Becoming a Family: When a Classroom Comes Together


Holt’s homeroom students celebrate a goal milestone.

Family is so much more than mothers and fathers, siblings, and children, and there are many people in my life whom I consider family. My familial influences extend beyond the traditional descriptions and bloodlines, and include some of my most prized relationships—including those that I fostered with my sixth graders in Sanders, Arizona, a small community on the Navajo Nation.

I taught three daily math classes and one social studies class. My 97 kids and I started the year off as acquaintances, at best. But together, we learned the ropes of middle school—we opened combination locks on lockers, organized notebooks for five different classes, collaborated, figured out problems, and solved two-step equations. We quickly became a family.

A family can be defined as a group of people united by certain convictions, and my students and I were united by our conviction that we would not allow our ZIP codes, socioeconomic background, or ethnicity determine our trajectory in life. I didn’t think fighting for my students was right—we had to fight it together.

Laundry Room Lessons

(Photo credit: Gideon)

(Photo credit: Gideon)

Institute was hard for me, and I struggled day after day during those five weeks. Now, as I see announcements of 2014 corps members being accepted, I’ve been thinking about how my journey with TFA began.

And so I started re-reading blog posts that I had written from the beginning, from Institute, and I found a snippet written on the way to my assigned school:

June 20

It was a Wednesday night in the laundry room, and I learned three important lessons from two amazing women, Dez and Jazmine:

  1. “Your friends take you seriously when you talk. You can be taken seriously.”
  2. “Find your own voice. Use your own voice.”
  3. “You are a student of your students.”

Time to try this out.

The Hardest and the Richest

Freeman at graduation with the Merritts.

Freeman at graduation with the Merritts.

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.”

– Mark Twain

I cross under the mountain tunnel, take Exit 1, my heart flutters—I’m almost there.

I haven’t visited my college since October, and I’m coming back to tell my stories, to see my friends, to visit a place that used to be a home. What a contrast a place can provide when the old person and the new person suddenly and seamlessly coexist.

I walk up the hill and onto the quad. I see Dr. Merritt pacing back and forth on the phone. He hands me a copy of The Bluestone Review, a literary magazine that has just been released that evening. I flip to my poem and read the familiar words as he continues his conversation.

After a few minutes, he looks at me and whispers an apology.

“Is Mrs. Merritt in her office?” I ask.

He nods.

Learn Loud

(Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus)

(Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus)

I wanted them to be quiet.

To teach my students about weather instruments, I had them read about, create, and then do a jigsaw-puzzle activity on the subject. I framed the exercise as a “mini science fair.”

They were off the chain.

I stared at my students as they got way too loud, jumped up and down, and caused chaos. I found myself fearing the moment when Ms. Moore or Ms. Spinney or Ms. Mason would walk into my room and give me that look. That look that says, “This is a disaster.”

The science coach for our district was in the room with me, and as the activity grew louder, my students grew more obstinate, and as the day continued, I felt myself growing tired in that, “Why am I here?” sort of way. Somehow, the chaos was more painful and prevalent with an audience.

4 Poems for an ESL Classroom

Marco Castillo


April is National Poetry Month, and TeacherPop is celebrating every Friday by featuring four poetry selections from teachers who have participated in Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project. Interested in getting your class involved? Email for details!

1. “Soneto XVII,” by Pablo Neruda

Most kids struggle with understanding figurative language, but for ELLs—even the most advanced—navigating the waters of simile, metaphor, and personification in a second language can be nearly impossible. Neruda’s “Soneto XVII” is a gorgeous introduction to figurative speech in my students’ first language—Spanish. My seventy Latino students are shocked that we are allowed to read something academic in Spanish, and the multi-lingual process of learning the poem brings difficult nuances of figurative speech across language lines.

The love poem hits at the core of every love-lorn teenager in existence, so interest level is not a problem, and its use of language is divine:

“but this, in which there is no I or you,

So intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,

So intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.”

-Translation by Steven Mitchell

And of course, Neruda himself a necessity to any inner-city classroom—the Chilean diplomat used his poetry as a means of political advocacy and he earned, among many Peace Prizes, the title “the People’s Poet” for his work. The combination, then, of poet and poem, makes “Soneto XVII” a must-read.

Books and Building Bridges

(Photo credit: Abhi Sharma)

(Photo credit: Abhi Sharma)

“Miss Freeman, you ever read Tom Clancy?”

He’s reading The Teeth of the Tiger. The back cover of the novel uses the “a-word” in a blurb, and my kids are still young enough to giggle when they see it.

“I’ve read a little Clancy,” I tell him. “You like it?”

“Yeah. It’s good. I’ve been reading it for three days, and I’m almost finished.”



Daniel is smart, and he knows it. This makes for a less-than-perfect relationship with me: every time I lose control of my classroom, I lose a little more of Daniel’s respect.

Looking to the Bright Side

Second graders at Success Academy Bronx 2 learn science with Julianne Scherker (New York '10).

Second graders at Success Academy Bronx 2 learn science with Julianne Scherker (New York ’10).

“We played this advertisement to try and motivate people of the dangers of global warming,” says Dr. Bill Chameides, a speaker at last Saturday’s TEDxDuke 2014 event. “But it wasn’t very effective.”

The lights dim and the ad plays. My attention is caught—but I don’t want it to be. The effects of global warming seem too big, too potentially devastating, and it’s easier to focus on yesterday’s problems.

“Ms. Freeman, Delia choked me to the floor, and I have the marks to prove it.”

Bright red on the pale skin.

“Yeah, I choked him,” the girl said. “He got in my face.”

The choke marks on Robert’s neck bring an onslaught of negative emotions. I don’t know what I’m doing in this school.

I ask the students to sit quietly and read after Robert has left for the nurse and Delia for the assistant principal. But they won’t, and so instead I sit quietly, read, and try not to cry.

Dance Party: Engaging Girls of Color in STEM


(Photo credit: Yamilée Toussaint)

“I didn’t know black women do engineering!” exclaimed Renee, one of the STEM From Dance girls, when she first heard my story. I had just finished telling her and the rest of our beginning cohort that studying mechanical engineering, as I had done, was challenging, but that having an in-demand degree was liberating. It is for this moment with Renee that I chose to take my degree, turn around, and bring other girls of color on this trajectory with me.

And part of that trajectory includes STEM From Dance. Dance was my refuge when I was an engineering student at MIT—it helped me persevere in tough moments, express myself in a new way, and realize my self-worth. I realized that the way I choreograph mirrors the way I solve problems as an engineer, and that there is power in using dance as a confidence-building, culturally-relevant way of engaging girls of color in STEM. The idea promised transformational change, so I created STEM From Dance and piloted the idea while I was at my corps placement school in Brooklyn.