By Emily Berman
Tara’s eyes lit up in a way I had not seen before. I could almost hear what she was thinking: “Felicia is amazing.” Felicia, a local organizer for the NAACP, had just given a talk to our students about how to make change and organize in their community. When Tara looked at Felicia, she lit up not only because the older woman is a skilled public speaker with a powerful message, but also because she was able to see a reflection of herself. I’m white. Tara and Felicia are both black, and there is no doubt that working with and learning from Felicia would enrich Tara’s identity beyond what I can provide. As a teacher, I know that the value of personalized learning goes beyond alternative ways to receive credit and show mastery of subject matter; it provides an opportunity for students to find role models that reflect their own identity.
Personalized learning can take many forms. At the high school where I teach, my favorite aspects of it are our requirements for two job shadows, a service-learning project, an internship, and a senior project. All four of these tasks are monitored by a staff member at our school, but also include a community mentor. These mentors are, for the most part, not trained teachers, but they give students the opportunity to find a role model who reflects their ideals, interests, and identity in a way that I cannot, due to my own cultural experiences. Identity is complex, and is rarely affirmed for minorities; shouldn’t we give our students of color every opportunity we can to receive affirmation for who they are?
In theory, the race of the teacher shouldn’t matter to the success of the students. But research has shown how important it is for a student to have a teacher who is of the same race and shares their cultural experiences. Many of our students of color today are taught by white teachers who did not grow up in the same neighborhoods as them, and this can keep students from connecting with adults during their high school years.
Tara is not unique in her experience. Another student, Julia, struggled to have goals or to find a passion in school. With our community members, we set up a job shadow for Julia with a state representative in her town, who, like Julia, is Latina. The experience ignited a spark in Julia for public service and civic engagement. She attended multiple rallies at the statehouse and the Pride Parade in Providence. Through this personalized learning experience, she found her passion.
In addition, the intersectionality of identities that students experience today means that finding an adult in a school building who exactly reflects our students can be difficult. Alex, a trans Latino student, had a rough past year. Even with our strong, supportive relationship, it was impossible for me to understand his experience as a trans male. Through a job shadow, Alex was able to connect with a community organization called Youth Pride. He found other teens working through gender identity, and came back with a focus and drive for both his service-learning project and his senior project. Now, Alex is working on a way to educate our school on his passion: transgender rights.
Through our school’s personalized learning program, my students can meet adults who look like them and have had the same life experiences as them. They can follow their passion and find someone who grew up in their own neighborhood and has the same values. The experience of working with a member of the community for an internship has dual benefits. The students have a role model who reflects their identity, and the community gains an adolescent that becomes invested in the community, whose mentorship experience is often a formative experience in high school. I care deeply about my students and what they learn in my classrooms. But I’m not selfish about who facilitates this knowledge. Personalized learning and internships fill a gap that our school and I can’t provide, both in terms of developing new skills and finding membership in a community.
In the end, Tara found a mentor in another woman of color who works for an organization that dissuades teens from drunk driving. Tara recently lost a cousin to a drunk driving accident, and has thrown herself into this work. I think she already cared about the topic, but working with her mentor, another black woman, has affirmed Tara’s identity and strength, and has made the internship experience even more impactful. Personalized learning isn’t just a way for Tara to earn credits to graduate. It’s a way for her to continuously grow, develop, and connect with people in her community.
Emily Berman is a 9th grade biology and 10th grade chemistry teacher at Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket and a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.