“If we’re going to solve the problems of the world,” former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove is credited with saying, “we have to learn how to talk to one another.” The teachers we celebrate here—the recipients of the 2018 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching—work every day creating spaces where students learn how to talk to one another. They model ways to value identity, diversity, justice and action in their classroom instruction and culture, and they’re guided by those values in their work with families, communities and fellow educators.
Awarded biennially, the Award for Excellence in Teaching recognizes five classroom educators who help students develop positive identities, exhibit empathy, consider different perspectives, think critically about injustice and take informed action. Our 2018 nominees were an impressive group, and the winners inspired us with their dedication to—and effectiveness in—creating spaces, curricula and communities where all students can thrive.
Because their exemplary practices and professional accomplishments are too numerous to list, here’s just a small sampling of the work that each of these exceptional teachers is doing every day.
Teaching Students at William Howard Taft High School to Recognize and Fight Systemic Inequality
“Teaching ethnic studies is so important, so vital in our society right now,” Mayra Almaraz explains. “People want to be in these conversations.” In her 11th- and 12th-grade Latin American history and ethnic studies classes, Almaraz encourages her students to look at systems “to understand why there’s inequality, why there’s discrimination, why some of us have more privileges than others.” To support students as they work to answer these questions, she established the Issues to Action Social Justice Club. Members work on projects educating, advocating and protesting to address problems they’ve studied in class.
In the club, as in her classes, Almaraz’s students examine their own experiences and learn about the experiences of others. This is one of the goals around which she’s built her curriculum and her classroom’s culture. “I think something powerful happens when you hear different stories,” she says. “Reconciliation begins with truth.”
And her students say...
“I learned from Miss Almaraz that in order to create change, you have to analyze the root problems of an issue.”
Encouraging Students at The Workshop School to Solve Real-World Problems
It’s pretty difficult to play it cool in Rebecca Coven’s 10th-grade English/language arts classroom. “All of my students care really deeply about something,” she says, explaining that she sees her job as “helping them find what they care about and then translating that passion into action.” Providing students with an “authentic audience” for their work, Coven shows them how they can use their voices to create change.
For their mass incarceration project, for example, Coven’s students spend eight weeks studying the topic. The project concludes with the students leading a public, citywide symposium, bringing their class conversations to the broader community and encouraging others to take action. Erasing the line between schoolwork and “real-world work,” Coven says, helps students see “that the work they’re doing now and the work they’re producing now can actually have an effect on their communities now.”
And her students say...
“When I want to give up, I think of Miss Coven and what she would say to me and what she would do to help me figure it out.”
Los Angeles, California
Starting Critical Conversations at Citizens of the World Charter School Silver Lake
In her fourth-grade classroom, Elizabeth Kleinrock delights in watching students tackle critical topics. Kleinrock explains that her students are already thinking about ideas like racism, civil rights for LGBTQ people and privilege. “I think it’s very important to have these conversations with children,” she explains, saying she ultimately wants them all to understand that “somebody else’s differences don’t threaten or change your identity.”
To ensure these conversations continue beyond her class, Kleinrock pulls family voices into the classroom. She began her class discussion on racism, for example, by surveying students on their comfort levels when talking about race—then revealing an online form showing how their families had (anonymously) responded to the same question. And she plans activities, like a field trip to the Japanese-American National Museum, where families can learn together and practice working through their discomfort to discuss critical topics. After all, as Kleinrock says, “There has been no problem in the history of our world that has been solved by not talking about it.”
And her students say...
“I would describe her as amazing.”
Developing Curricula for Peace Education at Anacapa Middle School
Danna Lomax had been teaching middle school for 10 years when everything changed after she was asked an important question. “I thought I was at the top of my game,” she explains, until an eighth-grader asked, “Miss Lomax, this whole year has been about how we’re not supposed to treat each other. When are you going to teach us how we are supposed to treat each other?”
As a result, Lomax says, “I changed my entire pedagogical approach. I started creating units that deal with peace with ourselves, peace with each other and peace with our planet.” Central to this work is the “peace spectrum,” which places actions that isolate an individual at one end and those that build community at the other. In class, Lomax ’s students use it to analyze the choices made by literary or historical figures—and to consider their own. Lomax has produced dozens of project-based units, which she shares with other educators at conferences. The curricula she’s designed are open-source and freely available, and they’ve been taught in classrooms across the United States and around the world.
And her students say...
“In her classroom, you feel safe and you know you’re going to get the education you deserve.”
Collaborating With Colleagues to Support Students at The U School and Beyond
For Charlie McGeehan, a high school humanities teacher, the collaboration and shared growth that characterize his relationships with colleagues expand beyond his school. With the Teacher Action Group–Philadelphia (TAG) and the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), last year McGeehan helped organize the Black Lives Matter Week of Action—a Philadelphia event they’ve already begun preparing to take national this year.
He’s also joined with other educators from TAG and WE to form and lead reading and discussion groups for white educators committed to anti-racist action. Ultimately, McGeehan explains, the understanding he and his colleagues share is simple: “It is our work as white people to help other white people develop these habits and practices to really live out fully anti-racist lives and that it is not the burden of people of color to educate us. ... We can challenge each other, and we can challenge ourselves.”
And his students say...
“He taught me how important it is to accept my identity.”
Photography by Todd Bigelow and Dan Chung