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Life Academy Teacher Perspective

Life Academy of Health and Bioscience is a small high school of 250 students in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. I teach sophomores world history and English, and I have the luxury of time -- nearly two hours a day to get to know my students. By the middle of the year we feel like family.

Life's mission is to dramatically interrupt patterns of injustice and inequity for underserved communities through transformative learning experiences. Nearly every student receives free and reduced lunch, and the majority are second-language learners who will be their family's first to go to college, and some the first to graduate from high school. My small school pushes them like never before, yet they bring their passion and street-savvy to my classroom every day, making connections between their lives and what we study. They are curious, compassionate and respectful. They seldom laugh at each other's struggles and often thank me for my hard work. They are funny and creative, using language in ways I could never predict. But perhaps most importantly, they are incredibly resilient, overcoming immense obstacles to succeed.

When I embarked on this Perspectives unit I thought it might be redundant; after all, it often feels as if we all know each other and our stories. But I wanted students to practice the art of story telling, to work on concision and to use the type of show-not-tell writing that would help them with their personal statements for college.

While at face value this seemed like an "easy" assignment to students -- I didn't make them write topic sentences, cull quotes from a novel or analyze their evidence like I usually do -- I know for many it was extremely challenging. The lack of structure and open-ended nature bewildered them at first. How would they be able to tell their story to others in under two minutes? Many wanted me to give them a topic; but I refused, wanting them to consider deeply their special stories. After a week of mini-lessons on techniques like echoing the intro in your conclusion and one-on-one work to develop a story arc and revise language, they were ready.

We held a showcase and even my principal showed up to hear my students record their work. I was struck by the diversity of these Perspectives: from the serious business of living in Oakland or immigrating to this country, to the trivial acts of blushing or riding a horse. My students had voice! I was proud of their ability to communicate so much in so few words, and proud of the resilience and strength of character so many demonstrated in the stories they told.

Most importantly, I learned more about my students that day than I had all year. My students too were surprised by their classmates' stories and told me the assignment helped them better understand each other. One student told me, "My classmates have been through a lot. And we are a lot more similar than I thought we were before this." Though they were initially hesitant to share with each other, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. Many told me afterward it was their favorite assignment all year.

For me as a teacher, understanding students is the key to being better at my job, and this assignment was the ultimate way for me to see the world from their perspective. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

By Annie Hatch