Marching Together Beyond the Classroom
Emma Volpe, English Learner Specialist, Rocketship United Academy
Over the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to engage with my good friend Sara Amick, a fellow teacher at Rocketship United, in numerous thought provoking conversations about our role as teachers beyond the traditional classroom setting. What I admire about Sara though is how she doesn’t just talk, but aspires to live these words and thoughts through actions. In 2017, Sara and I had many opportunities to join the Nashville community after school to learn more about our students and families. We decided to sit and collaborate to morph these thoughts into a coherent message. With Sara’s help, I’ve recounted the year and our experiences in advocacy outside of school.
It’s Saturday January 21, 2017 at approximately eight o’clock in the morning. A crowd is sitting on the metro anxiously awaiting the train to arrive at its stop to participate in the Women’s March on Washington. Due to the high capacity of travelers, we were stuck on a platform until the train in front of us was released. Through mumbles and whispers a gentleman proudly started belting out “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine;” without missing a beat, the crowd joined: “Let it shine, let it shine it, let it shine!” There was something surreal about that moment. I felt it then, and watched it grow along the journey through the station, and up the elevator from the underground to the front lines.
I’ve once heard the idea of an ally being defined as being an active role model; meaning, it’s more than just saying “I agree” or “I’m with you” but rather it’s taking a part in community-lead action and charging forward together to amplify voices. It’s more than talking a talk, but it’s first and foremost showing up, and supporting leaders in a community, when it matters most. As a teacher, I often ask myself ‘how can I preach to my students that they can achieve anything they set their mind to when there are truly tangible obstacles in the way – and politicians that are trying to raise those obstacles even higher?’ Teaching has the power to go beyond the four walls of our classrooms and our role as educators (and as lifelong learners) doesn’t end when the dismissal bell rings. Our students are more than Rocketeers, they are members of a greater community along with their families. So, how can we better listen to that community? We can’t change what is going on in our students’ lives, but we can have a positive impact.
That impact flows from the classroom straight to the protest marches. Just fifteen hours before the Women’s March on Washington, we were finishing dismissal duties at our Rocketship Nashville schools and now we were in Washington DC about to walk in a moment that our students will hopefully one day read about in their history classes. A month before that, a group of Rocketship United teachers sat around a table at our favorite after school restaurant pitching the idea of driving up for the March. The energy that night was different than normal. We were all struggling with the result of the 2016 election and what it meant for us, but most importantly, what it meant for our students and their families. We realized that this was a chance for us to step up and throw ourselves into the masses to stand up for our beliefs and our students’ rights.
Throughout the day of the March, seeing the number of children sitting on their parents’ shoulders and hearing the cheers echoing across the National Mall took us aback. Though we were all strangers, there was a clear sense of unity. We read about iconic marches in textbooks but in a twenty-first century world we have taken a bulk of activism to the cyber sphere; so to put one foot in front of the other as a stance of solidarity allowed us to feel the power of allies.
With Rocketship’s strong emphasis on family partnership, we have taken initial and important steps in building this foundation of alliship with our communities. Part of being an educator at Rocketship means partaking in home visits where a teacher and family coordinate together for the teacher to visit the family’s house to learn more about the student. Now, this requires an immense amount of vulnerability from both parties – and with that vulnerability comes a necessity of trust. I acknowledge that letting an essential stranger into your home given the political climate can be wildly nerve wracking and unsurprisingly I’ve had several families over my three years at Rocketship who have been hesitant and skeptical of me wanting to come into their house; but on the other side, I have no idea what I am about to walk into when I step through those doors. I don’t know the family’s story, their struggles, their triumphs, and everything in between. We’re both taking a leap of faith because we share the same goal: to support our students to achieve their wildest dreams and to engage them in a safe community. We are strongest when we all come together to foster a network of trust.
Over the past year Sara and I have been fortunate enough to attend several other community events advocating for immigrant and family rights. Some more reflective, such as a candlelight vigil to honor those affected by the Muslim travel ban, while others are more urgent – like marches down some of the busiest roads in Nashville for those affected by the DACA repeal. However, at every single event, no matter the topic, our Rocketship families are always there. They are standing up for our rights, and we are proud to support them. Additionally, I hope that when families see teachers in attendance that it further shows Rocketship’s belief in the power of community action.
Our work is important but how can we go above and beyond to bring that outside of school and into the community? This past year of activism has taught me that we have to advocate our families, deferring to, and supporting their leadership. Part of being an educator is inadvertently being a student of the world. Our Rocketeers are only with us for 8-10 hours a day, most weeks a year, and soon they will graduate and go out into that world. We owe our students and families compassion and an increased awareness of the world outside Rocketship, outside their neighborhood, and outside our city. This means educating past academics, seeing a child as a whole person, and sharing a responsibility with families to teach respect, open-mindedness, and collaboration. Adding these characteristic to students’ toolboxes will allow them to grow-up with the confidence to continuing advocating for themselves and others. When we all stand and march forward together, that is a key to unleash our ultimate potential – as teachers, as a network, and as a community.
Emma Volpe is the network’s Lead EL Specialist based at Rocketship United Academy. Prior to this role, Emma was the founding third grade Humanities teacher at Rocketship United as well as a 2014 Teach For America Nashville Corps Member. Emma graduated from the University of Virginia and received her Master’s in Education at Lipscomb University. Outside of teaching, Emma enjoys a good cup of coffee with even better conversation.
Published on March 15, 2018