Three NIU undergraduate students are studying towns and counties around the Great Lakes region that…
Nakeya wants to be a ballet dancer. Jamari wants to be a train conductor. Isabel wants to design fashions for famous people. Deandre wants to be an astronaut. Phillip wants to be an animator. Kenyatti wants to produce videogames.
For these second-graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Bellwood, these aspirations are not just dreams.
They are visions.
Even better, these life goals are thoroughly thought through, not just quick answers spouted in response to the eternal question asked of children about what they want to become when they grow up. And, thanks to support from students in the NIU College of Education’s Open Doors project, the children have drawn roadmaps of the steps necessary to achieve their visions.
And that, Young says, is important for these young students to understand: “From our visits, we have learned that there are children at Lincoln who already doubt that higher education is a possibility for them,” she says.
It’s a notion that Open Doors is working to dispel, and it’s why Young arranged for the children’s Nov. 10 visit to the NIU campus in DeKalb.
“Being able to see a college campus, a classroom, a residence hall, a dining hall and other university buildings is important,” she says. “My hope is that I’m planting a seed that college is a part of their future.”
Young’s students, all of whom are seniors in the Early Childhood Education program, see the potential of all the students they work with at Lincoln.
“One really opened up to me about what he wanted to be when he grew up and why,” says Stephanie Ramos, an early childhood studies major from Rochelle, Ill. “He wanted to be a teacher because he wanted to help students who came from schools like his.”
* * *
Close to lunchtime on a late October morning, as the Lincoln children present their “vision boards” in front of the class, students eagerly talk of becoming nurses, doctors, choreographers, professional athletes, police officers and military service personnel.
Many want to become teachers; that’s Ashtyn’s plan, too, but it’s just the first rung on the ladder toward becoming a principal.
At Lincoln, where 80 percent of students are African-American, in a school district where 80 percent of students are considered low-income, setting the bar high is an important mission.
A hallway illustration tells students just who – and what – they are. Educators. Artists. Creators. Scientists. A friend. Bankers. Thinkers. Important. Authors. Engineers. Lawyers. Leaders. Explorers. Loved.
Second-grade teacher Terrance Thomas believes the pre-service teachers from NIU offer positive affirmation through reinforcing those “Yes I Can” phrases the Lincoln children see every day.
“These young people have really helped to engage the students, and that’s something I love about this. It’s something I preach in my class: ‘You’ve got to go to college,’ ” Thomas says. “It can never be too early for them to hear about college, about careers, about goals – and if they become a trendsetter, it will expand to their families and others.”
For Young, it’s personal.
Raised in Bellwood, she attended Lincoln as a child and returned to teach there after earning her bachelor’s degree from NIU.
Warm hugs from her former colleagues are abundant as she travels the hallways and pops into classrooms and the main office. It’s clear that they deeply love and miss her.
“Lincoln was my first real job. I went back to the school I grew up in. I loved it,” she says. “My friends would ask me, ‘What’s your next move?’ I said, ‘I’m going to be here for 35 years. I want to be one of those teachers you come back to see years later and she’s still there and remembers your name.’ ”
But when the door opened to earn a doctoral degree while working to support future teachers in their learning in the NIU College of Education, Young felt she “couldn’t pass up such an amazing opportunity to not only support future teachers but to pursue a lifelong dream as well.”
Her return to DeKalb provided an additional mission.
“My students here weren’t really trying to find places to work with a lot of minority children,” she says. “I think they were trying to avoid those schools because they didn’t know what they would experience in them. They simply just didn’t know. I thought, ‘I need to take them out there so they can see for themselves.’ ”
No grades are on the line during NIU students’ Open Doors experiences – just reflections, class discussions about the experiences, and feedback.
“I don’t want my students thinking about all the things they might be doing wrong while they are working with students. I’m not there with a clipboard, pen and paper, saying, ‘OK, check, you’re doing this right, or no, you’re doing this wrong,’ ” Young says. “I want them out there making connections, talking to children, getting to really know them and supporting their learning.”
* * *
Open Doors, as stated in the original proposal to Lincoln administrators, provides NIU students with “the opportunity to work with an amazing, diverse, often underrepresented group of students” and to have “hands-on experience working with a diverse community of primary children and directly observe highly qualified teachers during their day-to-day instruction.”
Neither a clinical experience nor a student-teaching assignment, Open Doors is an early chance to practice in primary-grade classrooms.
Yazmin Nambo, from Rochelle, believes it’s important for pre-service teachers to glimpse the full picture of Pre-K-12 schools – something Open Doors has given her.
“I’ve really enjoyed it; it allows students to see a different view of education and to experience the diversity of an urban setting,” Nambo says.
“Every child is different, for sure, and their surroundings and environment play a big role in how they develop,” she adds. “This has taught me to be a lot more open and a lot more receptive to these different backgrounds. It’s definitely made me want to work with low-income children and children of diverse backgrounds.”
