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June 5, 2024 37 mins

Writing can serve as means of empowerment and healing. 

Today we are talking to Briana Morales, 2024 Illinois State Teacher of the Year and high school English teacher at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis. Throughout her career, she has empowered her students through storytelling. In this episode, Briana will share how she uses healing-centered engagement and writing to help students process trauma and reveal their purpose. Plus she shares writing activities to engage students in identity work and how to start a classroom dignity closet to help students in need.

Teachers in America profiles K–12 teachers across the country. Hear firsthand from the people who are shaping young lives in the classroom every day. If you or someone you know would be a good candidate for Teachers in America, please email us at

Content Warning: Please note that this episode mentions examples of trauma, gun violence, and attempted suicide.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Helping students to harness the power of their story
and getting them to buy intothe belief that I am somebody
with a story, with a dream, witha purpose, and that by sharing
that with other people I canhelp other people to unlock
those healing pathways as well.

Speaker 2 (00:15):
Welcome to Teachers in America, a podcast from HMH
where we connect with educatorsacross the country to bring you
teaching tips and inspiration.
The country to bring youteaching tips and inspiration.
I'm your host, noelle Morris.
Today we're exploring the powerof poetry with 2024 Illinois
State Teacher of the Year,brianna Morales.

Brianna teaches 11th and 12thgrade English at Gordon Bush
Alternative Center in East StLouis, illinois.
Throughout her career, she hasencouraged her students to turn
their pain into power throughpoetry and writing.
In this episode, brianna willshare how she uses
healing-centered engagement andstorytelling to help students
process trauma and reveal theirpurpose.
Now let's get to the episode.

Content warning.

Speaker 1 (00:59):
Please note that this episode mentions examples of
Gun violence and attemptedsuicide mentions examples of
trauma gun violence andattempted suicide.

Speaker 2 (01:05):
Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Brianna
Morales, who is Illinois'Teacher of the Year, and you
might think that that is themost amazing thing, but I have
done some reading and I cannotwait to start this conversation,
brianna, because you just havea teacher life that is very

inspiring, so welcome, welcometo Teachers in America.
And, brianna, I would love foryou just to start off with
telling us a little bit aboutthe environment that you teach

Speaker 1 (01:37):
Yeah, nice to be here with you today.
So I'm proud to serve studentsat Gordon Bush Alternative
Center in East St Louis,illinois, which is the city of
I teach 11th and 12th gradeEnglish to students who have
been placed in an alternativesetting to better meet their
needs in ways that a traditionaleducational setting was not
prepared to do.

My students are dreamers, doers, world changers, young parents,
poets, artists and so many more, but, most importantly, the
identity that I like to reflecton them, as is that they are
just young people with a deepdesire to make their dreams come
true against all odds and tohelp other people see the truth

about them and their community,which is full of beauty and

Speaker 2 (02:23):
So what drew you to alternative education?

Speaker 1 (02:27):
Yeah, I'm actually a career educator in alternative
ed and that's pretty significantto my award as Illinois Teacher
of the Year, because in all 70years of Illinois State Teacher
of the Year history there's onlyever been one Teacher of the
Year who represented analternative school before me.
But I've taught all years of mycareer in the same alternative

high school that I work in now,besides my first year of
teaching, and I think that I'mdrawn to teaching in this
particular learning environmentbecause alternative schools
really speak to this idea of theunderdog in all of us, the
young person who everyonedoubted, the adversities that
every person that we know hasovercome on our individual
pathways to greatness, and theunique drive that it really

takes to maintain, first, thebelief in yourself but second,
to remember who you are whensometimes it feels like everyone
else has written you off andcast you aside.
And I really believe, and justfrom conversations with my
students, that youth in generalright like they're an
unprotected class of citizensand many of them believe that

there are no adults who reallycare what they have to say or
that no one really takes agenuine interest in their lives.
But in our alternative schoolwe get to show up every single
day and remind young people thatthey do matter, that they have
a story to tell and to helpuncover those remarkable powers
that lie within them to tellthose unique stories.
And I'm drawn to you know youngpeople in that space,

particularly because I was justlike.
I feel like many teachers areright, they have a catalyst

Speaker 2 (04:14):
Well, kudos, round of applause for the state of
I started my career inalternative education, teaching
middle school, so I love howmuch more recognition has
happened over the last 30 yearsfor teachers in alternative
spaces and opening up thatstudents should have alternative
ways of getting to that endgoal of a high school diploma

and their future.
What within your classroomcommunity, your school community
, do you see impacts yourstudents the most?

