seat on the bus. As we start thinking about back to school, let’s take this object lesson with us. As students stream into the classroom, don’t assume that they are sure of themselves, but know instead that with a welcome from us, they will feel confident to participate in their own education, just like I did.

Please share your aha moments from TEACH in the comments section! We’ll tweet out the link and get YOUR stories heard too.