Stories From Native Students

It’s Native Heritage Month! Celebrate by turning an ear to the voices of our native students across the country.

We’ve compiled thirteen autobiographical poems by some of TFA’s Native Hawaiian, Navajo, and Lakota students involved in our student voices initiative, the Poet Warriors Project. Enjoy the teaser excerpts, click to read the full poems on the Poet Warriors site, print and share these stories with your students, and if you’re interested in publishing your classes with the Poet Warriors Project, find out more here!

1. “I don’t act like a Navajo
But on the inside of me, there is a true blood of Dine girl” -Odessa Begay

2. “He is struggling to get loose
The starry black night being splashed
With the color orange yellow

Painted like a painted canvas.” -Alec Lewis


3. “A little girl waking
up with her family on a ranch.
A pink house full with a stove
and wood. Cooking blue corn mush
with my light in their eyes” 
-Talia Garmendez


4. “Seen evolution
Through an old man’s eyes
Sometimes I feel that it’s disguise
No one notices

The tide rolling in” -Cloe Parks


5. “I remember my brother well” -Sheridan James


6. “The mesas are golden,
And the landscape is orange.
The sun sees our Navajo Nation reservation.” 
-Lain Johnson


7. “As I look at the bright beautiful sunset in the reservation,
I see the bright sun go down
I hear the chirping and the laughter of
Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and cousins.” 
-Michael Toldeo

8. “When she walks
And a Gary Stewart song is on,
It matches here.
When she was young,
She use to go to the Rez dances,
And used to dance with all
The cowboys” -Selvina Pletero


9. “When they came
They took our land.
They took aloha.
They took the queen.” -Shayla


10. “I remember
When I used to watch her weave
small rectangular Navajo rugs
I remember
When she laughed so hard that she cried” -Nathania Tom


11. “My dad believes I could do anything in my life
And get out of the reservation.” -Dallason Davis


12. “I don’t know any other place that I would like to be
I am not ashamed about where I come from” -Alec Lewis

1313. “The Navajo Reservation, it has brown flat land
And in the distance, red mesas.
While I sit in the old tower I see a stampede of brown, white, and black
-Taneika Ashley


Photos by Poet Warriors creator, Emily Southerton.  Photography taken while collecting poems from Teach For America students in Kailua Kona, HI, the Navajo Nation in Crownpoint, NM, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, SD.

Embracing “Nuance” and “Spectrum”

crowder photo

(Photo Credit: Eric Fisher)

As a high school government and economics teacher in Memphis, TN, I ask a lot of questions that do not have clear answers. Through my years of teaching, however, I have seen consistent student discomfort with concepts that demand them to consider not black or white responses, but gray.

Teaching students to embrace two words has finally begun to end the side-taking, and forge a bridge.

“Nuance,” simply defined as, “the details that make something complex,” has become a focus of my class, and as such, has been combatting polarizing and simplistic dialogue among my students. Through understanding nuance, students can now leave space for uncertainty and appropriate complications.

Likewise, the concept of thinking on a “spectrum” has enabled a new comfort with the gray space in the content I teach. Formerly, my students felt trapped into routinely taking a side, limiting their understanding of content to established stereotypes. Now, students are empowered by the possibility that matters are not merely “this or that,” which has enlivened independent and personalized engagement with the content.

Previously, the question “Is the United States (Canada… Hong Kong… or fill in the blank) a democracy or socialist government?” seemed limited to two answers. Now, however, students understand the presence of nuance and the sense that things occur on a spectrum, and the question invites them to instead consider, “To what extent is the United States a democracy and to what extent socialist? What details make it so complex?”

Conversations with students in class and personally have taken a new dimension since the introduction of this vocabulary. Discussions around core content, sexuality, ethnicity, race, gender, social issues, and various school and identity matters are increasingly robust and nuanced because the students are given the space to exist and think on a spectrum of issues and content.

Roll out the new vocab and please let me know the results.

Zombie Army Burns Bridges & 6 Spooky Writing Starters

train crash 3

We’re trick or treat-ing you to some wicked ideas! Happy Halloween!

Without a doubt, it’s an exciting time of year to be a kid. But Halloween is a great opportunity for teachers to connect with students and have some fun as well with a few spook-inspired lessons!

In running the Poet Warriors Project, TFA’s initiative to publish our students’ voices across the country, I’ve come across thousands of powerful student poems aimed at creating change. However, one of my all-time favorite submissions is actually one that just playfully indulges in ghoulish imagining and is perfect to revisit this time of year.