Speaker 1 (04:47):
So East St Louis a little history lesson was once
described by the US Departmentof Housing and Urban Development
as the most distressed smallcity in America, and that's for
several reasons.
You know thinking about, youknow the socioeconomic, you know
shifts that have happened overtime in the city, but
particularly generationalpoverty in the city of East St

Louis, as it currently stands,is almost two and a half times
the national average, and aboutone in every three students in
our school district can comefrom a family that earns less
than $15,000 a year.
So, in addition to variousstressors and traumas in the
community that have acompounding effect on students'
lives outside of school, such asgun violence at higher rates in

other communities and substanceabuse both by students and
within their families, we knowwhat brain research tells us
right about those experiencesand toxic stress and trauma that
those experiences can shrinkand deteriorate our DNA and so,
from a physiological sense, weare quite literally never the
same as we were once before.

Significant life experienceshave happened to us, such as the
ones that my studentsexperience in the community.
However, research has alsoshown very promising impacts of
the power of relationships withcaring adults and regrowing
parts of our DNA that haveeroded, which proves to us that
one dedicated person can changethe trajectory of a child's life

, despite these circumstancesthat might be out of their
And I truly believe that thatis the work that we get to do in
our city, and also the work ofeducators across the world, by
loving young people to lifedespite so many of these unique
lived experiences that they'renavigating.

Speaker 2 (06:30):
What do you begin to do the moment students enter
your classroom to establish thatwe're.
I recognize trauma, I recognizeexperiences, but we're not
going to necessarily let thatdefine us.
We're going to work through it.
How do you get students tounderstand your classroom
The environment of that schoolis going to be different than

anything they've everexperienced.

Speaker 1 (06:56):
That is a great question because we are uniquely
positioned to do that at ourschool, specifically because
we're a competency-basededucation pilot school through a
pilot program with the IllinoisState Board of Education and in
that pilot we're able to engagestudents in this dynamic model
of new ways of teaching,learning and assessment that

actually allow us to meet ourstudents where they are and take
them closer to where they needto be in ways that traditional
pathways of learning both intheir homeschools and just in
education in general kind of hadlimitations of our students'
potential and didn't really meetthem how they needed to.
So in our school we equipstudents with personalized,
individual, you know, pathwaysto learning where our students

are met at their developmentallevel and we can scaffold them
to where they need to be,because we focus on mastery of a
set number of competencies inevery single area.
That's kind of aligned to agraduate profile of who we want
them to become in the world oncethey graduate from high school,
rather than the focus oftraditional education, which
oftentimes is just centeredaround seat time and completion

of work.
And so a majority of the juniorsand seniors actually that I
teach in my class they mightsometimes come into school
reading between a third andfifth grade level.
But in our environment they'reso eager to improve their skills
because they have this newfoundconfidence to take academic
risks after they feel like theyhave been met with supportive
adults who believe in thepotential that they have in this

new model of learning, and sowe equip them with project-based
learning and inquiry skills toreally dig deeper into who they
might want to be in the world.
And I really think that thismodel has truly been a game
changer for students who maybetheir academic performance or
attendance in school was abarrier to their success in a
previous environment.
But in our school they can seethemselves as confident, with a

renewed sense of confidence,because they know what their
potential can be and that thereis a community of adults who are
ready to take them there.

Speaker 2 (08:51):
Is there a go-to teaching strategy or two
teaching strategies that youbegin in the very first week or
two weeks of school thatcontinue to build that you could
share with listeners that mightpique their interest to try it
in their classrooms?

