Teacher Spotlight: Alexandra Chavez on helping create a first-of-its-kind social and gender equity magnet school, focusing on whole child learning and striving to be patient
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 23, 2020
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Over the next several weeks, LA School Report will be publishing stories reported and written before the coronavirus pandemic. Their publication was sidelined when schools across the country abruptly closed, but we are sharing them now because the information and innovations they highlight remain relevant to our understanding of education.
This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.
For Alexandra Chavez, having seen the challenges her brother with special needs has to face was her biggest driver to become a teacher seven years ago. She thought the profession would allow her to play a critical role in the lives of students like him.
She recalls how she and her brother grew up attending the same schools and how that allowed her to experience firsthand how teachers impact students’ lives.
“He was deaf and on the autism spectrum and so seeing how some of his teachers would bring him to my classes to deal with his behavior or help him understand something. I really felt that I could make more of a difference in students’ lives, like my brother’s life, if I became a teacher,” Chavez said.
Now that she is teaching at SAGE, the first-of-its-kind social and gender equity magnet school in Los Angeles Unified School District, Chavez believes her job can truly be transformative.
Chavez grew up in the San Fernando Valley area north of Los Angeles and attended LAUSD schools. She graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in English and education. Before joining SAGE, she taught English language arts and English language development at Stevenson Middle school in East L.A., Vista Middle School, and Sun Valley High School.
Before SAGE became a magnet program, Chavez helped with a gender sexuality pride club on the Milikan campus because she said that many of her students felt left out of the curriculum. The principal then saw an opportunity to expand the club into a program for the whole school.
“I think honestly it’s about how this curriculum is trying to get the students to feel accepted in it and to reflect them and include them and consider them at every level. That is just such an engaging idea. It’s a novel concept,” Chavez said. “I mean, why not reflect all of our students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences in what we teach them? It seemed kind of like a no-brainer.”
SAGE incorporates gender studies and social justice themes into all of its academic courses. It’s located on the campus of Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks. It opened this school year, serving 70 sixth-graders and will expand by a grade level each year for the next two years. Millikan is an affiliatedLAUSD charter that is also home to a Performing Arts Magnet and Cinema Arts Academy.
SAGE offers a unique curriculum, designed to teach middle school students strong academic and social skills. The magnet program also offers its students a three-year program in speech and debate along with opportunities for community service and activism. Students practice yoga daily to develop physical and social-emotional strength.
“We are committed to serving all students and celebrating each and every student as an individual,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a news release during a visit to the school in October. “In a time when Washington seems to focus on conflict and differences, we must teach our students that the best way forward is through better understanding, kindness and inclusion.”
LA School Report asked Chavez about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you share more about this magnet program and how it works on a daily basis?
I think that one of the big tenets of this program, in general, is the idea that we’re not just incorporating the academic component of the student, but it’s really education of the whole child. We’re incorporating that social-emotional aspect as well through yoga, through the mindfulness that we practice in class. So we’re teaching them civic responsibility, critical thinking, computer literacy, but we’re also encouraging them to be well rounded and know how to take care of themselves emotionally and mentally. I think that really sets this program apart. A lot of programs are just academics and rigor. For us, we do that as well, but it’s really focusing on the social-emotional aspect as well.
What is the profile of the student population you’re serving?
Oh, my kids are great. Yeah, I mean our kids are a variety of kids, so they come from anywhere. One of the really great things about being such a unique program is that we attracted kids from everywhere, from all sorts of neighborhoods, which made us really stand out for the district. It was the first program of its kind, and so my kids come from all over LA. They come from an hour away to maybe five minutes away. So their backgrounds are really diverse and so there’s no real one way to meet their needs. But we’re lucky enough that we have a Chromebook cart in class every day. So I’m able to customize to our LMS, our Learning Management System, what they have access to, so I can meet every kid or at least ideally every kid at the level that they need in order to access the curriculum best.
