'Civil rights movement of our time'

By Dana Glaser

It was Back to School day at Edwin Markham Middle School in South Central, Los Angeles. Nick Melvoin ’04 had 30 students in his seventh grade English as a Second Language class, but there were only four parents sitting in his classroom that afternoon.

Melvoin graduated from Harvard University last June with no background in education. He plans to eventually attend law school on the east coast before returning to Los Angeles, where he hopes to get involved in state and local politics. But for now Melvoin is a teacher, working in a community he says he can’t walk around in after dark and hoping to do the “statistically impossible”: raise the reading level of his seventh and eighth grade students from third grade to fifth grade in one year.

Melvoin, along with Lara Friedrich ’04, Yoni Geffen ’06 and Danielle Kasirer ’04, is a corps member of Teach for America, an organization that trains recent college graduates to teach for two years at public schools in low-income communities. The organization looks for college students who have exhibited a high level of leadership and puts them through a rigorous application process.

Applicants are required to submit their transcripts (according to teachforamerica.org the average corps member has a GPA of 3.6) and two essays. They are then interviewed by phone and the most promising applicants are invited to a day-long interview.

“We were put in groups of about 16, and first we had to teach a 5-minute lesson to the other interviewees on a topic of our choosing,” Friedrich said. “Then they split us up into two groups of eight and gave us a problem we had to work out together that was related to educational inequity. Then there was independent work, where we had to work on a hypothetical problem by ourselves.”

Once accepted, Friedrich and Melvoin attended a five-week teaching “Institute” over the summer, commonly known as “teacher’s boot camp.”

“We were up at 5 a.m. and were scheduled from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” she said.

The “boot camp” was a combination of supervised teaching – Friedrich taught writing to students in danger of repeating sixth grade at K265 in Brooklyn – and workshops on how to be a teacher.

“We were observed 24/7,” said Melvoin, whose years of experience at Camp Harmony inspired him to apply to Teach for America. “I was never teaching alone.”

Melvoin is now working toward his Master’s Degree in Education from Loyola Marymount University. Teachers trained by the organization become official employees of the school district in which they work, which means Melvoin is subject to the California law that requires all teachers to be accredited. Friedrich, who teaches in New York City, did not have to receive extra training to teach at Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn, New York.

Melvoin and Friedrich agree that the first year is the hardest year, because, as Melvoin explained, new teachers have to learn as they go. Friedrich agrees with Teach For America’s idea that good leaders can command a classroom, she said there’s an “x-factor.”

“You can teach someone how to stand up straight and how to project their voice, but I have yet to figure out how to capture and retain the attention of 12-year-olds for 45 to 90 minutes at a stretch. How do you make them excited about learning when learning is one of the least cool things around?”

“Eleventh grade at Harvard-Westlake is hard,” she added. “I’ve been fortunate to get one of the best educations around, but all the prep school and fancy colleges in the world could not prepare me for what I do every day.”

For Melvoin, the language barrier presents a challenge. He teaches a class of almost exclusively Latino children of immigrants, and though he can understand Spanish he can’t really speak it, so the students sometimes have to translate for their parents. This becomes a problem when he has to take disciplinary action.

“When I taught summer school I had a kid who sat in class and made sheep noises,” he said, laughing. “You know, ‘baaa.’ So I had to call the mother and figure out how to explain to her that her son was making sheep noises. When I told her, the mother was like ‘Damn, I hate it when he does that.’”

Though they teach on opposite ends of the country, both Melvoin and Friedrich live on a salary of approximately $45,000, the starting salary of a teacher in their respective cities. Both agree that their salaries are livable for students fresh out of college, though Melvoin said he could understand why someone wouldn’t want to make a living of it. For Friedrich the hardest part is paying for classroom supplies out of her paycheck.

“Will I continue teaching after I finish my two-year commitment? That remains to be seen,” she said.

Teach for America, Melvoin explained, has a two-pronged approach to improving the American education system.

The first is getting better teachers into the schools now and disproving the adage “those who can’t do, teach.” The second is to make young, promising people aware of the issues of education, so that when they “graduate” from Teach for America and become important leaders in society, they will effect long term change in the education system.

“So yes, we’re putting a Band-aid over the bleeding education system,” he said. “But we’re also looking at the surgery that can be done.”

In the end, Friedrich and Melvoin teach because they believe that education is an issue of inequality. Melvoin called the failures of the educational system the “civil rights movement of our time.”

“The quality of your education sholuld not be determined by what zip code you’re from,” Friedrich said.

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