Speaker 1 (09:10):
So as an English teacher, Ithink that we have a huge
opportunity to engage studentsin identity work, trying to
understand what is our place inthe world.
Because we know all of ourstudents, human beings in
general, we want to be someone,and young people, depending on
where they're at in theirdevelopmental journey, they're
just not sure, maybe, who thatperson is yet, and so in English

class, specifically with mystudents and, you know, in
addition, with the things thatthey might be navigating at the
time I take that as a uniqueopportunity to engage them in
trying to really unpack theiridentities in community through
healing narratives in my Englishclass, understanding that you
know a lot of these students.

They may have gone throughsimilar events in the community,
but also completely differentones.
The power of one person's storyunlocking the potential for
other youth to feel confident,to feel comfortable, to take
those courageous risks andsharing vulnerably about
themselves, to create thatshared sense of identity and
just this idea that we can allcome from various lived

experiences, various backgrounds, be as diverse as we might be,
but there are different threadsthat tie us together, that do
create that sense of community,despite, you know, how different
we might be, and so my studentsand I over the years we have
written poetry of witness, whichkind of just catalogs, as
documents that we can look backat, of things that we've

experienced in our own lives,how we can communicate those as
a way to process that event,also in sharing our story with
other people and then puttingthose together in books.
So every single year my studentsand I create like a chat book
of sorts of their stories.
I think that it's interestingbecause then students that come
after them, they have somethingto look back at of people who

are in the same room, in thesame community that I am right
What were their similarunderstandings or where are
their points of convergence,where I can learn from someone
else's story?

Speaker 2 (11:09):
Hey teacher friends, if you're an HMH user, did you
know you have access toTeacher's Corner on Ed Included
with every HMH program?
Teacher's Corner is a communityof teachers, learning experts
and coaches gathered in oneplace to support you with a new
kind of professional learningbite-sized, teacher-selected and
teacher-driven, with on-demandsessions, lesson demonstrations,

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Teacher's Corner lets youchoose how you interact with our
I like to think about it asinspiration on demand For
students who may have may comeso guarded and protective.
How do you support them gettingtheir feelings onto a page?

I mean, is the page the lastplace to put your words?
Is it more about just beginningto understand and find the
words that describe yourexperiences and what you've

Speaker 1 (12:05):
Yeah, I think that kind of this approach to writing
as a means of healing for mystudents has taken shape over
the course of my career.
It's definitely not somethingthat I started out doing in my
first year of teaching, and Ithink that it's definitely
something that gets better attime your craft of helping
students to harness the power oftheir story and getting them to
buy into the belief that I amsomebody with a story, with a

dream, with a purpose, and thatby sharing that with other
people, I can help other peopleto unlock those healing pathways
as well.
And so I present a frameworkfor healing narratives and also
for wounded body narratives formy students in my class this
idea that there's been somethingthat's happened to all of us in
our life, regardless of wherewe come from, that we've
reckoned with at some time, ormaybe we still are reckoning.

With English teachers, we loveto write a good personal
narrative at the beginning ofthe school year, but oftentimes
these personal narratives canlack, like that human aspect,
because what we're really askingstudents to do right is to
think about this reallysignificant event that you've
been through in your life andwhat did you learn from it.
What did it teach you?

How did it make you a betterperson?
And for some students and forus as adults even, there are
things that we experience in ourlives that didn't teach us
anything, it just brought a lotof pain right.
And so this idea how we canwalk with students through that
You are so much more than whathappened to you, but telling
your story can still help us toreclaim that power of those

events, that we're more thanwhat happened to us, we're more
than the worst thing that we'veever done and that by just
communicating that story in away that makes sense to us, that
we're taking back that power toturn our pain into power and
that can reveal our purpose.
So you know, we do differenttypes of exposure to various

narratives I actually useWriting as a Means of Healing by
Louise DeSalvo, and in it shekind of explains narratives in
three different types chaosnarrative, restitution narrative
and quest narrative.
And as English teachers, againlike I said, we love a good
quest narrative, restitutionnarrative and quest narrative.
And as English teachers, againlike I said, we love a good
quest narrative.
This idea that, like you know,astronomical, could happen to me
in my life and I can still livea great life after it, after
I've learned what it meant to me.

