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Teaching teens that success is within their reach

November 17, 2009

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Khalilah Jones M.A.T. ’10 was born to teach—she has no doubt about that. Since childhood, she has wanted to stand in front of a classroom and inspire students, wanted show them that regardless of where they are from, they can succeed.

“I don’t want to be a politician or a doctor or a nurse—I can’t see myself doing any of those,” Jones said. “But, this I can see. I can see myself working with kids, and I think I can inspire those doctors and nurses and politicians.”

Jones, a Portland native, began the graduate school’s Middle Level/High School Program over the summer. She hopes to use her education to help reduce the achievement gap between White students and students of color. Thinking back to her days as a student at Jefferson High School, she remembers feeling that college was beyond her reach, and she wants to be sure no one else has that type of misunderstanding.

“When I was in high school, I had great grades, I was in student council, but even as smart as I was, I just remember thinking college wasn’t accessible to me,” she explained. “I thought you had to pay out of pocket and that meant I couldn’t afford college. I dreamed of being a teacher, but no one ever told me how to get there. With all the experience I’ve gained, I’d love to teach in a setting where I can get students thinking about college. I think that if they hear it enough in the classroom, if someone’s there saying, ‘You can go to college, and let me tell you what it’s like,’ then it would be a given for them, rather than an ordeal like what I went through.”

Reading, writing, and rising up in Portland

A self-described “PPS baby,” Jones was born and raised in North Portland, where she attended Portland Public Schools and met the teachers who she credits with helping her get where she is today.

“I tell people all the time that I think I just got lucky and had really good teachers,” she added. “We didn’t have any books in the house growing up. I don’t remember my mom ever reading to me or taking me to the library. Over the years, I had teachers who really pushed me.”

One of the teachers who offered Jones encouragement and inspired her confidence was Linda Christensen, one of her language arts teachers at Jefferson High School.

“My most influential educational experience by far has been having Linda Christensen as a teacher,” Jones said.

Christensen is no stranger to the Lewis & Clark community, having served as the director of the Oregon Writing Project at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling for the past four years. Before coming to Lewis & Clark, Christensen taught at Portland’s Jefferson and Grant high schools for 22 years and served as the language arts curriculum specialist for Portland Public Schools.

“I always felt encouraged in Linda’s class to say whatever—or more often, write whatever—I was thinking,” Jones said. “I’m sure I could write before I was Linda’s student, but that’s when I just felt really good about doing it. And I thought, ‘I can be a writer and a teacher!’ She sparked that in me. In her class, there were so many opportunities to write and to express ourselves the way we wanted to. She always encouraged us to bring our home lives into it and to each have a distinctive voice.”

Christensen happily recalls Jones’ outstanding talents and her contributions to the classroom, saying Jones’ seriousness and focus during small group work made her seem much like a second teacher in the room.

“Khalilah is one of those students a teacher remembers for life,” Christensen said. “She is brilliant, motivated, creative, and a highly skilled writer. To this day, I still use Khalilah’s essays and poetry from her junior year in my workshops.”

In the following podcast, listen to Khalilah Jones read an untitled poem she wrote in 2009.

Jones’ voice resonates in Christensen’s influential text for language-arts instructors, Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word (2000). A piece Jones wrote in Christensen’s class appears in a section of the book titled “Essay with Attitude.”

“When I was a student, writing was a way to manage what was happening in my life,” Jones said. “I wrote some tough stuff, and Linda was always very supportive.”

Jones particularly remembers Christensen’s ability to reach all types of students, to shape assignments to their needs and interests.

“There was a boy in my class who wouldn’t write poetry, who hated poetry,” Jones explained. “But he liked to rap. So Linda was like, ‘OK, write a rap.’ I don’t think at 16 I could have articulated what it was about her teaching that worked so well. Now I can see her work from a different angle, and I can say, ‘Oh, that’s what she was doing!’”

Learning the difference between being a teacher and just teaching

After graduating from high school, Jones moved to Louisiana to begin college, before earning her bachelor’s degree in English at Portland State University in 2004. She went on to receive an alternative teaching certification and moved back to the South, working for four years as a special education teacher in inner city Atlanta.

Far from the career she’d always dreamed of, Jones found the experience of teaching at the alternative school frustrating and discouraging. Not having been through a robust teacher education program, and not having access to the resources she needed to do the best job possible, she felt she wasn’t able to give enough to her students.

“I felt like I was part of a system that was just pushing these kids through,” she said. “After all that frustration, I decided education wasn’t right for me and said ‘I’m never teaching again.’”

Jones moved back in Portland in 2008 and got part-time work in the offices of two public schools. Though she wasn’t in the classroom or working directly with students, she found herself observing how the teachers interacted with their students and with the principals and she immediately sensed a different attitude toward education than what she’d seen in Atlanta.

“There was this totally different vibe,” she declared. “It was a completely different idea of how to help the kids. It wasn’t just about passing the test.”

