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A Classroom Where Students Find Inspiration in the Classics

July 30, 2019
In Atlanta, Kathryn Stanley helps students connect with their culture and history – to build a better future.

In her decade teaching at Atlanta Youth Academy, Kathryn Stanley has been committed to ensuring students get a “culturally connected education.”

The private Christian school, located in Atlanta’s Thomasville Heights neighborhood, serves primarily African-American students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Kathryn teaches English to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, as well as eighth-grade history.

She seeks to nurture a love of words and books in her scholars, while also helping them develop a sense of pride in African-American culture and confidence in their ability to succeed.

Why is it important to provide your students with a culturally connected education?

We still live in world where children of color are made to feel – through media and other images – that their experiences are inferior and that they themselves are inferior. Exposing my scholars to counter messages through literature helps them gain the confidence to operate in any space.

Can you describe some examples of how you teach that?

We’ve had projects like an African-American Living Wax Museum, where scholars portray African-Americans who made their mark in the STEM fields. Every year, we go on a civil rights and college tour in the South. I am intentional about teaching the African-American experience in literature, so our scholars have some knowledge of the experience of slavery and segregation before these trips.

In 2016, we traveled to South Carolina to visit Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where the mass shooting occurred in 2015. Going to South Carolina a year after the massacre at Mother Emanuel was life changing. Many of our students went to the altar during the worship service. One student was moved to tears.

I don't shield my scholars. They are sometimes discouraged that they are fighting the same battles their grandparents fought. My job is to help them find and use their voices to change the world.

Why do you think literature and English are important?

Literature allows my students to enter worlds different from their own. This allows them to be exposed to times, places and characters – and in some cases to escape what may be going on in their own lives. They can safely discuss their own beliefs, experiences and ideas through the lens of a character.

What are some books that your students connect with the most?

Frederick Douglass becomes a hero to my students when we read his autobiography. They see this strong, self-taught man, who ran away from being a slave and became honored around the world. His is a message of hard work and hope. My kids thirst for those sort of role models.

When I began teaching The Diary of Anne Frank, I was surprised at how my students connected with her experience. A Jewish Girl who lived in the 1930s seems an unlikely heroine for a 21st-century child in Atlanta. Because of that, I tried to include various extension activities to foster connections.

Students not only gained perspective about a girl in a particular time in history, but also recognized that – in spite of the oppression she suffered, she also had typical teenage experiences. They learn children are children in universal ways.

Kathryn Stanley celebrates the graduation of her eighth grade students at Atlanta Youth Academy.

Why is teaching important to you personally?

It gives me an opportunity to help my scholars to explore their gifts and find their voice. It’s probably the hardest job I have ever had, but also the most rewarding. We are a small school of about 150 students. We have personal relationships with the students and their families. I also enjoy teaching in a Christ-centered school because we are able to help students connect to their faith. I teach them to love God with their minds, to love their neighbor and respond to the needs of the community through service.

What are some of the challenges your students face?

We have students who have economic and other challenges. We have children being raised by grandparents, aunts. We have some students whose parents have experienced incarceration. So they are being raised by villages of families. I look out for kids who may have hidden dysfunction. You never know what experiences a child has when they walk into your classroom. That does affect learning. It’s hard for them to put things happening outside of school on the back burner.

What is the best part of your job?

Seeing my students when they come back and visit. Recently I had a visit from a student who had struggled when he was in my class. Now he is getting ready to go to college and major in aviation science. Just seeing where God takes our children after they leave us, and seeing how much Atlanta Youth Academy influences their journey, it makes the job worthwhile. Students want to come back and tell us how they are doing. When kids are in middle school, sometimes you don’t always see the growth. You are just planting seeds. I call myself a seed planter. The growth, you see later.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing teachers?

There’s always the financial aspect – the idea that teachers should be compensated better. There are so many teachers who must work outside the classroom and the school. That stress leads wonderful teachers out of the profession. Another challenge is competing with the digital age, balancing technology with "old school" teaching.

What is one thing people might not know about teachers?

Our work never ends. Weekends and summers, our work is ongoing. People think it’s a great job. You get summers off. We often take our work home with us. Not only the work itself, but the children. We think about ‘How am I going to reach this kid?’ Those of us who are committed to the work, it can be all consuming. The breaks are well earned.

The Walton Family Foundation provided seed funding to Arete Scholars, which offers need-based scholarships to place students in schools that best suit their needs, including Atlanta Youth Academy.

Teachers Inspire is a series of stories that highlights the talented professionals who are inspiring students across the U.S.
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