But for so many people, whenthese huge, significant lived
experiences happen to them,they're living in a chaos
narrative and they just need asupportive adult who is there to
help them to make the space andhas the time to process it with
them in real time.
It might not be an essay, itmight not be a poem.
At first it might just be astream of consciousness that I

need to get out.
But knowing that someone in mylife cares about what's going on
and what I have to say, thatcan also provide healing
elements for kids too.

Speaker 2 (14:45):
Now is healing centered engagement.
Is that an approach across theschool?

Speaker 1 (14:50):
So I think that we are definitely a trauma informed
care school and I think thattrauma informed education and
trauma informed pedagogy schoolshave definitely been utilizing
that as a way to really, youknow, kind of think about the
ways in which we can providestudents with the resources that
they need in the aftermath of,you know, significant events

that they're experiencing.
For me, in my own specificclassroom, I wanted to go a step
further than that, because Ibelieve right that our students
are more than what's happened tothem and to try to be more
proactive about the healing thatneeds to be done in the
aftermath of those you knowevents of toxic stress and
trauma, and so I startedutilizing healing-centered

engagement in 2021, whichactually is a framework that was
coined by Dr Sean Genwright,and it's an asset-based
extension of trauma-informedcare and, according to Dr
Genwright, it's a holisticapproach that involves culture,
civic action and collectivehealing, because it views trauma
not only as just an individual,isolated experience that might

happen to one person, but itactually highlights the ways in
which trauma and healing areexperienced collectively in
community, and the termhealing-centered engagement
really expands how we thinkabout responses to trauma and
can offer a more holisticapproach to fostering well-being

What I really like about theapproach, and what I utilize
most in my classroom, are theprinciples of healing-centered
engagement, which kind of likecome out in an acronym that's
read as karma, so C, culture, aagency, r, relationships, m
meaning and A aspiration.
Through that framework, we canmove towards a lens of what is
right with you, rather thanwhat's just wrong with you, that

trauma-informed care can sooften lend itself to, and young
people, I think, then, can seethemselves as agents in the
creation or recreation of theirown identities, rather than just
victims of their own experienceand what's happened to them, of
really who do they want to beafter those things have happened

Speaker 2 (16:52):
Now, do you write yourself and does this passion
stem from you?
Know, I know you alluded alittle bit to a personal
Do you mind sharing anythingthat might have inspired you to
get to this passion?

Speaker 1 (17:11):
might have inspired you to get to this passion.
Yeah, I think that it is soimportant for educators to write
alongside their students and tonever ask our students to do
anything that we wouldn't do,also because they need to see us
humanized in that aspect aswell, if we're asking them to be
that vulnerable.
And so I write alongside mystudents whenever we journal in
class, but also it's a conceptthat I utilize in my own
personal life outside of theclassroom.
Writing is Healing was actuallya concept that was introduced
to me by my own seventh gradeEnglish teacher, jennifer

Steinecke, in middle schoolright.
As we know, it is just such atumultuous and challenging time
for all 12 and 13 year olds, butparticularly for me, a young
person whose family wasexperiencing these drastic
Life just felt like it wasmoving at super speed and,
amidst the own trauma that I hadexperienced as a kid, I really
felt invisible and like no onewas stopping to ask me how I

felt about it.
Because of that, the emotionsbecame too much to bear and, in
the fall of my seventh gradeyear, I attempted suicide.
Mrs Steineke, when I returnedback to school, she was the one
who introduced me to expressivewriting.
That fall as a way to processthat lifetime of grief and hurt.
And it was actually because ofher that I wrote my very first

poetry book in her English class, and I never looked back after
And so, through a single act ofcare, one caring educator
really opened that pathway tohealing for me, and it showed me
that my story did matter andthat poetry was a way that I
could share it, which is nowwhat I get to do with my own
students later on in life, toturn our pain into power.

