We were blown away by the quality of nominations and applications we received for our 2018 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. Across the country, educators are doing tremendously creative, courageous and empowering work! Many of our applicants—and all of our finalists—impressed us with their innovative teaching, but we noticed some exemplary common threads among the finalists.
From creating lessons focused on civic engagement to sponsoring afterschool social justice clubs, these educators are helping students take action and make their voices heard. And it's not just student voices they amplify. They're using literature and informational texts to expose students to a range of experiences and ideas. They're dedicated to inclusivity, both within and beyond their classroom walls: Several wrote about community projects they have developed with students. And, of course, all of our finalists are supporting students and preparing them to become active participants in a diverse democracy.
Take a moment to get to know them and their exciting work!
McKinney Middle School
Jaime Adoff teaches middle school English/language arts in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Adoff is the adviser for United Students Society, a student-created group with the goal of challenging bias and prejudice toward students of color on campus. He also serves as the teacher liaison to a community organization, Young People of Color, whose members are Yellow Springs youth engaged in socially conscious activities. Recently, Adoff's students participated in a project titled, "Race and Revolution: The Power of Protest" with a driving question that asked, "How can we, as eighth-graders, design and create protest art to carry messages about race in America today?" They have since received requests to bring the exhibit on tour in the hopes of promoting dialogue that will lead to change on issues surrounding race and justice in the United States.
William Howard Taft High School
Mayra Almaraz teaches high school ethnic studies, a social studies elective, to a diverse group of juniors and seniors in Chicago, Illinois. She also leads professional development modules focused on concrete strategies educators can use with students when discussing sensitive material. Almaraz often facilitates critical conversations outside of class herself: She is moderator of the afterschool Issues to Action Social Justice Club, in which students discuss problems in their school and community. In class, she dedicates her entire first unit to exploring her students' lives, families, traditions and cultures. Students research their families' histories and write their stories. In the process, Almaraz hopes, her students learn to believe that their stories matter.
The Workshop School
Rebecca Coven teaches 10th-grade English/language arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Outside of the classroom, she sponsors two afterschool clubs: a female empowerment club in which young women discuss gender justice issues and develop leadership skills, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Club, in which students workshop and refine their original art and writing. Coven also leads professional development for colleagues on gender equality. But her work extends beyond her school, too. Coven serves as member of several distinguished organizations and presents her research at conferences around the United States. Closer to home, her mass incarceration project connects students with community organizations and the state penitentiary with the goal of starting dialogues about mass incarceration and encouraging people to take action against it. The project culminates in a city-wide Mass Incarceration Symposium, led by Coven's students.
Citizens of the World Charter School Silver Lake
Elizabeth Kleinrock teaches fourth grade in Los Angeles, California. She serves as her school's Family Education Coordinator and organizes workshops that focus on helping families support their students at home. She also plans and leads trainings with cohorts of teachers to help them facilitate critical conversations with adults and children on topics like race and justice. Recently, in Kleinrock's fourth-grade class, she developed a lesson in which students explored what it meant to be an "upstander." As a culminating project, her students produced public service announcements, highlighting messages of inclusion and justice, and delivered them to younger students at their school.
Anacapa Middle School
Danna Lomax teaches English, social studies and two-way Spanish immersion to middle schoolers in Ventura, California. In addition to her work in the classroom, she enjoys training a diverse group of pre-service teachers. For her students, Lomax has created a curriculum that centers on peace education as an integral part of the learning process. In one activity, for example, students write grants to address needs at their school. In others, they conduct fundraisers for human rights causes they agree are most vital and invite adults whom they admire into their classroom to share their expertise. The lesson units Lomax designed have been used nationally and internationally.
The U School
Charlie McGeehan teaches high school humanities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has been deeply involved with Teacher Action Group and the Caucus of Working Educators. For the past three years, he has also been the Union Building Rep at his school, where he focuses his energy on a push for racial justice. In his classes, McGeehan combines history, literature and writing to explore the topics of mass incarceration, feminism, resistance, expression and Afro-futurism. But his students and colleagues at the U School aren't the only ones he encourages to see and address injustice: For the past two years, McGeehan has helped plan and implement the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Philadelphia schools.
Rufus King High School
Kelly O'Keefe-Boettcher teaches high school English/language arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the last 13 years, O'Keefe-Boettcher has organized and facilitated a successful peer mediation program in her school. She has also served as a member of the National Honor Society faculty council, the teacher representative on the school's Governance Council and the faculty adviser for two affinity groups for students interested in Islam and Judaism. In her classroom, O'Keefe-Boettcher rigorously includes resources that her textbook leaves out. To celebrate students who speak Spanish and English at home, for example, she finds materials written in English and Spanish. This year, she arranged for the poet Mai Der Vang, whose award-winning 2017 book Afterland tells the story of Hmong refugees from Laos, to hold a reading for students at Rufus King High School.
Staples High School
Catherine Schager teaches high school social studies and history in Westport, Connecticut. She serves as faculty adviser for the school's Building Bridges Club, which works to battle xenophobia and Islamophobia. Schager also works to make her school and community more inclusive and equitable by organizing and facilitating community panel discussions and by taking her students to participate in meaningful events, like the first-ever Girls Day at the Capitol. After the fall of Aleppo last year, she worked with students to create community teach-ins about the crisis. They screened a documentary they made, organized a panel discussion and provided community-donated food and raffle items to raise money for a Syrian non-governmental organization.
Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello
Julia Torres teaches AP English language and literature in Denver, Colorado. At the district level, Torres has served on the steering committee of the superintendent's African-American Equity Task Force, which advocates for the needs of students of color. A member of the NCTE Standing Committee for Diversity and Inclusivity, Torres speaks to AP teachers across the country. In her own AP English class, she includes the voices of those from marginalized groups to help her students develop positive images of themselves and others. Studying the writing of Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X and bell hooks, her students come to better understand what it means to advocate for the liberation of oppressed people. And they learn the strength of their own voices: Torres has them write letters to politicians and essays for online publication to learn how passion can be combined with the right words to effect social change.
Roosevelt High School
Moé Yonamine teaches high school social studies and history in Portland, Oregon. Yonamine serves on two district-wide committees: the Portland Public Schools Ethnic Studies Committee and the Climate Action Team. Working with families, Yonamine helped students develop and organize a number of community events. They planned Know Your Rights trainings for immigrant students and families, and they partnered with racial and social justice organizations to implement nonviolent direct action projects in their community. On Trayvon Martin's birthday, they held Hoodies Up Day, a school-wide commitment for Black Lives Matter activism. Nationally, Yonamine serves as an editor for Rethinking Schools and a writer for the Zinn Education Project. She also leads workshops at social justice education conferences like Northwest Teaching for Social Justice, National Conference for Social Studies and the World Affairs Council Summit.
The five winners will be announced this summer! We'll share some of their stories, ideas and innovative strategies throughout the year.