Eighth grade English teacher, Dianna Myles, has traded in her chalk for a 1L seat at Penn Law School. Coming to Penn fresh from an inner-city classroom, she is ready to influence students from another level: policy-making.
Drawn to Penn for its interdisciplinary approach, Myles hopes to pursue joint degrees in education and law — a combination that could prove powerful in her efforts to secure a promising future for America’s disadvantaged children. Myles, a first-hand witness to how public education fails low-income students, wants to reform the education system. In particular, she wants to make the system more accountable and promote greater community involvement.
“Everyone has to be involved,” says Myles, a subscriber to the holistic approach pioneered by Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada’s credo is that low-income inner-city kids can learn just as well as affluent suburban kids if they have access to the same resources. To give them an even footing, he provides free social, medical and educational services and encourages parents to participate in their child’s education. As a sophomore at Emory University, Myles had an opportunity to test that holistic approach. Noticing a disturbing trend in Atlanta public schools — the city was eliminating arts programs for low-income students — she set out to solve the problem by channeling funds and support from Emory’s theater department to inner-city middle school students.
Myles recruited volunteers from the college and founded Bringing up Leaders and Achievers through Student Theater (BLAST) — a children’s musical theatre. Working with 15 students, she organized a performance of “The Wiz,” the Broadway hit based on the Wizard of Oz that featured an African-American cast. Her own high school education was solid, says Myles, which accounts for her desire to address educational disparities. Not only did she study visual arts and music, but she was also active on the debate team. Debating on topics as diverse as Russia, education, and privacy, she discovered a talent for marshaling critical evidence to debunk opposing arguments or create a new line of attack. The thrill of presenting winning arguments before a judge led to an interest in law.
“I particularly care about how children are protected by the law,” says Myles, who has also worked to raise awareness of the sexual exploitation of children. It is a major issue in Atlanta, she explained, with underage girls being prosecuted for prostitution. Racial stereotypes impact the way cases are handled, with Caucasian girls getting more sympathy from the community than African-American girls, according to Myles.
Disparities also exist in public education, she says, which is why she became invested in Teach for America, a movement that works to ensure every child has an equal chance in life. “Public education for low-income and African-American students is not up to standard” because of the overemphasis on test scores at the expense of liberal arts and humanities, says Myles. The singular focus on testing, she says, limits what teachers can do in the classroom.
Despite the constraints, Myles created a lively and engaging learning environment for her eighth graders in St. Louis. She used the Harry Potter books- her favorite series “hands down”— as the model for an incentive program that encouraged teamwork. Myles passed around a hat filled with questions, much like the “sorting hat” in Harry Potter. Students picked questions and were assigned to one of four houses depending on their answers. They earned points for their house by demonstrating good citizenship, participation, and exceptional work. At the end of the year, the house with the most points — Hufflepuff in this case-- won dinner and a field trip.
Bad education, Myles says, begins with low standards. School administrators blame student’s home environments for poor performance and teachers assume they can never learn. Ultimately, low expectations prevent teachers from creating innovative approaches.
By contrast, Myles set the bar high for her students and to her surprise she found they were jumping to reach it. Emulating her “tough” high school English teacher who pushed her to produce her best, Myles walked her students through the college admissions process.
She showed them how to research schools, put together an application, and write inquiry letters to admissions officers, because she believes it’s never too early to start thinking about college. “They were actually invested and cared about what happened,” says Myles. One student even brought a template for a resume to class and offered to make copies. Her only regret, after noting their enthusiasm, is that she wishes she’d done it throughout the year.
Although Myles will miss creating magic in her classroom, she looks forward to building the kind of advocacy skills she will need in her ongoing battle to conquer her personal Lord Voldemort: inequality in the schools.