Dani Cornwell, from Sterling, calls the Lincoln second-graders “friends.”
She believes the benefits are mutual and will shape her career. “The more experience I can get in different classrooms, the better. Seeing the different kinds of schools and the different groups you can work with, you’re just more comfortable working with kids in general.”
Indy Douglas – “Mr. D.” is the only man among Young’s Open Doors students – hails from tiny Coleta, Ill.
Although the rural town’s population is only 140, that doesn’t mean Douglas wasn’t “blessed with so many wonderful teachers” during his childhood. Now that he is almost ready to join their ranks, he finds that his preparation is well-rounded.
“(Open Doors) was a little intimidating at first, but kids are kids, and this experience has taught me the amount that they can learn from you, no matter where they’re from,” he says. “I love watching that lightbulb moment, when they build that knowledge and their faces just light up.”
The daughter and granddaughter of teachers exclusively plans to work in a community like Bellwood, even if that goal might worry some in her family.
“I actually grew up in a low-income household, and I’ve seen what a difference teachers can make. I’ve seen how influential teachers can be; how the kids just gravitate to my mom and trust her,” Wicks says.
“Bellwood is a really great school, and I love the culture there,” she adds. “The kids are so open, fun and outgoing. All the teachers are really passionate. You can tell right away when you walk into a classroom. I’m like, ‘OK, this is where I want to be.’ ”
* * *
Natalie Young already has expanded the scope of Open Doors, which she launched in 2014.
Previously dedicated only for seniors, who make four trips each fall to create the vision boards with second-graders, the program now also takes juniors to Bellwood in the spring to work with first-graders on student-specific needs.
Lincoln teachers provide “amazing feedback” and gratitude, Young says, but she finds true affirmation from the mouths of the children.
“The Bellwood kids love, love, love when we come. It’s always, ‘Will we see you next week? When are you coming back?’ ” she says.
“This past Tuesday, when I was in the hall going to the principal’s office, the students we worked with last year were in the hallway and they saw me – and they said, ‘You guys are here? Where are your people?’ I said that they were in the classrooms working with new students. And the kids said, ‘Aww, aren’t you going to come to our classroom?’ ” she adds. “It really does impact them. We meant something to them. That they can see me, and have that memory of the work they did with NIU students that one year. That’s truly phenomenal. That’s a great feeling.”
Following the final visit, after the children have completed and presented their vision boards, after goodbyes have been said, Young asks her NIU students to reflect.
- “The most memorable moment in Bellwood would have to be seeing my students present. They were so excited to give their speeches. I was pleasantly surprised. I almost wanted to tear up because I was so happy for them. Another memorable experience I had was when one of my students said he wanted to be the president so he could bring homes to the homeless. That melted my heart. I was beyond proud!”
- “When beginning to present, the teacher asked what group wanted to go first. Every one of them raised their hands and were so excited to show their classmates what they want to be in the future. The teacher said they are usually so shy and never want to present in front of class. I thought this was awesome that not only they weren’t afraid to present but that they were so excited to present their future careers to everyone.”
- “I feel I am doing the right thing with my life. This Open Doors program has shown me that there is a lot of diversity and opportunities in the realm of education. The one thing I know is that I have a place in my heart for working with children. This experience validated that even more. Something else this experience has taught me is that there are so many schools, and teaching styles, and communities that vary greatly from one another. I have a wide range of opportunities and different directions that I can choose from, which I am more than excited about.”
- “I would tell students to go in to Bellwood with an open mind and be prepared to hear both wonderful things from the kids but also some very sad or upsetting things from them. I would tell them to be prepared to fall in love with education even more after the Bellwood trips. To some of the future students, this might be a real cultural plunge, but … they will learn a lot, and this experience will make them more culturally aware and, in the long run, their experience will make them great teachers.”
- “My advice for future students would be to try your best, make connections and have an open mind. Many people go into new situations with a closed mind, so they automatically think the worst. Having an open mind could really change your whole life.”
- “Because of this experience I feel I am now less likely to let certain stereotypes and labels cloud my judgment. Though that is something that teachers are taught from the beginning – to not have preconceived notions – I feel that sometimes it still happens unconsciously. Personally, for me it works to have experienced a situation firsthand in order for it to actually stick. There is a difference in studying something theoretically and then applying it in actuality.”
The reflections please Young, who finds in them (and the Lincoln trips themselves) a reassurance of her purpose and the motivation to continue.
“I am extremely proud of my students during our visits to Bellwood. I think they represent NIU’s College of Education very well. They give 110 percent to the students they support while visiting Lincoln,” she says. “My goal is for my students to not only teach the children, but to learn from the students as well, which is what all good teachers do.”
And what should her students learn?
“It’s really what I hope they unlearn. I hope they unlearn any stereotypes and misrepresentations that they might have learned about black schools and young black children,” she says. “That’s my hope.”
— Mark McGowan, NIU Newsroom