“Train Crash” was penned and published by Kydell Begaye, a 7th grader in Ms. Katrina Turner’s (New Mexico ’13) ELA classes. It is an abbreviated Civil War epic that follows a silver train’s untimely fall into hell at the hands of a bridge-burning zombie Confederate army. Amazing. I know. “Train Crash” is republished below, and is a good reminder that creativity thrives this time of year with the help of some inspiration and a cool teacher.

This Halloween, I want to urge all teachers to try a creative lesson with their students. The holiday lands nicely on a Friday, and I’ve written six spooky starters to get your kids’ brains brewing that morning. Please feel free to share more ideas in the comments section!

  1. My heart races as my feet pound on the dirt road. I look back, and see a hand reach out of the open grave…
  2. I wake up on the pavement, and feel the two deep bite marks on my neck…
  3. It’s just past midnight, when I hear her howl…
  4. I tighten the last bolt on the monster’s neck, take my lab gloves off, and step back…
  5. I take a deep breath, and begin interviewing the ghost of my great great great grandmother…
  6. From behind the bushes, I see him stir the boiling cauldron, and throw in the last few ingredients…

Don’t hesitate to get in contact with me if you’re interested in getting some of your kids’ creative responses published on our site, or if you’re interested in running our usual Poet Warriors curriculum.

Train Crash
by Kydell Begaye

On a cold night,
a steam train loaded with silver
going to Gettysburg.
80 miles away,
the wheels roll,
the loaded silver train runs to Gettysburg.

Union Soldiers fight with the Confederate.
But don’t know
they’re fighting with the undead.

The engine steam puffing to
40 miles per hour.
Heading over a dam,
the undead soldiers burn
down the bridge to flames.

One-by-one cars uncouple
from falling rails. The engine
moves faster, 10 feet away
from the cliff. The rails
snap causing the engine
to slip. The heavy tender
of coal pulls back the Engine.
The engine falls into the fire of

The silver makes it to Gettysburg.
The train
loaded with silver was loaded
with sandstone.

Stand, Stand, Stand and Deliver, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindergarten Cop

(Photo Courtesy of Studio One)

From the music-fueled hijinks of Jack Black’s Dewey Finn (School of Rock) to the inner-city idealism of Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray (To Sir, with Love), Hollywood’s perennial fascination with teacher stories has produced an impressive lineup of iconic pedagogues over the years. One of my earliest teacher-on-film memories is watching a hell-bent Anne Sullivan reach her cathartic water pump breakthrough in the iconic climax of 1962’s The Miracle Worker, adapted from the autobiography of Helen Keller. The film’s title says a lot about why the educator archetype continues to be a popular source of dramatic inspiration: the idea of the impassioned teacher as an indomitable “miracle worker” for whom no troubled young mind is beyond reach seems to hold much sway for filmmakers and audiences alike.

Movies like this had so romanticized my perception of the profession that, as I readied myself for my first semester as a fifth grade teacher in the summer of 2008, it seemed only natural to wonder: should I fashion my teaching persona in the style of Robin Williams’ John Keating or emulate the streetwise profundity of trainer Mickey from the Rocky movies? Despite my best efforts, I ended that first year feeling more like Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher than anything else. I had not inspired a sensational love of poetry in my students. I had not convinced them to carpe the diem. The only standing on desks had occurred in rebellious defiance of (not in solidarity with) my teaching.

The melodramatic glorification of teachers perpetuated by films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers had made for excellent inspiration, no doubt. It had also been terrible preparation for the real deal. The more I thought about these teacher-worship movies, the more they bothered me. It’s not that I believe teachers unworthy of the exaltation – it’s that these movies totally miss the mark when it comes to what makes educators admirable and effective. The mythic Hollywood teacher conditions us to interpret passion as an acceptable substitute for patience, diligence, and partnership. We’re asked to value inordinately only the most obvious of a much larger set of characteristics actual master teachers exhibit, even when these characters are based on real individuals.

Take for instance Stand and Deliver, the true-ish story of Jaime Escalante’s expectation-defying advanced calculus program and a staple of miracle-working teacher tales. This was the movie I was told repeatedly that I “must see” in the run-up to my first days in the classroom. As depicted in the film, Escalante leads his ragtag band of inner-city pupils from a shaky grasp of basic arithmetic to calculus fluency in the span of a single year at East LA’s Garfield High – an impressive feat to be sure. That Escalante felt passionately about opening doors of opportunity for his students is obvious. What isn’t clear is that it took real-Jaime seven years to build his seemingly miraculous program; the movie seems content to give us the equivalent of a “greatest hits” compendium of Escalante’s achievement.

