Here Jamillah Seifullah – a teacher at New York’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) – shares her perspective on the importance of teaching her students to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners.
Teaching Lifelong Learning Skills
The role of educating young people is no longer the sole responsibility of the classroom teacher. As educators, we often try to teach 21st century children with 20th century methods. This often does not work. I have spent many weekends modifying and reworking how I differentiate content, infusing technology, inviting experts into my classroom, and setting up the physical space I teach in to discover what will work best for my students.
I have always included projects in lesson planning because that is my background. As a mathematician, I know that the application of theory lies in physics and engineering. Modeling is the most important aspect of students’ demonstrating understanding.
This year, I have been looking at how to teach through using projects rather than having projects be supplemental to a lesson. The current project in my Algebra 2/Trigonometry course at P-TECH is to build a Ferris Wheel. The students began the project on paper with sketches and equations, and are now constructing a model of a Ferris Wheel from cardboard, toothpicks, skewers and a simple motor. As I could not find a project to match my vision, the students started with the basic instructions and will have to design and figure out the best way to make this work with some input from myself and a fellow Ph.D. candidate from NYU Polytechnic, who comes in to help with Robotics.
In the past, teachers had a clear idea of where their students were heading. There was a small pool of professions from which they could choose. These days, our challenge is to prepare all students for a future we cannot begin to perceive, and for careers that have yet to be created. In essence, teachers are called upon to educate “Elroy” – the inquisitive boy character from the popular 1960s cartoon called The Jetsons. The Jetsons takes place in the year 2062. Despite the show’s depiction of a robot-controlled world as utopia, I wonder what life will really be like for our students 50 years from now.
P-Tech students at work on a group project
Today’s 10th graders will be near retirement age in 2062. Will we have educated them to be successful in the world that lies ahead of them? The only way to accomplish that feat will be to teach young people more than simply how to test well. We need to teach our students to be lifelong learners who employ critical thinking in pursuit of their passions, interests and careers.
My background is very similar to the path of our students at P-TECH. When I went to a specialized STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) high school, my mother was unable to help me with my math homework after seventh grade. My mother
was my first teacher however, and an excellent one. She instilled in me a love of learning and creating. Many of our students, for various reasons, do not have someone like my mom in their lives. Therefore, we who take on the job of “educating Elroy” need to go beyond teaching content and recall that we teach people. What kinds of global citizens do we want to help shape?
Before I became a teacher, I was a software engineer at a major telecom company. I began my college experience at Borough of Manhattan Community College and after completing my degree, I transferred to The City College of New York – a four-year CUNY school. As I completed my undergraduate degree, I looked into what fields were lucrative for a bright young math major. Computer programming and the back rooms of analytics and technology on Wall Street were two that interested me. I was made an offer in both fields. At P-TECH, students take the content courses any New York State high school student must take, but they also take Workplace Learning where the soft skills of an information technology (IT) career are taught. Our school is STEM focused, giving them a competitive background for any field they choose to pursue. I wish P-TECH existed when I was in high school. As the kids say, I would have “killed it!” It was not until much later in life that I realized STEM had given me unique options.
I remember being at an awards dinner while I was an undergraduate. We were seated by department, and since no one else showed up for mathematics, I was sitting at a table alone. I am sure I presented a sad picture. I looked around, considered my options, and was determined not to waste the opportunity. I randomly sat at a nearby table, and immediately felt intimidated. Here I was, a young black woman from the South Bronx, sitting at a table of important business people from backgrounds that I assumed were nothing like my own. Although I was outside of my comfort zone, I started talking to the man next to me. It turned out we went to the same high school! He introduced me to his wife Christine, who was a vice president at a major telecom company. I charmed her with my wit, and she told me to call her. I called, but she never called me back. Nevertheless, I was determined to succeed. I knew this was my chance for a real shot out of poverty.
I had left my illustrious job as a cashier at J.C. Penney to go to college when I found out
I was going to be a mom. I was on welfare and took out a small student loan to live. I was the oldest of six children, the first person in my immediate family to go to college, and responsible for helping my mom financially. My dad was a drug addict and out of the picture. I was determined, and called Christine the telecom executive for months. She finally called me back with three offers, and I began a paid internship shortly after that.
During my internship, three men who worked near me took me under their wings and mentored me (shout-out to mentors!). They taught me about stocks, how to invest 16 percent of my pay in my 401(k) every week and forget about it (Thanks, Dave!), and how to dress to be taken seriously. I also was advised to wear my afro “normally,” which meant straighten it (Jim, I forgive you). Whenever I told someone what I did for a living, they would respond: “You don’t look like a software engineer!” That response made a huge impression upon me, as I was one of only two African-Americans in my department, and the only African-American woman for a while.
One of my mentors informed me that the CEO was a City College alumnus and that he had spoken to students there recently. My mentor half-jokingly said I should contact the CEO, so I did via email. The CEO responded that he wanted to meet me. I was horrified. I emailed Christine, and requested she coach me for the meeting. The CEO was a white male millionaire for goodness sake, running a Fortune 500 company! The CEO and I met for 45 minutes, and it was amazing. He told me that he had grown up in The Bronx, and that he’d beaten up nerds like me in school. He was very down to earth. I left that meeting with a new perspective on building relationships and making sure to have the skills to take advantage of new opportunities.
I also left that meeting with the CEO’s personal support for me to go anywhere in the company I wanted. I chose Information Technology. With the CEO’s recommendation, I was hired as a computer programmer. I was in the IT department for eight years before leaving to pursue what I believe is my purpose: educating our youth. Knowing that IBM has created a partnership that affords a similar experience to so many students, and that I am a part of having this model be successful, brings my work full circle.
Jamillah Seifullah is a former software engineer, landscape architect and mother who teaches at New York’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH).
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