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Teacher Academy students seek equity in the classroom

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Gig Harbor High English teacher Rebecca Wenrich, who teaches a fascinating class called Teacher Academy, for students interested in becoming teachers.

Wenrich explained that Teacher Academy is a dual-credit course focused on exploring education through a social justice lens. It’s for seniors who are interested in education or child development as a career. “Dual credit” means they also earn credits they can apply to college.

“We research and investigate elements that create healthy learning environments, culture and identity, equity in education, approaches to curriculum and discipline, and curriculum and lesson design,” Wenrich explained.

Students in the class learn to recognize the ways race, gender, socio-economic status and other factors can disadvantage some students, and how they as teachers can use classroom strategies to change that.

“We know that there are kids that come ready to learn,” Wenrich said. “We also have kids who come to class that have had significant trauma, or are minority students in a homogenous mostly-white community, like Gig Harbor, and find themselves marginalized.”

Future teachers need to find ways to manage group work, for instance, so that “it isn’t just the strongest voice that is heard,” she said. Students are taught to recognize their own implicit biases and minimize the kind of microaggression too common in classrooms today, Wenrich explained.

Students research, write and present issues in education. This work prepares students for a productive six-week practicum in the spring. “During this practicum,” said Wenrich, “the students work with a mentor teacher in the district to engage with students through equitable lessons that benefit all students. This course prepares students to enter education degree programs at the university level.”

Wenrich has been an English teacher for 22 years, and is an advisor to the College Board on training teachers in curriculum. She came to Gig Harbor High School 2006 and has been part of Teacher Academy since its beginning.

Erin Jeffries, one of the Teacher Academy students, said the class has taught her, “not only professional skills, but how to advocate for change and work with others in a group setting.”

“There are changes coming to the education world, whether it be within strategies of teaching, or the treatment of students,” she added, and she wants to be aware of them.

As part of their studies, the class researched some changes they would like to see in their own Peninsula School District, a made a presentation to an assistant superintendent and two school board members.

Among other things, the student suggested the district explore the equity problems that arise when the school population is mostly white and high-achieving. They also asked the district to study whether there are disparities in discipline and expulsion that feed the “school-to-prison pipeline” for some minority students.

“All students are valued, and should be able to feel like not only their education, but their personal well being is a priority,” said Landree Tullus, another student in the class, who said the presentation to the district helped “me morph into a confident student who advocates for positive change in the schooling system.”

In their sessions, the Teacher Academy students talked about strategies they can use to overcome well-known classroom problems, such as the tendency for boys to talk over girls.

“It can be as simple as telling students, ‘Before you share your opinion, tell us what the person who spoke before you just said,’ “ explained Wenrich. “That means they have to listen to someone else, not just the sound of their own voice.”

In discussions, Wenrich assigns her students “elbow partners,” or “eyeball partners,” who switch off repeating each other’s opinions.

“Because there is a strong sense of community within the classroom, we can all help to improve ourselves and each other,” said student Caroline Park. “Whether it is strengthening our educational future or life skills.”

“As a class we meditate, talk about what concerns us as individuals and have daily conversations about how our day was,” Audrey Willson said. “What I get out of this class is the constant support throughout my classmates and the welcoming joy whenever someone steps into the class.”

Ashley Ryan wants “to be able to help children not only academically but emotionally. I feel a lot of teachers don’t focus on the mental health aspect of students’ lives. I’ve had a few teachers who helped me through hard times and I want to do that for others.”

“It’s not just all about teaching subjects to students,” said Wolfe Blash-Wood. “We learn interpersonal skills and how to improve on and have a better understanding of those relationships, how to better communicate in a professional environment and so much more. Even if you don’t end up going into a teaching career, there are so many crucial skills you can get from this class. Teacher Academy has already influenced me outside of the classroom. I am so much more aware of how I affect others, how I treat others and how I carry myself around others.”

For more information, contact Rebecca Wenrich wenrichr@psd401.net

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