And so, like I said, we journalevery single day at the
beginning of class, andsometimes the prompts are
whimsical and silly.
They might be joyful, ask forus to remember, you know, really
wholesome parts of our lifethat can bring us peace.
And sometimes we also offerstudents the opportunity to
channel those bigger feelingsthat might have been bottled up
over the lifetime and just needto be released, just like they
did for me.
And so whenever I give them theprompts right from, they can

just choose, or they can choosenot to and write about something
completely different.
But a prompt that has found itsway back into my life recently
and that I find the most magicalactually ask students to dream
and rewrite a lived experiencefrom any point in their life.
The question is, whichgenerational tale or family
story do you wish had adifferent ending, and what would

it look like?
So this idea of like futurism,right Dreaming of a world that
does not even exist, can groundus and reaffirm our power, as
well as heal us just by thethought of a different ending
that we can't control in thepresent moment.
I was named Illinois Teacher ofthe Year in April of 2023.
And just three months afterthat, almost three months to the
day of being named Teacher ofthe Year, my father unexpectedly

passed away at the age of 46.
And so I was right like in theheight of my professional career
, but also at the lowest momentof my personal life, after
losing someone who I felt knewme better than anyone else.
And so what's worse is that weactually stopped talking about
two years before my dad'spassing, and so that's something
that I hold a lot of regret andgrief over even now, and that's

something that I can't changeright.
And so he died unexpectedlywithout any medical reason, and
we never got to reconcile theway that I hoped for when he was
alive, and so I actually usedthat prompt recently, on what
was going to be my dad's 47thbirthday a few years ago.
I decided to journal in responseto if my dad was still here,

even though he's gone, right, ifhe still was here and I had one
more chance, what would I say?
A few months after his passing,I also learned that I'm
pregnant with my firstbiological child that my dad
will never get to meet, and sothat adds a leather layer to the
journal, right?
Which milestones do I?
Wish he could be here tocelebrate with my son.
What advice would I ask him for?
You know and I can't changethat he's gone, nor can I

replace that grandparent for myson.
But just dreaming about anotherworld where things would be
different can heal me in thepresent moment, even though it's
out of my hands, and just byrewriting that story I can
regain a sense of power andpeace, which is what I show my
And so journaling alongside thekids, I think, has strengthened
our relationship and humanizedall parts of life for us

together, the good, the bad andeverything in between.

Speaker 2 (21:14):
I'm sitting here like processing all of this, you
know, really hoping you know ourlisteners are as tuned in as I
am, because my father died atage 49.
Because my father died at age49.
Two, I often ask, like whatwould he say about me as a mom,
Not just as a teacher, as acareer woman, but what would he

see in my daughter and how wouldhe have been as a grandfather?
So you know, you find thosemoments, and I think, as a
teacher, just as you have, youcan find those moments to be
vulnerable in front of yourstudents and allow them to see
that human side of you.
Do you have students that comeback to you, Brianna, like a

year, two years, even after theymaybe are starting their first
job, that come back to you andwrite, you know, want to be
another part of your writingprojects?

Speaker 1 (22:14):
Yeah, I have a lot of student stories just like that,
and I think it's beautifulbecause I think that poetry can
follow us, no matter what ourlife looks like.
Right, I think often kids mighthave like this deficit view of
English language arts becausethey're like I'm never going to
be a writer in my life, I'm notgoing to be a teacher, this
doesn't matter.
And it's like well, you canwrite poetry and you can tell

your story in any way, no matterwho you are, who you become in
the world.
You don't have to be a teacheror writer to do that.
And so so many of my studentsthat's actually what's bonded us
together, even after graduationso many kids who would love to
say for the two years that I'mtheir teacher, because I teach
them back to back.
Actually, for junior yearthey'll always say you know, I
never have anything to say, likeI don't have a story, like you