The warping of Escalante’s story, however well intentioned, seems an all-too-common phenomenon in the profit-driven entertainment industry. I suspect it’s a matter of marketing: it’s much easier to sell a sensationalized tale of miraculous accomplishment than it is a record of the slow, incremental progress by which great teachers often impact and are impacted by their students (though there are always counter examples – Mr. Holland’s Opus comes to mind). My time in the classroom has shown me that excellent teachers temper their bold visions with patience and planning. They recognize that quiet consistency and persistence can be powerful forces for change. They master their craft through years of practice and patient study, making plenty of mistakes along the way. In short, they understand that the really important work takes time, constant effort, and an accumulation of small, boring victories. That’s what real passion looks like: less a singular dramatic shout from the proverbial mountaintop and more a solicitous, ever-present whisper of encouragement, a diligent striving to bridge the gap between what is and what should be.

That’s why I’ll risk massive ridicule by proclaiming Kindergarten Cop one of my favorite teacher movies to date, if only for this reason: it’s the relatively simple story of a man (a very large Austrian bodybuilder, as it happens) who learns the hard way how demanding the life of an educator can be… and then embraces it anyway. By the film’s end, Schwarzenegger’s John Kimble hasn’t miraculously rescued his kids from destitution*. He hasn’t even really mastered the basic foundational skills of a novice teacher. But he has, in spite of his repeated failures in the classroom (which seem surprisingly realistic in light of the more ridiculous action/crime elements of the plot), made the monumentally courageous decision to trade his position as a celebrated public hero for a demanding career with a long, hard road to excellence. And it takes an entire movie for him to reach this point!

As the film fades to black, Kimble resembles so many real teachers I know that embody this more understated brand of heroism; having survived the chaos of those first few weeks, he is humbled by and in love with his students. There’s a sense that, though he may be incapable of academic feats as glamorous as his crime-fighting exploits, he’s at least ready to fight for those small, boring, important victories that imbue a teacher’s life with such meaning. You might call that miracle working, though by degrees.

*He has however saved them from the machinations of a nefarious drug dealer.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

Before I tell this story, before I unwind it to reveal the raw truth, I want to admit my cowardness. Because I wouldn’t have written the poem, I wouldn’t have spoken the words, I wouldn’t have done any of it in this way if I was brave enough to ask:

How do you feel about Michael Brown?

It was haunting me that first week of school. As I worked in my classroom, as I met my new students, as I paced the halls. Alerts on my phone kept reminding me of Ferguson, and I wondered … I just … wondered.

The question burned on my tongue as noise rose while the students laughed, ran, and jumped at recess, while Ms. B, Mrs. Henderson, and I jabbered on and graded papers. It haunted me as I waved goodbye at the end of the each day and hello at the beginning. Just ask, I told myself. But an appropriate time never seemed to come.

I went home over Labor Day weekend, filled with hope and despair, joy and sorrow; it seemed that an adrenaline rush crept into every moment, every memory, and my hands shook with the weight of it.

That’s when I wrote the poem. It came to me the way Ruth Stone would get a poem, (according to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk.) I was working on lesson plans when I felt and heard it, barreling down on me like a thunderous train of air.

I’m not sure it’s appropriate or sensitive, all the things I say or feel about life in my classroom. I don’t understand what it’s like to grow up like many of my students. But sometimes I’m not sure that matters.

I host a Bible Study at my house on Monday nights. We eat dinner and toss our ideas about verses around the room. Last night we talked about 2 Corinthians 6, which has this uncomfortable section of scripture about how unbelievers and believers shouldn’t be yoked, and it led to a raw and honest discussion.

“Maybe it’s saying we have to be careful about who we’re yoked to,” I suggested. “Because when you’re yoked you are bound to someone in a common direction and burden.”

“I don’t know, Lydia,” Anya told me. “I’m from a different world than my students, and so we don’t come from the same place and our burden is different. Our burdens are different, but we’re bound together and our direction is the same.”

The poem is my struggle, my burden, my own frailty, and I know that my students would bare their souls in another way. But I’m convinced that because I have been yoked with them, we will move in the direction of a shared dream. It won’t be easy. It won’t be perfect. But that’s okay. This work that I do in the classroom is not solely about educational equity and test scores – it’s about understanding, empathy, and peace.

Below are the words to: Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

This story is colored by the rhythm of a copier, pushing and pulling paper in time with the rhythm of my beating heart.

The first week of school is a kaleidoscope of colors and images, fleeting moments and overstimulation, sleepless nights and names blurring with faces.

I called Michael Edward, Michael Brown six times in class on Friday. Each time he looked at me, eyes wide with confusion. It took me till Saturday for me to realize that I was calling him the name of a boy shot by the police.

