Miss our “School Days” storytelling event? Catch up on the stories here — and share your own

PHOTO: Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat Detroit

“I got into a public school. I didn’t matter any more,” high schooler Imani Harris concluded after learning about how Detroit’s schools operate.

That depressing realization was a turning point in Harris’s efforts to push the school system to serve students better, she recounted in the story she told during “School Days,” the event Chalkbeat hosted with The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers March 17.

The event — held at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum — celebrated Chalkbeat’s launch in Detroit. Storytellers worked with Satori Shakoor, The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers’ host, to craft tales of despair, hope, inspiration, and indignation over the state of Detroit’s schools.

Check out the full live stream here, or scroll down for edited highlights from each storyteller. And while this event might be over, Chalkbeat’s work helping people in Detroit tell the story of the city’s schools is not. Please get in touch if you have a story to tell.

Asenath Andrews is a Detroit Public Schools graduate and former principal of the now-defunct Catherine Ferguson Academy, which served teen mothers.

(All photos Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat Detroit)

“Every single girl who graduated from Catherine Ferguson Academy was accepted to a two- or four-year college before she graduated. We traveled all over the country. We did summer school on a college campus. I’m a first-generation college graduate. My 98-year-old mom who is here tonight never missed a graduation. I knew that girls needed to be on campuses because you only have to be on campus a few minutes before you meet somebody who’s dumb as a brick. So you don’t have to be oh-so-smart to go college, you just have to be determined. We went all over the country so that the girls could see.”

At one point, Catherine Ferguson students built a garden and maintained a farm with cows, chickens, a goat, and other animals.

“We planted seeds all over that playground. We grew every kind of vegetable that would grow in Michigan. We even grew sweet potatoes. But what we planted that was more important, we planted the seeds of being in our girls. We planted confidence; we planted strength. We built a barn and if you can build a barn, you’re not gonna take a lick. It’s like ‘I’m my own woman, I can do what I want to do.’ … Do I miss my school? I miss my school every day. But I have girls everywhere. I have artists and musicians and business owners and doctors and nurses and lawyers; one politician, not crooked. All kinds of girls everywhere. Remember that every girl who went to Catherine Ferguson was obligated to leave a trail because Catherine Ferguson was a place.”

Brittany Rogers is an educator who left charter schools for the hope of job security as a Detroit Public Schools teacher — at a time of crisis for the public school system.

“I woke up one morning and realized that charters had all the issues of public schools but somehow they managed to come out as the golden child. We had the same pay. We had the same community of students. Our test scores were not better. Our buildings were not better. In fact, I started to feel like I was missing a few things. I didn’t have a union to fight for a wage increase. I didn’t have pension protection. So, I slept on it and I said, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to apply to Detroit Public Schools instead where at least, if I’m going to have the same issues, I can have a bit more job security. So I applied. Right before I got accepted there was a series of protests. DPS was talking about not only cutting wages, again, but also increasing class sizes to 43, which, you know, was a bit scary, shall we say. But by that point I had already been in charters and I had those issues before. And again, I figured, at least I can have the same issues with a bit more job security. So, I put on some really warm clothes and I joined the protests, figuring that I should start standing up for the rights of the district I knew I wanted to belong to.”

Erin Einhorn, senior correspondent at Chalkbeat Detroit, shared the tale of her choice to move her family from New York City to Detroit. (Read more of her story here.)

“I was out in West Bloomfield last year, which is where I grew up and I ran into a high school classmate. It was actually someone I went to kindergarten with, so we had spent our childhoods together. I hadn’t seen her in years. So, it was, ‘Oh, hey, how are you?’ We hugged and you know, it was this great kind of reunion. And then she kind of got this sort of puzzled look on her face; and I was there with my daughter, holding her hand. She kind of looks at me; kind of looks at my daughter. She looked really confused and she says, ‘You live in Detroit?’

“I was like, yeah. Then she asks, “So do they have any schools there with like white kids? And I’m like, ‘Well you know, not a lot.’ There’s not many schools in the city of Detroit that enroll a lot of white children. Her question made me really uncomfortable but if I’m being honest, I don’t love the idea of my kid being the only white child in her class. My daughter’s five years old. She starts kindergarten in September. If I send her to school in Detroit, the odds are she’s going to look very different from a lot of her classmates. But I also hate the idea of her being in a classroom with kids who look exactly like her. And I hate that I have to choose. I hate that we all have to choose to either bear this burden of being different or bear this burden of being the same and not getting to live in the real world.”

Chastity Pratt Dawsey, a DPS graduate who is a journalist at Bridge Magazine, shared her story of how one teacher’s encouragement launched her from a life of poverty to becoming the first college graduate in her family.