know there's nothing cool for meto write about.
And then it'll.
You know, graduation will comeand go and then all of a sudden
I'll get Facebook messages whichwill be like these long slew of
words in, like a poem that wascreated by a student and it's
actually about what's going onin their life and they're not
going to tell me what is goingon, they're just going to
communicate that through poetry.
It's just become a sense ofcomfort that we have this unique

understanding of this mediumthat can really communicate,
right, these, you knowidentities, these experiences
and can bond people together.
You know identities, theseexperiences and can bond people
together One that I think islike really touches my heart in
I had a kid who graduated in2020 and he was the kid who
swore I don't have anything tosay and you're never going to

get an ounce of poetry out of me.
But he was the first kid who,every day, at 9am, he would
knock on my door during myplanning period and just say,
hey, like I just really need totalk to you and I'm thinking to
myself, like I have, you know,papers to grade, parents to call
things to do other than talk toyou right now, and, of course,
I would let him in.
And it was during those one onone sessions, every single day,

that we really built arelationship.
And so when we got tograduation, you know he had
journals full of amazing storiesand of, you know, like his
community, and also of hisaspirations, not just for
himself, but for the world andwhat he wanted it to be in the
And so, you know, graduationcomes and goes.
I think that that's kind ofgoing to be the end of our
Some students are tetheredtogether forever, and other kids

you're one point in theirjourney and we are just so
privileged to have been therenonetheless or so I thought
because fast forward to twoyears after that, in 2022, I was
in New York City doing whatteachers do every single summer.
I was not on a vacation, I wasdoing professional development,

and I was in New York City, likeI said, doing a really cool
project with the New YorkHistorical Society, not really
thinking about kids at all.
And I got a phone call from an866 area code and, if you read
in my bio, I'm on the schoolboard for the Illinois
Department of Juions, and so Ianswered the call and

immediately on the other end itwas the student and I had not
talked to him in two years, andso I pressed one to accept the
call and he's excited as all getout.
He says hey, ms Ross, how's itgoing?
And I just said to him becauseI was so disappointed, right, I
can't say that I wasn't.
I just said you know why didyou call me?

And he said because I knew thatyou would always answer.
And he recently shared with menow that you know he's been away
for some time he started awriting group in his men's
prison to help otherincarcerated men process their
lived experiences and tell theirstory through the power of
And so that's like the joy,right, is that you know the
things that we impart on ourstudents, the skills and
knowledge that we equip themwith to know deeply and innately

who they are and who they canbe in the world, and to tell
that and share that with someoneelse.
That's the power of teachingand also the power that writing
can give back to kids.
So everything that we did inthose one hour sessions really
lived for that kid and he cameback to let me know, which I
feel like is one of the proudestmoments of my career.

Speaker 2 (26:15):
I loved listening to your interview with Drew
I learned about your dignitycloset.
What is the dignity closet andcan you share the easiest way to
get a dignity closet started atin your classroom or at your

Speaker 1 (26:32):
Yes, that's why asking the community for support
because, as you know, despitewhat you know, popular
narratives might be aroundeducation right now.
People care about teachers andpeople care about young people
and they want to be able to help, and so we just need to ask and
share maybe what our studentsare going through or what they
need, and we can give from ourown abundance to make what we

have into enough for others atall times.
The one way that I telleveryone to do it is the same
way that I did throughcrowdsourcing from our community
I live in an amazing communityin St Louis who has so many
people with hearts of gold thatI actually joined a Facebook
It's called Buy Nothing andthere's one for every community.

You can probably look one upfor where you're from.
Just type it in on Facebook andthe idea of Buy Nothing is the
idea, right, that we can keepthings out of landfills that
still have a purpose in otherpeople's lives and to repurpose,
maybe, things that don't have ameaning for us anymore but can
still make a profound impact inthe lives of other people, and
so I posted in that group, likeyears ago probably six years ago
now just asking for somenewspapers for this project my

students were doing.
And then all of a sudden peoplewere like, hey, you're a
teacher, do you need thesepencils?
Do you need this like paint?
And I started thinking, wow,there's a lot of things my kids
need, and if other people arebeing willing, all I have to do
is ask.
And so I started a dignitycloset in my classroom that has
clothes, food and hygienesupplies for students, because
oftentimes those can be thebarriers for why they might not

