Teaching Statement

be something new

Statement of Purpose

explaining a personal desire to teach

I was born and raised in Central California, a region the Brookings Institute describes as “disconnected islands of concentrated poverty.” As an elementary school student, I encountered economic and social biases. Ivanhoe Elementary and Elbow School, where I attended first through sixth grades, featured an all-Caucasian faculty teaching a predominantly Hispanic student body. The honors classrooms included a few Asian-American students and the children of local farmers, teachers, and other elites. Students were grouped by class and race.

My desire to teach and to reform educational practices represents a response to these experiences. In a 2005 Brookings study, Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America, Fresno and the Central Valley compared unfavorably to New Orleans. The Fresno region exhibited greater disparity and more extreme poverty than any U. S. metropolitan region. The student populations for which I advocate include large numbers of immigrants and children of immigrants, most from impoverished backgrounds.

Ivanhoe California (93295)

2010 Census Data and Current Estimates

Population 4,495
Ethnicity Hispanic 83.5%
Foreign Born Latin America 42.2%
School Population Hispanic 98.0%
No High School Diploma 63.1%
Bachelor’s Degree 3.2%
Poverty 34.0%
Unemployment (over 25)  (2015) 21.5%
Per Capita Income  (2013) $9,597
Household Income (2013) $27,404

As of 2004, only 12% of Tulare County residents possessed a four-year college degree or better, compared to 27% of all Californians. In Ivanhoe, the number of college graduates remains “insignificant” according to state data. The only college graduates most school-aged residents in Ivanhoe interact with on a daily basis are their teachers.

I was the first member of my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. According to state data “0.0%” of Ivanhoe residents possess a graduate degree. Our teachers chose not to live in the community. If I were to return to the region, I would represent an anomaly. By comparison, many of my university classmates have been third- and fourth-generation college students.  

Empowerment

How did I escape the emotional traps of Ivanhoe and the Central Valley? Which individuals and situations offered me a path out of an impoverished community? Without question, my parents and extended family helped me overcome the educational system and a culture of despair. One teacher and one school resource specialist also empowered me to challenge expectations. 

When teachers called my parents “trailer park trash” and told them I had no future, in my presence, my parents reassured me that I could accomplish anything. My parents taught me that success comes from hard work and a desire to learn. Despite qualifying for free lunches and special programs, I either took a brown-bag lunch or worked in the school cafeteria for my meals. Cafeteria work included loading dishes into the commercial steam washer, in fifth grade. I learned the pride of hard work followed by an earned meal.

Teaching expresses my faith in the essential roles of knowledge, creativity, and earned confidence in overcoming poverty. Unlike too many of my childhood instructors, I believe that students from marginalized communities have the same potentials as their more fortunate peers. With opportunities to learn, with invitations to explore, and with permission to sometimes fail spectacularly, children from all backgrounds develop the confidence and skills necessary for personal success.

Students are sensitive to teacher attitudes, biases, and prejudices. Statistically, the majority of students from my community gave up, surrendering to the low expectations. Many of my friends and family members lost hope and remain trapped in the cycle of generational poverty. Teachers became obstacles, instead of mentors and agents of change. They viewed our community with pity, not understanding or hope. Social and political elites continue to offer tokens of their tolerance for Central Valley residents, instead of genuine tools for change.

Mentors Matter

During first grade, the school district tested students for placement. The resource teacher, Mr. McCarthy, determined that my placement for the previous two years in special education had been a mistake. Instead, I qualified for the Mentally Gifted Minor / Gifted and Talented Education (MGM/GATE) program. From second grade through sixth, Mr. McCarthy served as a steadfast advocate and mentor, often challenging the school administration and district officials.

Mr. McCarthy enjoyed computers and embraced their potential for personalized academic remediation. He used an early Atari computer to assist my reading and writing development, enabling me to reach and surpass state grade level expectations. By fourth grade, despite the objections of teachers, I was in the honors classrooms. Mr. McCarthy taught me chess, basic geometry, and discussed books with me for two to three hours each week. He changed my life by ignoring statistics and previous test results.

As I entered the fifth grade, a new teacher took over the classroom. Mr. B was a gifted artist, musician, storyteller, and more. Each week a student would sit for a caricature drawing, with Mr. B interviewing the student to illustrate a future career. When asked what I wanted to be, I told him, “I am a writer.” He assured me I could be a writer, someday. The next day, I brought him the books I had made at home, bound with staples and colored electrical tape. Mr. B agreed, I was a writer. He invited me to write a play that was produced by classmates.

These men believed every student could learn. They looked beyond the economic realities of Ivanhoe and ignored or even challenged previous test results and teacher evaluations. These men taught me that great teachers help students discover personal passions. Both men went on to become school district officials, implementing badly needed reforms throughout the school district.

Later, three outstanding high school teachers who rejected conventional teaching methods and promoted experimentation gave me the skills for university success. Sometimes, my writing or computer projects ended in “failure,” but these teachers taught me how to learn from what didn’t work. Thanks to Mr. McCarthy and Mr. B, I understood that opportunities to succeed come with the risk of temporary failure.

Digital Literacy

My childhood experiences in Ivanhoe led to my conviction that digital literacy enhances learning and ultimately enables upward mobility. However, as an instructor and researcher I remain wary of adopting technologies without firm pedagogical foundations. First-generation university students often find technology and digital communities barriers to participation, not empowering tools for communication. Despite the increasing affordability of technology, students from different backgrounds enter our classes with distinct relationships to technology. Studies have shown that how we use computers and the Internet varies across ethnic and economic boundaries.

Digital media literacy grants access to “middle class” culture and civic participation in the United States. Teaching students to compose texts with a computer is insufficient. Digital literacy explores the rhetorical affordances of audio and video, in addition to texts. I explore kinetic texts, spoken poetry, and digital filmmaking in my writing and communications courses because familiarity with those products leads to opportunities. I want students to recognize that technology empowers them to topple cultural obstacles.

Success is Personal

Mentors taught me that although success might be defined by society as rising out of poverty, real success is measured personally. We set our own goals, and determine our own milestones. For me, becoming a university professor and researcher marks success. In many ways, my success is an act of social protest. Achieving that goal represents a refutation of the assumptions that trapped so many in my community.

 

One Class at a Time

Changing lives occurs one class at a time. I try to focus on the students in my classes at this moment because their needs and expectations are unique. Every class has its own dynamic, which I try to appreciate actively. Comparing classes can be useful in research, but that is not the best way to approach people.