This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Since 2012, the national organization Teaching Tolerance has been giving awards every two years to educators for the work they have done in preparing kids to be responsible citizens in a multicultural world.
This year, for the first time, two teachers from Philadelphia are among those recognized: Rebecca Coven of the Workshop School and Charlie McGeehan of the U School. Both schools are in the District’s innovation network, and they structure the curriculum around projects and problem-solving rather than tests.
Teaching Tolerance, which chose a total of five award-winners, describes itself in its mission statement as helping “teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.”
Coven received the award after being nominated by staff members at Eastern State Penitentiary for the work she did in teaching her students about criminal justice reform. Earlier in the year, Coven had taken her students to visit Eastern State, one of the nation’s oldest prisons and now a museum, and had a few of them present their projects at Eastern State’s Martin Luther King Day program.
Coven, who has been at the Workshop School for three years, sees her teaching role not as being a gatekeeper of information, but as a guide to help students explore and make new discoveries on their own.
“I feel that the goal of schools should be to prepare students to become active and engaged citizens in a democratic society outside of the walls of our building,” Coven said. “They need to learn how to take on leadership roles, and they need to learn how to use their voice and listen to other people’s opinions in order to form their own.”
After the white-supremacy rally events in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of an anti-racism protester a year ago, Coven wanted her class to examine the issue of statue removal and how that could apply to Philadelphia.
“We specifically look at the monuments landscape in Philadelphia and spent some time learning how to analyze public art, think critically about whose stories are represented by monuments in Philadelphia and whose stories are not told,” Coven said. The students first discussed the issue of removing the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.
This was a prelude to a conversation about Philadelphia monuments, including the controversy surrounding the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo and the recent recognition of 19th-century civil rights leader Octavius Catto, both of whom are memorialized near City Hall.
“Students spend some time doing ethnographic work in their neighborhoods and they collect ideas for what stories are important to their neighborhoods’ history. Then they come up with proposals with monuments of what should be built in their neighborhoods,” Coven explained.
Although Coven gets her students to come up with ideas about how to search for solutions, sometimes it is difficult for them to handle dealing with issues as diverse in scope as prison reform and reducing sugar content in pastries.
“They’re holding their work to higher standards, and sometimes this can cause anxiety because they’re only in 10th grade,” Coven said. “But I think ultimately they have more sense of ownership over their work and more independence.”
Sometimes, she said, that work gets overwhelming for them.
“The projects get really messy because there’s not one right answer and they want to feel like they get the right solution or they want to know how they can get to the right answer and there’s not one way to get there, but ultimately that’s what life is like.”
McGeehan, the other Philadelphia award-winner, has been working at the U School since 2015. Through the Caucus of Working Educators and the Teacher Action Group, he participated in planning a Black Lives Matter week of action for the last two years and has recently organized a group to help teachers address racism.
“It’s a group that we started called Building Anti-Racist White Educators,” McGeehan said. “I think that it’s part of my responsibility to help educate and develop fellow white educators on their thinking around racism and white supremacy. So we have put together a reading and inquiry series that’s going to start on Aug. 13, where we basically send out an article, some discussion prompts, and a protocol for discussion for educators who identify as white to use with their peers to have critical conversations about racism and white supremacy.”
McGeehan says that winning the award is motivating, but that it does not discount the hard work done by other teachers in the District.
“It motivates me to work harder and is an encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing,” McGeehan said. “I also work with a lot of other teachers both in my school and across the city who are also really committed, and so any of them could have also received the award. I think it’s awesome for us to have received this recognition, but I think it renews my commitment to continuing to support and work with the other educators and students.”
To McGeehan, an important aspect of being a teacher is the ability and willingness to change teaching styles based on what does and does not work. If he stops being able to adapt, he said, he should not teach anymore.
“For me, what makes the best teachers is reflective practice, and I try to do that,” McGeehan said. “I try to look at what worked last year, what didn’t work last year – moving into the new school year, trying to make improvements and grow. It’s an ever-evolving process, and I think that once I stop doing that, I don’t think I should be in teaching anymore if I’m not reflecting and trying to grow and evolve my practice over time.”
Stories about the influence of outstanding teachers are made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation.