After teaching in the classroom for the past 12 years, the most profound lesson Joy Anderson ’96 has learned is to never say never. After all, had she abided by her eighth-grade decision to “never” again attend another Catholic school, she never would have attended —and graduated from — Notre Dame.
That means she never would have become involved in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, and she never would have sought a faculty position at Saint Francis High School — a Holy Cross school. And had she not been at Saint Francis, Anderson would never have met Robert, the student who transformed her.
Robert lives in East Palo Alto, California, an area known for horrific crime and gang violence. Saint Francis High School, located in Mountain View, California, is in the heart of the affluent Silicon Valley. Despite its surroundings, Saint Francis remains true to the original mission of the Holy Cross brothers — to educate those who need it most. And the school’s outreach program for disadvantaged students has grown significantly over the years.
It was through this outreach program that Anderson met Robert, whose determination to receive a good education far exceeded the challenging circumstances he had to overcome in order to get it.
Anderson, who has been on the faculty at Saint Francis for 10 years, developed the curriculum for a resource lab to help outreach-program students catch up with the rest of the student body and practice the skills necessary for success in learning — and in life. Assisting the school’s admissions panel, Anderson reviews some of the applications submitted by prospective freshmen.
When she read Robert’s, initially she didn’t see much hope for him. He had a history of poor grades, and his entrance test scores were low, “perhaps some of the lowest we had ever seen,” Anderson recalls. There were doubts Robert would be able to handle the rigors of a college-prep curriculum.
Still, he secured an interview. The first question asked of him: “Why do you want to attend Saint Francis?”
Anderson had heard the same response uttered by countless students: “I just want to get into a good college.” She expected that response from Robert. But Robert told Anderson something that remains with her today: “Right now, I go to a school with some crazy kids. I’m sick of living in a place where everyone gets shot. I don’t want the rest of my life to be like this. I feel like Saint Francis can give me the chance to change my life forever,” he said.
In that moment Anderson was, in her own word, “transformed.”
Painful side of ‘never’
“I recognized the difference between my eighth-grade expectations of high school and Robert’s,” she says. Anderson grew up in a safe and supportive environment where she had the luxury of using the word “never” in an attempt to express her whims and desires (“I’m never going to Catholic school again.”)
“Whereas Robert had probably heard that word his whole life,” Anderson says. “He was ‘never’ going to get into a good school. He was ‘never’ smart enough. He would ‘never’ escape his fate in East Palo Alto.”
Determined to help Robert change his course of “never,” Anderson fought to have him admitted to Saint Francis. “I was told by many that, if he was admitted — and that was a big ‘if’ — his freshman year would require significant time, work and effort on both our parts,” she says. “But I knew he was more than his test scores. Robert was not willing to settle, and he was brimming with promise.”
Robert is now a sophomore at Saint Francis High School. And his story is one that Anderson tells often. Most recently she shared it with the audience of teachers who attended the 2008 Excellence in Teaching conference at Notre Dame. Anderson was there accepting the Notre Dame Outstanding Educator Award, but what she shared about Robert and his subsequent success at her school — he’s maintaining his GPA and is playing on the junior varsity football team — reveals more about Anderson’s dedication and commitment to her students than it does about Robert.
Anderson’s speech was a reminder of the importance of educators who act with determination and compassion for the “Roberts” of the world. And it’s that passion that led Notre Dame to create the Excellence in Teaching conference in the first place.
Originally called “A Tribute to Frank O’Malley,” the first teaching conference in 1991 brought K-12 teachers from around the country to campus for a weekend to share knowledge and best practices, attend seminars and, in general, better their craft.
Hosted by the Notre Dame Alumni Association, today the conference encourages educators to become students again. Teachers and administrators from public, Catholic and private schools nationwide — Notre Dame alumni and non-alumni alike — come to campus to hear from inspirational speakers and participate in innovative workshops, all designed to help infuse them with new techniques to share in their classrooms.
“I was interested in attending the conference because the topics to be addressed by both the keynote speaker and workshop leader resonated strongly with my educational beliefs,” says Brent Dexter, who teaches at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver.
“If we view formal schooling as the potential setting to practice some key critical thinking skills students can use on their enriching lifelong learning journey,” he says, “then we should direct our instruction to meeting all of our students’ needs and interests in relevant ways.” Dexter says he was especially interested in hearing keynote speaker Chauncey Veatch ’75J.D., the 2002 National Teacher of the Year, share his experience and theories relevant to teaching.
Demonstrating compassion for underprivileged students and a determination to afford them the learning resources necessary for success, Veatch requests that students caught up in gangs or drugs, non-English speaking students, special-needs students, pregnant teens and students with learning disabilities be placed in his classes at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal, California. He also has dedicated time to students in reading-intervention programs and Migrant Head Start, a private, nonprofit organization committed to assisting migrant students and their families.
At the conference, Veatch emphasized the role each educator plays in celebrating the talents of every child.
“I was tremendously inspired by Mr. Veatch’s keynote message that challenged all educators to see the true potential in all children in our schools,” Dexter says. “The challenge of teaching is not trying to fit the square pegs of our students’ existing skill sets and knowledge bases into our preconceived round holes of a set curriculum, but rather, to meet students where they are as learners and travel with them on their learning journey.”
Additionally, Dexter says, “A teacher’s success should be tied to the success of his or her students. If students fail, educators and teachers need to own that failure and critically examine their practice.”
Taking it home
While a keynote speaker such as Veatch provides framework for conference attendees, it is up to the workshop leaders to turn the motivational ideas and concepts into a practical reality so the participants can bring new approaches to teaching back to their schools.
One of those workshop leaders is Ann Anzalone. For the past 25 years, she has led learning and teaching workshops for K-12 teachers, administrators and parents. Anzalone teaches graduate classes at Wright State University and at the McGregor School of Antioch University.
At the 2008 conference, Anzalone’s workshop, “Learning with Thinking in Mind: Developing Critical Thinking Skills,” provided educators with strategies for developing student thinking patterns. The workshop focused on showing students how to focus their minds to study efficiently for long-term learning.
“Ms. Anzalone’s presentation provided a wide variety of information to use in the classroom,” Dexter says. “I’ve successfully used some practical vocabulary review techniques with my students. And I’ve even used some of the brain-building exercises with my 4-year-old son.”
“Ann gave me insight into how students think and learn,” Joy Anderson says. “I have found many of the activities that she modeled have been helpful in my Academic Resource Lab, a class for students with learning difficulties. By implementing some of her exercises into daily activities, I’ve been able to help students determine if they are better auditory or visual learners, and they have practiced some techniques to improve their ability to memorize and recall information.”
Thomas Armstrong, who has more than 30 years of teaching experience, will lead the workshops for the 2009 conference, which takes place Oct. 9-11, 2009. One workshop will focus on developmentally appropriate teaching methods. Another will discuss how every child is born a natural genius with capacities that can be diminished throughout childhood by cultural and environmental influences — environmental influences like those that affected Robert in East Palo Alto.
“Robert still sticks out in my mind so much because he embodied the mission of the [Saint Francis] school,” Anderson says. “Here was a student that wanted to be educated, both heart and mind, and, even as a 14-year-old, he could articulate that education could change the world, especially the world he lived in every day. He certainly is not the only student that has impacted my life, and that is one of the reasons that I enjoy teaching. Every year gives me the opportunity to meet new ‘Roberts.’”
Educators interested in attending the 2009 Excellence in Teaching Conference can learn more at alumni.nd.edu/eit.
Kerry Hutton is the spring 2009 Hannah Storm Journalism Intern in the ND Alumni Association.