Ms. Pitts had left early that Friday, and I had Marion Ramsey in my room. Marion, whose father was killed in a drive by this July. How can I teach him that violence does not solve violence? Is there a way I can jam the gears that pull pain up and around again?

I’m always listening for the copier to choke on the paper. When it does, I take apart the machine, reach my arms into the crevices, spin the rollers under my hands, just like Ms. B taught me. Later, I will find ink coloring my fingers. You can’t heal brokenness without touch, and you can’t touch something and leave unmarked.

I went to Mrs. Henderson’s church this Sunday, the Sunday before school started. The message was about God’s guidance through fire, through brokenness, through pain. Afterwards, she took my hands in hers. “You’ll never know how much this means to me,” she said.

Jamison can’t read. When he takes his medicine, he’s a zombie. When he doesn’t, he’s running his hands over the ground as if he can read the soul of the earth. Once, after recess, he dropped grass in the hallway. I tried to have him pick it up, but it took too long. He was too slow. We didn’t have a broom.

I’m praying as I fall asleep that I will become a warrior for my students while demons try to steal them away. Just Thursday I saw the “1”s littering the page of their test scores, and if it is true that prison cells are built by literacy rates in minority children, I am on the front lines of a war.

Ricky cries easily, talks slowly, and exudes differentness. But when he answered in class, cool Tyron flipped around in his chair, grinned, and gave him a high five.

Don’t mistake my children for felons. Don’t mistake the ink-smudges on my hands for filth. Don’t mistake this pain for hopelessness.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.



Back to the Middle School Cafeteria


 (Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass)

I haven’t yet mastered the art of assembling myself nutritious lunches before I go to bed each night, which means I usually end up with a hastily made sandwich and whichever fruit I was able to locate first. About half the time, the sandwich is peanut butter and jelly, because I can always find those in the fridge.

That’s what I was holding when I walked back into the middle school cafeteria for the first time since my own eighth grade graduation. Eating lunch with my kids at least once a week was a goal I made when I first visited the school—I decided that it was one of the ways I would build relationships and get to know my students. But standing in the doorway of the cafeteria as sixth graders streamed around me to get their pizza and chicken nuggets, I started to have doubts. I had my own cafeteria traumas as a kid (I’m pretty sure I was in sixth grade when my best friends told me to eat at another table because I talked with my mouth full.) Besides, what middle school student wanted to have lunch with their English teacher?

I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve had lunch in the cafeteria four times now, each time with a somewhat different mix of students. Once I accidentally sat at the “tardy table” where students are supposed to sit as punishment for showing up late, and the lunch monitors had to explain to me that as a teacher, I could dismiss kids from the table, but I think I’ve got it figured out now. I’ve chatted about mariachi band, favorite desserts, and squids.

Today the instructor of my certification program visited the classroom while I tried to explain the rationale for studying Greek and Latin word roots in English class. When I asked why we were spending time on this, kids seemed convinced that I wanted them to communicate with native Latin speakers. Afterwards my instructor explained that the kids weren’t grasping my rationale. The reason they worked so hard on the lessons is because they know that I’m on their team, and if I think it’s a good idea, they’ll give it a try.

I know I’ve got to work on my rationale, but for now I’m so grateful for what I’ve got: the grace and patience of my students. I’m far from perfect, a lesson I re-learn every day in the classroom. But as long as they’re willing to try, as long as we’re on this wild adventure together, I believe we’ll all make it through stronger. All it takes is stepping into the middle school cafeteria and taking the time to make those relationships.

By |September 30th, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|

Banned Poems: 10 Students Write About Alcohol, Homosexuality, And Other Banned Topics




our lives begin to end

Note: The content in this post addresses violence, suicide, and rape.

It’s Banned Books Week! Together with the American Library Association, we are supporting the freedom for our students to seek and express truths in the classroom and beyond, even if those ideas are considered controversial.

According to the American Library Association’s stats on banned books, literature is often challenged when it deals with themes like drugs, alcohol, gambling, gangs, violence, suicide, homosexuality, or contains offensive language, political viewpoints, religious viewpoints, or content that is sexually explicit.

challenges by reasons 1990-99 and 2000-09_0


However, in “The Students’ Right to Read,” the National Council of Teacher of English stresses that these topics reflect the reality of our society, and worry that censorship distorts students’ exploration of truths and by its nature counters the essence of education, “Censorship leaves students with an inadequate and distorted picture of the ideals, values, and problems of their culture.”

Today, we’re amplifying our students who have dared to write autobiographically about topics that many have tried to keep out of classrooms. These students have published poems in order to teach others about the truths of their lives through the Poet Warriors Project, and while many of these poems deal with heavy topics, we celebrate the teachers who have not banned our students’ stories from their classrooms.