PHOTO: Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat Detroit
Detroit Public Schools teacher Robert Zoltowski (formerly Stevens) shows former student and current Bridge Magazine reporter Chastity Pratt Dawsey, right, a picture he found of her from when she was his student.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Chastity, why have you been writing about these schools for so long. Fifteen long years. Well, actually it started for me in seventh grade at Farwell Middle School on the city’s East Side. Okay, so, one day, somebody had this bright idea. We’re gonna pass around two sheets of paper. One sheet of paper had all the girls’ names on it. The other sheet of paper had all the boys’ names on it. It was like a beauty contest, right. We had to rate each other from zero to five. So, it’s 1986, seventh-grade girls are wearing those Guess jeans and all them bright colors. Getting their hair done at Vantinus hair salon and wearing those belt buckles with your name on it. (I still want one of those.) Those were the girls who got the fours and the five. I had a played-out jheri curl. I wore my cousin Marla’s hand-me-downs. So all the boys; all the boys in seventh grade, gave me zeroes. I was the only girl who got all zeroes.

So while we’re standing around talking about all my zeroes, little did we know that the math and academic games teacher, Mr. Stevens was listening. Now, Mr. Stevens had taught me that you pronounce your name how it’s supposed to be pronounced: Chas-tity! So, this day, I hear Chastity! I’m already having a bad day and now everybody is looking at me and it feels like there’s a spotlight on me, and the whole wold is looking at me, and it feels like the whole room is throbbing. I’m having a bad day. What? What he said I will never forget. Chastity will be a success at whatever she chooses to do. … At this point in my life I’m only good at two things: looking after kids because I was the big sister and role model to eight, and I was good at school — mostly reading, writing, I had won the Area E Regional Essay Contest. Nobody had ever told me where these two things would get me and they damned sure never told me I was going to be a success. I looked around the room and some of those kids, the ones giving me zeroes even, they were nodding their heads. They were agreeing with Mr. Stevens. They might have thought I was ragtag. But even they thought I was going to be a success. So, right there in the seventh grade at Farwell Middle School I went from being a zero to somebody. I was gonna be a success.’’

Imani Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Renaissance High School, recounted her decision to write open letters to Michigan lawmakers and citizens about problems at her school. 

“I was upset, I was angry, but I didn’t know what to do. I joined a collective called 482 Forward. In this collective, it’s parents, it’s teachers and students and community members who all want to work together and change things and fight for equity in education. When I joined I found my fit. I found that we could fight for something. We began to get into the logistics of things happening, understanding so, this is why this happens, this is who funds this, and all the money for this is going here. You don’t have a teacher because of this. Now, when I figured that out, why things happen, I was perturbed. I was boiling mad to realize that as a student in Detroit if I’m not paying for my education it doesn’t matter to nobody else because at private school when I was paying for my education everything was fine. I got into a public school. I didn’t matter any more. If I had went to a school in West Bloomfield it wouldn’t have happened that way. If I had went to a school anywhere else where students didn’t look like me, it wouldn’t have happened that way. …My story is a story of finding myself in advocacy and realizing, wait a minute, I can make a difference and I don’t have to be 25 to do it. My story to any teenager out here, to any teenager who’s ever going to see any of this, is, we don’t have to be grown to make a difference. This is our education.”

We're listening

What are the Newark education stories you want to read?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This is a historic moment for Newark’s public schools.

After 22 years of state takeover ended last month, the city school board is re-empowered and gearing up to pick a new superintendent. Candidates are lining up to vie for three board seats that will open next month, even as Mayor Ras Baraka — who as a former principal promised to usher in a new era for the city’s schools — runs for reelection in May.

And, just in time to help make sense of it all, Chalkbeat Newark officially launched this week.

I’m Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark’s founding reporter. I hope to spotlight some of the city’s education movers and shakers, track the growth of Newark’s charter sector and the pressure it’s put on the district’s budget, and show what’s happening inside city classrooms. And that’s just this month.

To do all that, I need your help. At Chalkbeat, our readers are the people who shape the local schools and rely on them. They’re also our sources. As we start in Newark, I’m hoping you’ll not only read our coverage but also help steer it, suggesting stories and making sure we reach a wide audience. Here are three ways you can help:

  1. Sign up for the weekly Newark newsletter. In it, I’ll share my reporting and round up the great coverage by other outlets so that you know everything you need to about Newark schools. The first newsletter goes out this Friday.
  2. Tell me what you want to read. Which power brokers or inspiring students do you want to meet? What arcane policies or tangled politics do you want to understand? Which schools or programs do you want to see up close? Please send your questions, ideas, and tips to
  3. Come say “hi.” I’m planning to host regular “office hours” throughout the community to meet readers where they are. The first edition will be at the Springfield Branch library during their college fair from 4 to 7 p.m. on Weds., March 14. (Details here.) Say hello and share your story ideas as you pick up college applications and talk to recruiters.

