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Teacher Spotlight: Synergy Academy’s Paulina Morales on teaching culturally relevant history, being excited about Teen Court and loving graduation day

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | December 4, 2019

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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.

Paulina Morales

For a history teacher like Paulina Morales, there has not been a better time than now to engage students in learning world history. The current political and social climate make the subject particularly relevant for her high school students in a heavily Latino community in South L.A., where many are the children of immigrant families and some are newly arrived to this country.

Her lessons this school year, for example, range from gun control legislation to the Me Too movement and immigration.

Morales teaches 10th-grade world history at Synergy Quantum Academy, a charter high school co-located at L.A. Unified’s Maya Angelou Community High School campus. Her nearly 20 years of teaching experience has been in charter schools, but she was a product of LAUSD. She also spent time studying in Mexico, the country where her parents emigrated from. She graduated from California State University Fullerton with a degree in anthropology.

While in middle school, Morales got her first glance at seeing herself as a history teacher, thanks to the influence of her own history teacher. It’s an effect she hopes to have on her own students, particularly her female students. She believes they live in a time with so many more choices and opportunities than she had growing up, thanks to the pride of being Latina women, which she didn’t experience openly when she was a student.

“I think that’s a big thing right now, as the girls in my classroom, or the women in my classroom, it’s important that they can definitely do it and things are changing for the better,” Morales said. “I love that my students are proud of who they are and they’re proud of their background, where they come from, and so it’s not something that, I guess when I was in school, maybe some people tried to hide who they were. Now, people are very proud of their culture, where they’re from.”

Morales credits that sense of pride to students’ access to ethnic studies and the culturally relevant books they’re reading now in class, but also to a spirit of resistance.

“Like I said, the president (Trump) right now is very, sometimes very anti-Latino in some of the comments he’s made, and that just makes them want to seek more knowledge, so that they can be prepared for those conversations,” she said. “They want that information, I think they want to be able to defend themselves and who they are.”

LA School Report asked Morales 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.

Are your classroom lessons currently covering more social events than before?

Definitely, the new curriculum is engaging students more. I feel that during the first years of my teaching, it was more about world history with more European history, and now it’s actual world history, where we’re learning about ourselves. It’s more promoting the history of African cultures, Latino cultures, and we’re exploring more the women’s issues. In our history books, it’s very difficult to find women heroes, I would say. And now, it’s definitely in the newer books, there are even sections in every chapter about women heroes. So, it’s definitely changing a lot in the past couple of years. Now I have to teach history but through current events, and they have to really (think about) what’s going on today. So why is this happening today? What events happened in the past that are causing this to happen today? And they can relate a lot better to historical events in that way.

Do you think you have less pressure than math teachers or ELA teachers to get results?

I feel like we have the same pressure, especially in my AP World History. It’s there’s always, or any AP teacher feels that pressure that you have to have a certain number of students pass (the AP test) or — not all of them — but it’s really difficult to pass those tests. And even, we also have to show that we’re teaching them certain standards, ELA standards, so we have to be supportive of, or teach them writing skills and things like that. So, I sometimes feel I’m their English teacher as well because we’re supporting one another in that aspect.

Is there anything in the public education system that you think should be addressed with urgency?

I think just the very anti-charter conversation is a very head-downer for us. We’re really trying to make a difference. I’m supportive of all LAUSD teachers because we share a campus with LAUSD schools, and we work together. So, I think we’re probably one of the only (colocated charter) schools that has an LAUSD school sharing the same campus that, for the most part, the majority of the teachers work well together. There are times where we’ve come together to meet common goals. I think their current principal, he’s doing a really good job at meeting with our principal, or our founder, and trying to get us to have more meetings that are combined because it’s the same community of students. Even that program, the Teen Court, we’re working together with them, and so they bring their students, we bring our students, and that’s a place where they get to meet one another. I think it’s a unique situation, so I feel we’re doing a good job at it, but it’s kind of difficult too. It must be difficult for other charters schools to have these negative conversations about them when all they’re trying to do is just, we’re all just trying to help students.

Tell me about the Teen Court program. What is it and what’s the purpose?

It’s new to our school. We have been doing it just for the past two years, both our school and Maya Angelou (LAUSD school). So, we started the program, the founder kind of connected us to this program and in order to get students to participate (they have to stay), for a month after school. We created a class called Trials That Made History, and the students there learn about the law, like how to become a lawyer, how to become a judge and things like that, and then other related (legal) fields that I had no idea of. I learned a lot by teaching a class and then participating in Teen Court, where students actually visit a real courtroom in downtown L.A. then they come and perform Teen Court in school. They recreate what they learned. It’s just exposing them to other careers and a lot of the students are really looking into becoming immigration lawyers. I have three seniors who have been part of the program since the beginning and now that’s one of the career ideas that they think they’re going to go into. So, that’s kind of cool.

What do you think is the most challenging about being a teacher? 

For me, what maybe I complain a little bit about, is sometimes you do have to take work with you home on the weekends. It’s not just you get out at 3 p.m. and then you’re home. No, because sometimes you have to stay, you definitely have to show students that you care and sometimes you do have to stay to gain or, for me, participate in Teen Court, and sometimes you have to be there until 7 p.m. Sometimes you have to go on your vacation to three-day trips with students so they can participate in a conference. So, you do give up a lot of your time too. And … just sometimes, the situations that students get into. They’re teenagers and they can make really huge mistakes that are life-changing, but we have to understand they’re teenagers, and they don’t really understand the severity of it until they’re there. So, (as a teacher) you have to be very forgiving.

What’s the best part of being a teacher?

Oh my God, my favorite day is always graduation day. It’s just watching them finally, they made it. To me, that’s my favorite day out of the year. It’s just showing up to graduation, seeing them at their best. Seeing them at those proud moments. Sometimes I have dinner dates with ex-students, they want to see you and tell you about what’s going on in their life. I guess those are my perks.

What do you think parents can do better in helping you to be a successful teacher?

As teenagers, sometimes they look like adults, they look like big kids, but they also need a lot of guidance, and parents still need to be on them to complete their homework or check on them. Are they doing their work? Even now, I would say take away the cell phone if they haven’t done the work, or they don’t have the grades. That’s a big distraction recently and there is a lot of, I don’t know, statistics out there, that say that their electronics are a big distraction. Even if they say, ‘I’m just listening to music, it helps me to concentrate,’ the studies are not showing that it’s helping them in class. But there also are a lot of things out there that are helping teachers stay connected with parents and I think we need to make more use of them. But if I send messages constantly to parents, they need to, hopefully, reply back, and show a little bit more involvement because I’m not sure if they’re getting the messages.

What’s your main goal for the current school year?

Well, as I said, I really love the Teen Court thing. Once I started that two years ago, my first day going to the first (one), I was, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I am so glad that I decided, that I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take on this extra class, Trials That Made History, and now it’s like my favorite thing. It’s my last class of the day, so it’s the one thing that I have to look forward to at the end because it’s kind of new and innovative. I think teachers always need new things, or else it gets kind of, it drags on if you’re teaching the same thing over and over. So the Teen Court, that’s my new thing right now.

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