“I’m just telling you like it is,
And if you mad?
I don’t give a damn.”
Excerpt from “Real” by Jermyron Rice


1)     Profanity
“I had to stop crying,
so he won’t hear me.
His eyes were red as a wild hog.
I could smell the beer off him.
He yelled to his wife,
‘Where the hell is that girl.’”
Excerpt from “The Rumble” by T.M.

2)      Alcohol
I heard glass shattering
And saw mother cleaning
As he chuckled and laughed as if he were king”
Excerpt from “A Late Night with Alcohol” by Anonymous

3)      Gangs
On the streets of MLK
You can hear the screams of horror
Along with gunshots
Blood covering the ground
His mama laying down next to his bleeding body
Pouring her eyes out asking ‘Why?’”
Excerpt from “Memphis” by Morgan Williams

4)      Violence

I See Red

I see a mother carrying her 10 year old son.
I see a hole through his head.
I see rain, red rain, coming down his face.
I see darkness. I see red.
Excerpt from “I See Red” by Deion Edison

5)      Gambling
“When my auntie awakes
She runs to the casino
With Jacksons in her pockets
With no worries of tomorrow.”
Excerpt from “The Gambler” by Rishawnda Begay

6)      Homosexuality
“I know that some of you may find is strange or disgusting for
Me to choose to be this way
This was not my choice
Just as you did not choose to be straight
I did not choose to be gay
And even if I could, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Excerpt from “Breaking the Silence” by Emery Vela

7)      Suicide
“Her blood is dark red like red wine.
The blade and razor she just used are on her side.
She can still hear her parents screaming and fighting.
She can still remember the hatred in the words her classmates said to her.”
Excerpt from “BLOOD” by America Ambriz

8)      Rape
“They think it’s easy
But those Ten Seconds
Showed the true fights we black women go through”
Excerpt from “Ten Seconds,” by Taylor Hayes

9)      Religion
“If I can see my family so does god.
If I can touch the rose in my house so
does god.”
Excerpt from “Michoacan,” by Evaristo Granados

10)   “Unsuitable” for kids
“Come take a look
behind the curtain
peer under the surface
to see things that are dark for certain
Beneath the coat of smiles and jokes
Is a dark abyss with the humanity being choked
Yes, I tend to do things sometimes
That seem like I’m not correct in the mind
It’s because I’m so lost and confused
Sanity is so hard to find.”
Excerpt from “Sanity is so Hard to Find,” by Levontaye Ellington

Six Tips To Stay True To You

6897009859_893b4a9204_o(Photo Credit: Dee Bamford)

As I start my third year of teaching, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned. The best advice I’ve received is to: “stay true to you despite the challenges.” I know how easy it is to fall prey to fitting a mold set by those who came before. You are met with strict deadlines, the pressure of grad courses, school wide expectations, and, most importantly, a class of students who depend on you. It can be easy to lose the unique flare and creativity that brought you into the profession. Here are some tips to avoid falling into the trap:

  1. Bring the warmth of home to the classroom. Find small places in your room to incorporate pieces of home – pictures, plants, furniture, pillows, etc. The more comfortable you feel, the more you will want to be there.
  2. Be genuine with your students. Don’t hide it! We spend a lot of time trying to connect with students. Share who you are with them. Students love to hear your personal stories, so fit them into the day. These snippets of personality will bring a sense of reciprocal trust and love to your classroom community.
  3. Add flare to the “non-negotiables.”  Many schools have school-wide norms. Find the wiggle room to add your personal touch. This could be something as simple as adding some art to your behavior chart, a fun attention getter with your kids, or a specific incentive unique to your classroom.
  4. Find something you love outside work. Don’t forget to be a human being! This may be challenging at first, but try your best to step outside teaching at least once a week. For me, this was writing and photography. For others it may be a community sports league, cooking, movies, or reading a non-academic book before bed. Make it a non-negotiable.
  5. Find a BFAW (Best Friend at Work)! Don’t spend every lunch break on your computer or prepping for next period – find time to bond! These little moments have kept me sane during the days when no one else understands.
  6. Don’t forget where you came from. We all have families and friends who are the foundation of our support network. Try your best to stay in touch and share your experience with these people. It takes time and effort, but phone calls, Skype dates, and weekend visits will mean the world when the going gets tough!

The more you teach, the more opportunities you’ll find to stay true to your personality. Seek out those moments, rather than dwelling on what you “can and cannot do.” Bringing back the flare will help make you a happier and healthier teacher for your kids!

By |September 23rd, 2014|Corps Stories|1 Comment|