They use their Chromebooks every day to supplement our Learning Management System, Schoology, which is kind of like a college course. You can post assignments, you can create tests, quizzes, documents. So that’s kind of where computer literacy kicks in. As an instructor, I can assign an assignment for Sally that’s different from Bobby and Sue. … Some of them come from really difficult backgrounds. They maybe have one parent or one of their parents is really ill or they’re home alone a lot. So it makes it easier for me to customize my lessons to have them meet me where they are and then I can add more supports as we go.
It has only been five months since the program started its first year, but how are your students responding to the curriculum?
When we first started discussing these concepts in this curriculum, we had so many people saying, ‘Oh, these kids, they won’t know what to do with it. They won’t understand it. They won’t be able to do it.’ But that’s really not the case. I mean, these kids have voices, they have strong opinions, they have strong ideas, and they’re more than willing to showcase it. So I think that the most amazing thing and the most surprising and rewarding thing has been just the investment that these kids have in talking about the concepts that we’re talking about.
Doing the service-learning projects, doing the mindfulness. They enjoy it and they’re engaged because of it. That has just been the most rewarding and I think the most amazing thing to see, especially when that wasn’t something that many people thought about our program.
- Read more: All in: A Southern California school with a radical — and successful — vision for students with disabilities
How is the school district supporting you or what can the district do better to support teachers in general?
I would say that keeping lines of communication open is really important. Making sure that there’s a voice of representation for everyone at the table that is making decisions is super important. But in terms of support for the program, the district has been great. I mean they have really kind of helped us navigate this first year of development and the planning and the approvals. It’s been a lot of support and outpouring of support really from all different parts of the district.
What do you think is the most common misconception about the teaching profession that you get to hear?
One of the biggest ones is all we do is grade papers, because that’s all we’re good for, is just grading papers. I think something that’s important for people to understand is that teaching isn’t just, I send my kid to school, they sit in my class. Education itself is a dynamic process. It changes from class to class. It changes from student to student, it changes from teacher to teacher. It’s constantly changing. I think it’s important to understand that education isn’t perfect. It’s growing, it’s learning. And every new generation, every new class of kids really makes it different from an experience that has come before. So the conception may be that I’m sitting as an English teacher, grading essays and I don’t take the time to get to know my kids or I don’t know how they can handle classes of 40 and have 200 kids and know all their names. But, we do and their kids are like our kids.
So I think it’s really important for people to realize that we care as much for our students as their parents do — if not more. We spend eight hours a day with them and we try our best to use the time that we have with them effectively. So I guess that’s a really big takeaway is that the conception is that teachers — that just their students are bins that you put in information, but it’s a process. I’m learning from them as much as they’re learning from me. So I guess that’s important for people to recognize, that it’s a dynamic experience.
- Read more: Teacher Spotlight: Ednovate’s Kyle Perez-Robinson on mentoring 19 girls through all 4 years of high school, breaking down barriers for future Latina scientists and missing her students over summer break
What do you think parents can do better to support teachers?
I think in general parents really should talk more to their kids. Engage with them about what they’re doing in classes, ask questions if they’re unsure, really make every effort to get to know the teachers, get to know the curriculum because we’re a team. It’s not pitting one parent against the teacher. It’s, ‘How are you?’ and supporting the growth of your kid. I think if parents really listened to what their kids have to say, there’s no way that we can fail them.
What would you say has been one of your biggest accomplishments as a teacher so far?
I would say being a part of this magnet (program) is one of the biggest accomplishments in my career. It’s a really young career, so being able to bring something to life that really does reflect mindfulness and responsibility and equity is super important. It’s been transformative for me as an educator. It challenges me every day. That’s the highlight of my teaching career thus far, my ability to participate and help develop this program.
What’s your main goal or goals as a teacher for this school year?
I would say this year my goal is really to embrace change and be flexible. We’ve had a lot that has happened this school year, districtwide and statewide that has really impacted instruction. Just knowing that sometimes a kid’s emotional and social health is a little more important than the dynamic and awesome standards-based lesson I have planned. Just being flexible with what’s going on for them or what’s going on for myself. I’m just wanting to, I guess, to be patient is a really important goal this first year of development and prep and planning.