be able to come to school andalso might be embarrassed when
they are there that they don'tlook like everyone else or have
what everyone else does.
And so just by simply asking,we've been able to stock it with
hygiene supplies liketoothpaste, toothbrush,
We also receive enough fooddonations where for winter
breaks and you know differentbreaks across the school year

we're able to send bags of foodhome with students when we are
gone from school for extendedperiods of time.
And my neighbors are just soinsanely kind that every single
holiday season and my neighborsare just so insanely kind that
every single holiday seasonevery single one of my junior
and senior students receives agift bag made up of donations
from my neighbors that has awarm blanket, a young adult

novel and lots of necessitiesthat they need to be successful
in life, and also a few treatsof things that they want by
other people who don't know thembut care about them all the
So whenever we're in doubt, weshould just ask oh, I love that.

Speaker 2 (28:54):
When in doubt, just ask.
And I'm not traveling as muchas I used to, but I'm going to
pick back up my habit, thanks tothis conversation, that when I
travel, I'm going to take thesoaps that are given to me that
I don't use and start bringingthem back.

So I'm going to get back intomy habit for that.
Now let's end with teacher ofthe year.
Are you still on sabbatical?
Yes, I'm on sabbatical untilJuly.
Okay, and what have you usedthe time for?

Speaker 1 (29:30):
So I feel so insanely grateful for the sabbatical,
because it truly is the gift oftime, and teachers never have
enough of it.
So I've been able to do so manypassion projects that I've been
wanting to do for several years, but I just, you know, could
never find the space to do it,and so one of the ones that I'm
most proud of is I actuallystarted a nonprofit organization
in honor of one of my formerstudents that passed away.

She was actually the mostloving and loved student that
I've ever had.
We all have a favorite one,even though teachers love to say
they don't.
She was mine, and I call her ascholar activist because that's
what she was.
Through all the poems that sheever wrote in my classroom, it
was about how deeply she wantedto see her community change for
the better, not just for herself, but also because she was a

teen mom.
She had two boys before shegraduated high school, and she
actually walked the stage in2021, just three weeks
I can't even imagine doingeverything that she did, but she
was the most resilient youngperson I've ever met, and she
was also the one, like I said,she'd send me her poems after
graduation, and we were just sotethered together.

I reflect on her as my youngersister, because I was only 21
when I first started teachingand she was close in age to me.
And that idea of sisterhoodright Just two girls trying to
figure it out in the world atthe same time.
That is where we found our bond, and, very tragically, a year
and a half after she graduatedhigh school, she passed away in
a car accident, and so I pouredmy heart and soul into the

search right for the best way torepresent her beautiful legacy
that she left behind in the onlyway that I knew how through
And so, during my sabbatical, Ifounded Sisterhood of Hope Inc.
Which is a 501c3 nonprofit thatis dedicated to elevating the
voices, power and brilliance ofgirls of color in Illinois
through the community ofsisterhood, just like her and I

And so, thanks to the generousdonation from the Drew Barrymore
Show and Five Below, wereceived $10,000 that made our
program for 20 high school girlsof color in Chicago and East St
Louis free to their familiesthis year, and we have engaged
those girls by pairing them withan individual mentor in their
community, doing positive youthdevelopment sessions with them

every single month, and we alsoare giving away four
scholarships to young moms inthe state of Illinois this
spring in honor of Demaya.
So in June we're bringing allthe girls together for what we
are lovingly calling a sistersymposium, where the girls are
going to share about thecompetencies that they learned
about, which are inspired by theresilience and beauty of
Demaya's life, and howsisterhood as a community can

change the trajectory of yourlife.
So that's one of the most proud,I think, moments of the past
year that I've engaged in.
And aside from that, the othercrazy project that we've engaged
in is my students arepublishing a book of their
So we're super excited that allthose little chat books that my
kids have put together from thepast seven years in East St