As Chalkbeat Newark gets up and running, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

getting to know you

These Teach-Off finalists unlock math for students with real-world context

Terrance O'Neil, left and Tim Livingston will participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off March 7.

For Houston educators Terrance O’Neil and Tim Livingston, math is all about context.

Too often, they say, students give up on math because word problems feature information or elements students can’t relate with. One recent example that stumped students, Livingston said, was a math problem featuring a person purchasing an $85 thermal to go camping.

“Some of these kids have never been camping,” he said. “And they were confused. One girl asked what a thermal was and why would a person buy one for $85.”

So they say students, especially those from low-income families, often need context — or information they can relate too — to help them better connect equations to real-world problems.

“A student should be able to relate to the problem,” said Livingston, a math coach in the Spring Independent School District. “The context grants them access.”

Together O’Neil and Livingston represent one of the two teacher teams Chalkbeat readers chose to participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off. The live event, which debuts at the SXSW EDU conference March 7, is designed to elevate the craft of teaching and showcase the many decisions that go into just one lesson.

Each team of teachers will demonstrate a mini-lesson on stage in front of a panel of judges and a cheering audience. A lively discussion among judges, coaches, and the teacher teams following the lessons will help attendees “see” teaching with new, clearer eyes.

Before O’Neil and Livingston head to Austin, we caught up with them to discuss the Teach-Off and their teaching philosophy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to go into teaching?

TIM: I guess I always had a knack for teaching. When I was in the military, I spoke to my wife and said, “I think this is something I want to do.” I love children. They were always drawn to me. And I could always communicate with them in a way they understood. Once I finished up my second enlistment, I went forward. And once I got into it, I saw what I wanted to be true, came true.

TERRANCE: The initial push came from my parents. I grew up in one of the roughest communities in Houston. They continually pushed us to get a good education. It was a nonnegotiable. They believed it was key to escape the community we grew up in. Once I left the community — because of education — I knew I needed to go back to that same community to help. I went back to my former community as a teacher. I fell in love with the kids. I learned quickly how one teacher can change the perspective of a student who might not get any sort of positive reinforcement when he leaves the school.

How would you describe your teaching style or method?

TIM: When I first began teaching, I would give out all the energy. My students would point out how my armpits would sweat. It was high energy, 24/7. But as I matured as an educator, I’ve learned to let it not all come from me, but put it in the mathematical task.

TERRANCE: I try to demonstrate that I’m passionate about the content — math or science. I always try to start with some sort of real-world connections. And I feed into that. I want to see the students excited about what they’re learning. Depending on the demographics of your class, you learn to use different real-world connections. I want them to do the work. To get them do that, I have to demonstrate some passion first.

Why did you want to be part of the Teach-Off?

TERRANCE: Probably because we think we’re better than any everyone else. [Laughs]

TIM: Next question! Honestly, I was intrigued by the vision of what Chalkbeat was trying to do. It got me hook, line, and sinker. Teaching is an art. And to hear that someone understands it’s an art and craft, I said, “This is it.” And my heart is for mathematics.

How were your schools affected by Hurricane Harvey?

TERRANCE: We had well over 100 students that lost everything. Everything. The devastation affected us severely. It was dramatic for a while. But our kids are resilient. Some are still displaced. But the district has done an excellent job of serving these students. They’ve done things that I wouldn’t have expected them to do. Some students had to move to outside the district, into other suburbs. And our district sent buses to get them so they wouldn’t have to switch schools. Not to mention, the district and many campuses have developed grant programs to serve those families. Here at McNabb, we’re still helping families with food and clothes. It’s been something amazing to watch.

What do you expect the audience to see at the Teach-Off?

TIM: Everything! All of it! They should expect laughter, energy. I love impromptu. That’s one of my strengths. So the whole notion of the event that something is going to change, that doesn’t make me nervous. That brings me in.

TERRANCE: That genuine love for teaching. Sincerity. That passion. And of course that content. You have to be passionate, and you have to be teaching something.

TIM: They can expect a demonstration of the depths of what it takes to teach mathematics correctly. It’s more than just adding and subtracting. It takes effort to plan to teach and reflect, and that’s what I love about this.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding teaching?

TIM: The issue is never mechanical, it’s adaptive. Meaning, there is no fix that someone can prescribe to me that does not consider my students, the school we’re in, the story that is our classroom. Every problem is adaptive. I can’t go find an answer. I have to collaborate with teachers and students. All those things have to be considered.

TERRANCE: My first superintendent would tell us all the time, “If you are really teaching how you’re supposed to teach and what you’re supposed to teach, it will be seen in the learning in students.” Your success is not what you do as a teacher, but what your students can do after they’ve been with you for a year. That difference there, that determines how effective I am as a teacher.