When Brittany Barker thinks about why she loves teaching, a flood of reasons come to her mind.
She loves the “unpredictability” each new lesson brings. She likes that her students are sensitive and funny, armed with “limitless jokes” that set an upbeat mood for the day.
And she loves the responsibility that comes with being at the front of the class – and the world of opportunity a good education can open for students.
“Teachers are doing human work. We are working with small humans and we’re teaching them how to be adults and how to co-exist in the world,” says Brittany, who teaches at DREAM Charter High School in East Harlem.
“I want to teach them how to envision their future and how to build that future for themselves.”
DREAM was founded, as Harlem RBI, in 1991 as a youth baseball program in East Harlem. Over time, DREAM worked to address greater community needs, like low literacy and high school graduation rates, through summer and after-school enrichment. DREAM Charter School opened in 2008.
Today, DREAM serves more than 2,500 youth annually through DREAM Charter School and community programs in East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Newark. DREAM Charter School currently serves 750 young people in grades Pre-K through 10.
Brittany teaches performing arts and activism to ninth and 10th graders at DREAM. About 200 students are enrolled at DREAM Charter High School, which aims to provide young scholars with an inclusive and nurturing academic environment that will prepare them for college and other forms of post-secondary success.
“One of my main goals is to teach students how to use their imagination,” says Brittany, who has been teaching four years, including two at DREAM.
“I feel like a lot of curriculum asks students to respond, but how much asks them to envision?”
DREAM places a strong emphasis on social justice and civic engagement. Those values inform the curriculum in Brittany’s class, which includes units ranging from traditional performing arts like songwriting, acting, poetry and playwriting to psychological warfare in commercials, social media, and afrofuturism.
“The course teaches students how to use art as a tool for social change. But it’s much more than that. It’s about teaching them how to be responsible human beings,” says Brittany.
“One thing I love about DREAM is that I have autonomy. I essentially have control over how I teach my students, the ideas I want them to think about, and the goals I want them to reach.”
Brittany was born and raised in Harlem. She attended elementary and middle school in Manhattan before going to high school in the South Bronx, where an 11th grade college class in Caribbean literature, taught by a college professor named Anamaria Flores, ignited a passion for culturally-responsive learning and an interest in teaching.
“The texts that she used, such as Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands and Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones, were foundational in my understanding of the connected histories of People of Color,” Brittany says.
“It was the first time I was able to see myself in the classroom – the first time I saw experiences similar to my own reflected in the work I was doing in class. Professor Flores made education and learning very personal for me. That shifted the way that I thought about my education and what I wanted to demand from it.”
Now as a teacher herself, Brittany aims to create a learning environment relevant to her students’ own cultural and life experiences.
“A very important part of being a student is seeing yourself in your education. I want them to feel the way that I did in that 11th grade Caribbean literature course,” she says.
“Without (my teacher) lighting the fire, I wouldn't have learned until college that my experience and those of the people who look like me were valuable and crucial areas of study. Without the foundation, I wouldn't be the teacher that I am in the classroom today.”
In the classroom, Brittany doesn’t always jump right into the lesson, preferring instead to start classes in conversation with students.
“I leave room for them to bring themselves into the classroom. Sometimes it’s as small as playing a song they like,” she says. “Once I create that relationship, it does wonders in opening up the conversation and allowing it to become more high level and rigorous.”
In one recent unit exploring the impact of social media, Brittany had students read their own posts and reflect on how they might be responsible for shaping attitudes or influencing the digital conversation, for better or worse.
In the memoir-writing unit, students explored trauma they had experienced and how it had affected them.
A lifelong poet and performer, Brittany also designed and currently leads DREAM’s Third Space Initiative Arts Program where she mentors a group of eight young writers and performers.
“We need to teach our students about how to be more than academics, to be more than numbers, more than an English Language Arts analysis," Brittany says. "We have to teach them how to envision a new world, then how to make it become a reality."