Louis, they are coming tofruition in a self-published
work that will be available onAmazon this summer.
So we're so excited to see kidssee themselves as real writers,
published authors who hadstories to tell and that are
going to touch the hearts andminds of so many people outside
of their community.
And I'm just really excited forthat and all the opportunities,

really grateful, that Teacherof the Year has given me and my

Speaker 2 (32:47):
Oh, lots of love, lots of love and heart out to
But I want to leave our guests.
I ask everybody that I have inthe.
In the previous I've been likewhat's your walk-up song?
Because I love music, likemusic is part of my therapy.
But now I'm asking because I amfocused on the teacher to

teacher connection and how do wekeep our profession just full
of light and life?
So why?
First I'm going to ask you, whyalternative education?
Why would, if I'm, if I'mthinking about teaching, why
should I consider going intoalternative education?

Speaker 1 (33:34):
I think, because there's always someone who is
going to want to teach the otherkids, and we have to be the
ones who are just as excited,just as excellent, just as
dedicated to the students whoare at the margins of the work.
That we get to do is that thereis no such thing as other
people's children in education.
They belong to all of us, andthat also includes kids who are

incarcerated or kids who are inalternative schools, kids who
are in maybe these silo areaswhere they don't get the same
attention and support as otherstudents do.
They, too, deserve quality,excellent educators who are
excited to see them every singleday, believe in them and accept
them for who they are, becausethey have the belief and the
potential of who they couldbecome later on in life, and I

think that's why I teach inalternative ed.

Speaker 2 (34:30):
And I know I threw that question in because now you
can answer why 11th and 12thgrade English?
Why become especially 11th and12th grade teaching English?

Speaker 1 (34:43):
Yeah, so 11th graders they think that they're almost
there and they are quite not.
And so I think, just kind oflike how people love teaching
10th graders right, becausethey're not 9th grade anymore
11th graders are not 9th or 10thgraders anymore, but they also
understand they're not 12th.
So that's like that spot in highschool right when you can
really still make a profoundimpact in the life of a young

person by helping them to moldwhat that next few years is
going to look like, because somany of them right, just like
all of us at that time in ourlife, they need the support of a
caring adult to help them tounpack who I might be in this
world, even if I'm not sure yet.
And that's the journey, theadventure and the challenge that

I invite all teachers toconsider in teaching upper
grades, but especially those twoupper grades in high school and
with 12th graders.
They are about to embark on,you know, the rest of their life
They're already living in thereal world, but we get to help
them make sense of it everysingle day.
And so I think that the sweetspot in education can be where

you make it, but for me it is11th and 12th grade and in the
English classroom.
It's because everyone has astory and helping young people
to believe that about themselvescan also help them lean into
the fact that every person thatthey meet for the rest of their
life also has a story.
And being interested inlearning what that story is to
celebrate the beauty of ourworld.

Speaker 2 (36:05):
Brianna, you are an amazing teacher and even more
amazing human being, and what agift it has been to interview
Thank you for being on Teachersin America and have an amazing
rest of your sabbatical, and nodoubt I will be buying that
poetry book when it comes out onAmazon.

Speaker 1 (36:28):
Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 2 (36:30):
If you or someone you know would like to be a guest
on the Teachers in Americapodcast, please email us at
shaped at hmhcocom.
Be the first to hear newepisodes of Teachers in America
by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, spotify or wherever you listen
to podcasts.
If you enjoyed today's show,please rate, review and share it
with your network.

You can find the transcript ofthis episode on our Shaped blog
by visiting hmhcocom.
Forward slash shape.
The link is in the show notes.
The Teachers in America podcastis a production of HMH.
Executive producers areChristine Condon and Tim Lee.
Editorial direction is byChristine Condon.

It is creatively directed andaudio engineered by Tim Lee.
Our producer and editor isJennifer Caruho.
Production designers are MiaFry and Thomas Velasquez.
Shape block post editors forthe podcast are Christine Condon
, jennifer Caruho and AliciaIvory.
Thanks again for listening.
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