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The power of fellowship

Aminata Khan

February 21, 2019

Aminata (“Amina”) Khan taught grade 6 science to summer school students as part of the inaugural cohort of Ascend Summer Fellows, during the summer before her senior year at Smith College. Following her completion of the fellowship, Khan was offered and accepted a full-time position at Brooklyn Ascend Middle School upon her graduation from college in May 2019. Below are Amina’s reflections on her summer as an Ascend Teaching Fellow and her future in education.

Prior to teaching at Ascend as a Summer Teaching Fellow, I had little teaching experience. Though I tutored chemistry in small groups and participated in various mentoring opportunities in and around Smith College, the thought of teaching and managing a classroom on my own was daunting, to say the least.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of teaching science to brilliant, witty, and energetic sixth-graders at Brooklyn Ascend Middle School. I learned that curiosity and questioning are the root of all learning; that students should not only remember what you taught them, but how you made them feel about the content; and that sometimes, less is more. I learned to understand the importance of engagement—that my science lessons couldn’t just be the delivery of information, but had to connect what I was teaching to what my students already knew and what they wanted to know.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned during the fellowship was the importance of human connection and building relationships to achieving my goals as a teacher.

Our summer school at Ascend’s Pitkin Avenue campus brought together mentors and students from across the network. Not only did teachers from different Ascend schools work together in the classroom for the first time, we also had students meeting each other for the first time. I watched new relationships form, and old ones blossom. I observed kids who were at first shy and quiet come to life with energy and excitement after just a few days.

Ndieye was one of those students. She was quiet and reserved at first, and I noticed that she didn’t like working in groups or participating in class discussions. I took the time to speak to her and learned that her family was from Senegal and that her mom and I shared the same name. By asking Ndieye questions aimed to better understand her, rather than punishing her for not participating in class, I was able to form a meaningful, lasting connection with her. After those conversations, she came into science every day with excitement on her face and an eagerness to learn. She even asked her homeroom teacher if she could do her math work and eat lunch in my room. On the last week of class during morning arrival she walked up to my post and gave me a hug.

“Ms. Khan, I have something for you,” she said. She pulled a bag of cookies out of her pocket and handed it to me, to thank me for teaching her over the summer. My heart still melts whenever I think about this.

By fostering relationships and creating a space in my classroom where my students felt comfortable, I also created space for my students to learn eagerly, and with confidence. I remember walking down the hallway and bumping into another one of my other students, Jayla.

“Ms. Khan, have you graded our unit tests yet?” Jayla said. “Not yet, but soon!” I told her. “Well, I can’t wait to get a 100 percent,” she replied with a huge, proud smile across her face.

My summer teaching at Ascend was everything I had hoped for and more, not only because of my rich experiences with students, but because I had the opportunity to work with phenomenal adults who made me a better teacher. I participated in professional development sessions with the network’s Responsive Classroom guru, [Ascend’s Managing Director of Leadership Development] Janna Genzlinger. I spent eight weeks working alongside and getting to know remarkable and transformative teachers, including my mentor, the astonishing Ms. Cora Neville.

I can’t even begin to name all the valuable lessons I learned from Ms. Neville. The sense of community she brought to our debrief meetings and her friendly and approachable demeanor made me feel both extremely comfortable and loved. Other teachers at Brooklyn Ascend Middle—even those who weren’t teaching at our summer school—offered welcome feedback and advice whenever I ran into them in our building.

Though my fellowship with Ascend has ended, I remain enthralled by Ascend’s commitment to provide a rich, engaging, and exuberant liberal arts education to students in Brooklyn. I feel so fortunate to have found an organization whose belief system so closely aligns with my own: that education can empower, that every student possess raw potential, and that to achieve that potential students must be instilled with a sense of purpose, agency, and belonging. At Ascend students benefit from personalized attention and are supported not only as learners, but as individuals.

I was thrilled to join the Ascend family last summer and to become a part of the Ascend team, and I am delighted that I will begin teaching at Brooklyn Ascend Middle School at the start of the 2019-20 school year as a full-time science teacher. I hope to create a warm and supportive environment where strong relationships between students and teachers can be developed, intellectual curiosity can be fostered, and where my students and I can grow to achieve exceptional outcomes.

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