Duke TeachHouse in DC: February 2020
By Langley K. Ellmann
In February 2020, residential and non-residential TeachHouse fellows traveled to Washington, DC for a weekend packed with school visits, networking, and professional development. The trip, organized largely in partnership with Susanne Nobles (T ‘93) and the “DukeEd” alumni group based in DC, took place over three days, with fellows flying in from Durham to join a panel event on a Thursday evening and returning to North Carolina, physically tired yet emotionally energized, that Sunday.
After settling into their hotel Thursday evening, the fellows began immediately with a panel event hosted by the Duke DC “DukeEd” group, titled, “We are all on the Students’ Side”. The panelists included TeachHouse Founder and Director, Dr. Jan Riggsbee, and Duke alumni Bill Tucker (T ‘92) of the Gates Foundation, Rebecca Richards (T ‘15) of EAB Consulting, and Sharron Steele (Fuqua) of Prince George’s County Public Schools. However, as a constant advocate for empowering teacher voice, Dr. Riggsbee chose to start the panel by giving her seat to a current teacher and fellow, Emily Stout (T ‘16). Dr. Riggsbee’s actions showed the significance of involving practicing educators in critical conversations around student support and success. Emily Stout went on to write an opinion editorial in Duke’s The Chronicle which further highlighted this moment and its importance both to her and to the broader teaching community.
On Friday, fellows visited three different DC public schools, Cardozo Education Campus, Ron Brown College Prep, and Barnard Elementary. Given that most fellows are practicing teachers and the opportunity to visit other schools is often rare while teaching, these school visits proved to be the most impactful part of the weekend for many fellows. Starting at Cardozo, the group received an enthusiastic welcome from the school’s dynamic, new Principal Art Mola. Cardozo is housed in one of the oldest school structures in DC, with buildings now connected via beautiful atriums and passageways. However, these beautiful buildings serve some of D.C.’s most under-resourced students, with 65% of the student body identified as “at-risk” on the school district’s report card. Still, the fellows were immediately impressed by the high number of support staff (school counselors, interventionists, special educators, etc) and services for students, such as a daycare that runs in the same building for the children of current students.
At Cardozo, fellows visited a range of classrooms and were awed and inspired by teachers’ dedication to their students and ability to provide exceptional academic and extracurricular opportunities. Carter Zenke (T’ 20), who has served as the TeachHouse Innovation Fellow, was particularly impressed with Aris Pangilinan’s (Mr. P’s) computer science classroom.
I was amazed at the incredible computer science learning happening at Cardozo through Mr. P’s project-based learning course. There’s a narrative that not every student is prepared for computer science with that level of agency and creativity – but I saw Mr. P flipping that idea on its head, bringing to life a space where every student is capable and deserving of using computers as a tool for self-expression. As I think about what I want my own future computer science class to look like, I’ll have that experience as a model. -- Carter Zenke, Trinity '20
From Cardozo, the group traveled across the city to visit Barnard Elementary, where Duke Alum Camille Anderson (T ‘04) led the fellows through multiple classroom visits. Ms. Anderson is an instructional coach at Barnard, where students have surpassed DC’s overall performance trend over the past few years. Although only one member of the group is an elementary educator, all the fellows greatly enjoyed visiting students in the younger grades. For those fellows teaching high school, many commented on how meaningful it was to be in an elementary school and reflect on the foundational skills that students learn in these years.
Lastly, the group headed across town, again, to visit Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, DC’s first all-male high school opened in 2016 by Dr. Benjamin Williams. Williams’ greeted fellows in the schools’ library and then invited a panel of five seniors in the schools’ first graduating class to speak to the fellows about their experiences. Ron Brown’s mission to educate “Young Kings'' was immensely evident through the stories students shared and Dr. William’s own statements regarding his inspiration in founding the school. Getting the chance to listen to students and ask questions about their personal experiences helped fellows reflect about experiences of students in their own classrooms and how they could better impact students’ futures.
Exhausted and exhilarated, fellows left the final school and headed to DCPS Central Office, where they were led through a panel discussion of the district’s’ innovation programs, recruitment efforts, and teaching training programs. One fellow commented, “The visit to the DCPS Central Office contextualized the visit in the broader DC education landscape.” Especially after seeing three very different schools across the city, the DCPS visit helped answer lingering questions while also examining the district’s role in supporting schools and teachers.
Friday evening, leaders and teachers from the day’s school visits came together with the fellows at the Duke DC offices to reflect on the visits and share ideas around school innovation and improvement. This semi-unstructured discussion allowed fellows time with school members to dive deeply into the day’s learning. It was a rare moment of collaboration for teachers from two very different districts and fellows commented, unhappily, that they had noticed the resources provided in DCPS to be significantly greater than those provided to schools in Durham Public Schools. This surprised some school leaders who felt they lacked the necessary personnel or resources to best serve their students, yet the comparison was interesting and thought-provoking to all.
On the last day, fellows shifted from the DCPS landscape to focus more on the national education system and the history that underlies it all. In the morning, fellows were welcomed to a private, before-hours tour of the renowned National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The tour was led by guide Janice Ferebee, an author, consultant, and speaker nationally recognized by Oprah and Essence Magazine. For many of the fellows, it was the first time visiting the NMAAHC and the experience was a huge highlight, although the 3-hours designated for the tour was not nearly enough time to process and experience the entire museum. Janice helped guide the group in a way that also highlighted aspects of African-American history rooted in the South and North Carolina, and underscored aspects of the museum that were specifically designed to engage students and young people. Fellows were encouraged to think of ways to take the museum back to their classrooms and, if possible, bring students to the museum.
To finish the weekend, TeachHouse fellows shared a networking lunch with a variety of people working in education in the DC area, and then partnered with Relay Graduate School of Education for a session on amplifying teacher voice and advocacy. The networking lunch allowed fellows to hear from Mike DiMarco (T ‘07), Director of Horizons DC, Paige Hoffmann, Deputy Chief for Design & Systems Improvement at DCPS, Stephanie Nelson (Fuqua ‘07), Chief Information Officer, and Katie Cox (T ‘06), Education Program Specialist with the US Department of Education. These individuals, all working outside of school-based roles but very much in the education sector, were able to answer fellows’ questions and share their own career journeys. It was a powerful time for the group to reflect on the larger education ecosystem and all of the many key players that impact educational outcomes and students who are not themselves in schools every day. Fellows suggested that this event could be made more powerful in the future by flipping its core structure: instead of having the professionals outside of education share as experts with the teachers, a future event could have teachers sitting as the experts they are, with those outside of the classroom asking questions as they pertain to their work and role.
The last event of the weekend sought to empower teacher voice by bringing fellows together with DCPS teachers to discuss and propose ideas and strategies for school and education change. With members of the Relay GSE community, fellows broke into small groups to select a specific topic in education, such as standardized testing, school discipline practices, or teacher burnout, and then used the session to share their experiences and brainstorm new ways forward. In closing, one Relay representative suggested planning a “Day of Action” with TeachHouse on Capitol Hill to advocate for specific educational changes and mobilize teachers towards action.
After just two and half whirlwind days, the TeachHouse group left DC with many reflections from the time spent together and their experiences with DCPS, the NMAAHC, Relay GSE, DukeEd, and the many other individuals who helped make the trip possible. In today’s world, while communities debate reopening schools in the fall, travel is considered risky, and social distancing is still ubiquitous, this completely unrestricted trip to DC seems to be far more than half a year ago. Reflecting on the trip and the time spent together, the TeachHouse community can hope for a future in which these trips are once again possible and educators can share, learn, and grow together for the betterment of all students.