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Rebecca Ryan: 5th Ward Teacher, Global Citizen

A 6th-grade teacher at Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men, Rebecca teaches to engage her students so they never have to ask, “Why are we learning this?” They know the importance of each project,  feel connected to the subject matter, value the education and take personal pride in a global responsibility.

HFM: Tell us a little about your family.

RR: I am a high functioning animal lover! I have three cats and two dogs that keep me company. If that’s not enough, I also volunteer at the Wildlife Center of Texas.

HFM: When did you know you wanted to teach? 

RR: As a student at the University of St. Thomas, I grew increasingly passionate about education. Following graduation, the little thought that one day I could become a teacher quickly transformed into a calling that could not be ignored.

HFM: When did you act on that calling?

RR: In 2008 I obtained an alternative teaching certification and excitedly picked up the first (and only) job offer I received. As the students walked into the classroom on the first day I had a moment of panic- Who left me with these kids? Are they really going to listen to me? Should I run for it? But I made it through my first day and absolutely loved it! I have never looked back.

HFM: How does teaching for an all-male student body differ from teaching in a co-ed environment?

RR: Statistics show that young men struggle with Reading and Writing in the co-ed classroom, while they thrive in Math and Science. Being in a single-gender classroom means that teachers can target young men with topics that specifically interest them and emphasize the typical “weaknesses” of the male population. I recently had a project called Ru-Gi-Oh Cards where students made Yu-Gi-Oh cards for their favorite Russian leaders. Then the kids had to support why they assigned each ruler specific “defense” and “attack” scores. Without knowing it, the young men used informative and persuasive writing techniques to complete the project. In the end, the boys got to “battle” using their personally created game cards!

HFM: As a teacher what are some of the challenges you’ve observed for young men today?

RR: The 5th Ward in Houston has a reputation that matches the stray dogs and corner boys that hang outside the liquor store visible from my classroom. There is no library. There is no grocery store. There is no exposure to life outside the “Bloody Nickel.” It is my greatest challenge and accomplishment to introduce my young men to the economics, culture, politics and environment of the globe.

In each unit of my class we virtually travel to a new region of the world. As we introduce each world region, students arrive to a classroom decorated to represent the new region. By using books, magazines, news clips and exciting programming, students become immersed in the culture of each world region. The classroom experiences virtual travel where the kids meet new languages, religions, and ways of life.

After the cultural absorption, students evaluate old problems and find new solutions dating back to history and through present day. For example, in a room decorated to represent the markets of the Middle East, students mentally travel to Pakistan, where they experience a unique program called “Skatistan.” Using the inspiration of this idea, students create other solutions that act as an outlet for teens plagued by a war torn country.

In the same unit, students look at the tension of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. They create biased opinions that they might actually have growing up in the region. They then break down these biases and create a plan for unity. The images outside of the classroom windows become distant as I connect my students to the world. Instead of being afraid of the unknown, their exploration leads to excitement about the future.

HFM: You teach contemporary world cultures to sixth-graders. Please explain why it’s so important that kids study this subject.

RR: By focusing on current event projects, students are able to make real world connections to the present, track the history as the cause of today’s events, and imagine a future that focuses on a world in which they have pride. For example, by looking at the current three-prong crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa, my young men postulate possible outcomes of today’s problems with refugees, AIDS and Ebola epidemics, and famine.

HFM: You use project-based learning to encourage your students to connect classroom knowledge to events in the real world. Can you give me an example?

RR: Specifically, students participated in the #BringBackOurGirls movement supporting First Lady Michelle Obama and other world leaders.

HFM: And what was the educational outcome?

RR: Instead of focusing on the doom of the past and hopelessness of African tragedies, our young men developed solutions to positively impact the economics and standard of living in the region.

HFM: You also are involved in the Academy’s World Food Club. Tell us about that.

RR: I sponsor The World Food Club and bring multicultural food to children on the free and reduced lunch program. Based on student input, once a month we study the food of a selected region. We practice proper manners and sample international cuisine.

Another important part of this club is visiting an ethnic restaurant in the city. As part of this outing, I am able to bring the world to the children, as well as allowing my students to act as ambassadors of their generation in the community. At one outing, an older man approached our excited cluster and told me when he saw a group of “middle-school black boys” that he was nervous, but their behavior proved him wrong. It is not just the biases of my children that need to be eliminated but those of the rest of the world as well.

HFM: You’ve also led your students in various extracurricular activities, including the “Be an Upstander: Genocide Prevention Project,” the Holocaust Museum Houston’s “Butterfly Project,” which are closely intertwined. What is the “Butterfly Project?

RR: The museum describes the project as “an educational study program designed to teach young people about the experiences of 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust.” Since it was launched in 1995, the museum reports that “1.5 million handcrafted butterflies from students of all ages have been collected and will now be part of one of the most important art exhibits ever–1.5 million expressions of hope and remembrance.”

HFM: Why do you feel the Holocaust-focused project is a good fit for your class?

RR: The overarching theme in my contemporary world cultures classroom is that we learn from the past to create our best future.

HFM: How are the students involved?

RR: We begin with a poetry study of works authored by child prisoners of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. Students then create an original piece of butterfly shaped art that acts as a memorial to his assigned poet. Following the creation and display of these works of art in our classroom, each student learns if his child poet survived or perished under Nazi control.

HFM: Sounds like an incredibly moving project. What do your students get from it?

RR: The assignment shows students the reason we must be UpStanders. We must stand up for children and all human rights as global citizens. Following the Holocaust study, students compare this genocide to those of Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Sixth graders then create a real-world solution that could have prevented these atrocities. [The] project concludes in a field trip where students donate the original works of art to the Holocaust Museum Houston’s “Butterfly Project” and pledge to end genocide.

HFM: How are the students changed by month’s end?

RR: At the end of the 30 days, the young men are proud to call themselves UpStanders in the face of bullying as well global atrocities.

HFM: You also led a class community service trip to Costa Rica, a fantastic example of project-based learning and impact interaction…

RR: I had an amazing opportunity to act as a sponsor to our students in an exchange to Costa Rica, where an emphasis in community service and green sustainability guided our nine days in a global classroom. My favorite memory from the trip was a hike that culminated in planting saplings in a region that had been hit by deforestation. For most of the students, the high point was regional species research in the cloud forest.

I [also] acted as sponsor in an educational exploration of elections and the limited government of the United States in comparison to abuse of power demonstrated in North Korea.  This in-depth study of human rights culminated in a trip to President Barack Obama’s Inauguration. My favorite memory from that trip is my 5th Ward boys’ teaching New England girls “To Dougie” at the Inaugural Ball. If that is not exchange, I don’t know what is.

HFM: Congratulations on winning the 2015 Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award. What has this award meant to you personally and professionally?

RR: I am absolutely honored to accept this award. There are no words to describe how excited I was when I learned of the honor. Well I screamed a little…so does that count as words? Professionally, this award is affirmation that I am on the right track with these kids. There is a lot of pressure going into the classroom and knowing that you are shaping the minds of hundreds of children–quite literally preparing the future for high school, college and the world.

This award helps to quiet that little voice in the back of my head that doubts that one teacher can really help. It helps me to quiet the crowds of people who say that they would never allow their child in public education. This award not only validates my goals and dreams–it fuels them!

Personally, the award is beautiful and powerful. I have it on a shelf in my office next to my other precious awards- notes and drawings from students thanking me for being their teacher.

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