With her faith in the potential to affect change restored, Jones decided to recommit herself to her dream of teaching.

“I realized that, if I’m better prepared, then I can help the kids in a way that’s meaningful to them and to me,” she explained. “It was a very conscious decision to come back to school. Having already had some experience in the classroom, I have the benefit of knowing what I don’t know. And now, I’m excited about being a really good teacher, as opposed to just teaching.”

Joining a community of thinkers at Lewis & Clark

When deciding where to attend graduate school, Jones found Lewis & Clark’s focus on themes of multiculturalism and social justice central to her decision to enroll. And, she said, it didn’t hurt that her former teacher Linda Christensen, a person who’s opinion she greatly respects, is here.

Christensen was delighted by Jones’ return to Portland and her decision to pursue a career in education.

“Last year, I was teaching an after-school teacher workshop at Jefferson,” Christensen remembered. “Khalilah had just returned from Atlanta; I was so excited to see her. She immediately jumped into the class and participated and wrote and shared and argued and laughed. Her written brilliance, but also her spark and shine makes the entire classroom light up when she’s in it. I am so excited she’s becoming a teacher.”

In addition to the familiarity of her longtime mentor, Jones has come to appreciate the community of her cohort at Lewis & Clark. She says the group of future educators makes her hopeful about the future of public education in the United States.

“We’re all thinking about community and society and the messages our students leave our class with,” Jones explained. “We’re very thoughtful about what messages we want to be sending out, and we have a lot to learn from one another because we each have such different perspectives. I may be focused on those kids who grew up like me—with a single parent and a lack of resources—but another person is thinking about the experience of immigrant kids, another is thinking about environmental issues, another about international education, another about girls in science. Together, we’re building this community of thinkers and teachers.”

In addition to her discussions with her cohort, Jones has enjoyed being challenged by her professors to consider issues in education from different perspectives.  One of the first courses she took at Lewis & Clark was Professor Zaher Wahab’s Social, Historical, and Ethical Perspectives in Education, which offers an examination of the inequalities that exist in education as well as practical ways to effect change.

“In Professor Wahab’s class, the issues that came up and the conversations we had were amazing to me because people don’t usually talk about those topics,” she said. “We talked about race, and oppression, and privilege that we don’t even realize we have. It was a phenomenal experience.”

Wahab also challenged Jones and her classmates to consider what it would take for them to retire in the classroom.

“I’ve met teachers who can’t wait to get out of the classroom,” she added. “Some people go to schools and just work, and maybe that explains why they get burnt out. I really want to teach, so I’m thinking about how I need to take care of myself so I go in to the classroom excited and I leave excited. I can’t see myself doing any other job. I couldn’t survive in an office, and kids are the only people I can see myself spending my days with.”

In the following podcast, listen to Khalilah Jones discuss how she hopes to stay excited about education throughout her career.

Since beginning her master’s program, Jones says she’s come to realize how much she values the support of her family, mentors, and cohort members. A mother of two boys, aged 8 and 2, Jones calls the yearlong program an exercise in time management. In addition to attending classes and student teaching at her alma mater Jefferson High School, Jones spends her weekends working as a youth counselor in a residential boys home.

“Sure, I’m busy,” she said. “I feel like on the small scale it’s a sacrifice, but I couldn’t tell my boys that I didn’t finish because it was hard. That’s not an excuse I’m going to accept from them, so certainly I can’t say that. I don’t think the things you want come without hard work.”

Encouraging others to rise up

When Jones thinks about the future, she sees the ways her education will affect the lives of others, drawing a direct connection between her own achievement and the potential of her students and her own children. Midway through her master’s program, she’s already looking ahead to her next degree.

“Someday, I want to get a Ph.D. because, literally, before attending college in the South, I had never met an African American with a Ph.D., and I just assumed we didn’t get them,” she said. “Growing up in Portland, I’d never seen a black doctor, never seen a black lawyer, and had very few black teachers. Today, even with there being a black President, I don’t know that kids connect his success to what they can do in their own lives. I think about how different I want it to be for my sons, because they can see what I’ve attained. I want all kids to know that regardless of where they come from, they can succeed.”

The lessons Jones learned from her former teacher Linda Christensen remain central to her mission.

“I still take Linda’s advice really seriously,” she explained. “We have totally different styles of teaching, but I know I can bring her into my classroom in certain ways. Her message about the pursuit of social justice and ‘rising up’ has guided the education I have pursued as well as the educator I’m becoming.”

In and out of the classroom, Jones hopes to be a positive influence on young people, offering them the support and encouragement they need to achieve their goals.

“When I asked my eight-year-old what he wants to be when he grows up, he said he wanted to be a builder,” she said “I asked him some more questions and realized what he really wants to do is design buildings. So, I told him, ‘You don’t want to be a builder, you want to be an architect.’ That’s so important, the message that he should be thinking bigger. I think kids should always reach for the top of the scale.”