How Do Kids See the World?

Lily Kravetz is a third-grade lead teacher at Success Academy Fort Greene. She graduated in 2017 from Penn with a degree in Visual Arts from the College of Arts & Sciences.

How do kids see the world? I ask myself this question every day as a third grade teacher at Success Academy, a high-performing charter school network in New York City. To answer it, I draw on my experience as a Visual Studies major at Penn, where I researched how design affects people’s day-to-day experiences and perspectives.

At Penn, I had the opportunity to explore visual arts through an interdisciplinary lens, pairing my major requirements with education and child development classes. My thesis advisors, David Comberg and Dr. Margaret Souders, helped me bridge these interests in a project focused on designing adaptable spaces to suit the diverse sensory needs of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The insights I gained from this project inform the choices I make about my classroom today.

One of the main reasons why I pursued a teaching career at Success Academy was the network’s emphasis on aesthetics as a vital part of creating strong schools. In a world where design has come to the forefront of so many every industries, it often falls by the wayside in education. Success Academy is a leader in this regard. Rather than adding visual elements to an existing room, each classroom is designed from the ground up with a consideration of the student’s perspective. From the “Lotsa Dots” rug embedded in the carpet, to the colorful pastel walls, every part of the room serves a purpose. Teachers are then given the flexibility to arrange the seating, library, and academic “anchor charts” according to the needs of their students. As a result, the classrooms — and the hallways! — are organized, inviting, and conducive to learning.

Of course, there is much more to teaching and learning than the physical environment. While I have drawn on what I learned at Penn to design a stimulating and nurturing classroom, I have also honed a new set of skills working at Success. The expectations for both scholars and teachers are incredibly high here, and in my first year I had to learn how to press my scholars for academic excellence. I embraced our mission of providing a high-quality education to all students and worked on bolstering skills that would push my scholars forward. In particular, I focused on data analysis. Thanks to the rigor of the school, I have developed an unexpected level of expertise in using data to problem solve. Each day, I closely analyze assessment trends and student work to identify gaps, and strategize with my colleagues to close them.

Working as a teacher here, and helping my students grow and mature into brilliant, independent scholars, has been a challenging and fulfilling experience. I feel lucky to be a part of these kids’ journeys and to pursue a career that makes use of all the skills, knowledge, and insights I gained in my undergraduate education at Penn.

Finding Success at Success Academy

Rhea May is a kindergarten science teacher at Success Academy Bed-Stuy 1. She graduated from Penn in 2011, with a degree in Evolutionary Anthropology from the College.

I spent most of my childhood forcing my younger sister to attend what I dubbed “Rhea School.” Since my parents were both teachers, I’d steal their various homework assignments and attendance logs and demand she get to work. She eventually dropped out of Rhea School and I can’t blame her. Thankfully, I’ve progressed from drilling my sister on decimals to encouraging my elementary schoolers at Success Academy, a high-performing charter school network in New York City, to love science. I’ve been teaching here since 2013 and this year, the network honored me with an Excellence Award. I attribute this achievement not to my experience as a child running a one-student school, but to the knowledge and mindset I learned as an anthropology major at Penn.

To me, anthropology isn’t just the study of human cultures — it’s a way of thinking. Penn’s anthropology program taught me how to step outside of myself and examine not only the larger world but my own experiences through a different lens. Professor Heather Love taught me Queer Theory, and Jamal Alias gave me insight into the history of Islam. Both professors were engaging, authentic, and passionate about their subjects and both were devoted to helping their students shed self-centered views. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and courses like these exposed me for the first time to other cultures. They were inspiring and life-changing. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to play a role in making sure kids got this kind of exposure earlier in life.

So I set to work researching high-performing schools that were committed to providing children with a broad and expansive education. I landed on Success Academy, drawn especially by their distinctive science program. As a kid, I always thought of science as an abstract set of facts that I had to memorize. I remember a requirement to learn the water cycle by heart as a second grader and thinking, “Why do I need to do this?” At Success, my scholars are learning to be scientists through hands-on exploration, not textbooks. Instead of diagramming a water cycle on paper, we pour water into beakers, apply heat, and watch and document the process of condensation. The water cycle isn’t an abstraction — it’s real and my eight-year-olds find it gripping!

My first year of teaching was tough. I struggled to find a work-life balance. But I learned invaluable lessons from the training and hands-on experience Success Academy provided me — lessons like how to effectively manage a classroom. I didn’t need a degree in education to realize that learning to be a good teacher, like any other skill, is a process. I had to trust that process and rely on what my courses at Penn taught me — to think critically about the unique needs of others. This mindset greatly improved my ability to assess my teaching methods and pinpoint solutions I wouldn’t have ordinarily considered.

Toward the end of my first year teaching, I ran into the mother of one of my kindergarteners. She told me that her daughter couldn’t stop talking at the dinner table about our class unit on the science of bread. “Mold doesn’t get on white bread that much, because it has a preservative shield. So don’t eat too much white bread,” the five-year-old reportedly instructed her family, “because eating too many preservatives isn’t healthy.”

It was then that I realized the huge impact I was having on my scholars — helping to spark a passion that could lead them to become real-life scientists, doctors, or teachers. I am grateful to Penn for inspiring me to pass the torch of critical thought and study to my scholars. It is so clear that the perspective I am passing on is helping them flourish!

CS Radio – Episode 87: “Her Alma Matters”

It’s our first podcast crossover! This week, we are joined by the host of the Alma Matters podcast, Riane Puno (COL ’18) to discuss how she discusses the career paths of different Penn alumni on her show. It’s Penn podcast synergy at its finest! Enjoy!

Show Notes


Upsolving

This entry is by Jonathan Petts, COL ’02, LAW ’07

After graduating from Penn (‘02) and then Penn Law (‘07), I followed the traditional corporate law path, working for large firms in New York. That corporate life was interesting enough for a while. But I found my true passion in the pro bono bankruptcy cases I did helping low-income New Yorkers buried in debt. My first client was a woman from Crown Heights named Linda.  Linda was unemployed and had $40,000 in medical debt from a car accident. I helped Linda file for Chapter 7 and obtain a fresh start. She called me back a year later to share some great news. She had a job, her credit score was 100 points higher, and she was still debt free. She then told me something I’d never forget, “If I hadn’t found you, I’d still be trapped in debt because it costs $2,000 to hire a bankruptcy lawyer and if I had $2,000, I wouldn’t be filing for bankruptcy.” I realized that the people who need access to our bankruptcy courts the most in America are the least able to afford it.  

Jonathan Petts in acton

The bankruptcy process involves lots of data entry and document collection that are ripe for automation. So along with my cofounder Rohan Pavuluri, I founded a tech nonprofit called Upsolve which provides free Chapter 7 bankruptcy help to low-income Americans across the country. Last year, our website helped over 400 Americans get a fresh start, erasing over $16 million in debt from medical illness, job loss, and payday loans. We’ve been lucky to get grant funding for our work from the Robin Hood Foundation, Y Combinator, the Public Welfare Foundation, and other fantastic funders.

I see Upsolve as a small piece of a broader opportunity to democratize access to the law for low-income Americans. The internet has transformed the delivery of most professional services to consumers.  For little to no cost, consumers can use TurboTax to complete personal tax returns, use WebMD to diagnose their medical conditions, or use Khan Academy to learn a new subject. But the internet has brought very little disruption to the delivery of legal services. One lawyer researches, writes and litigates for a single client, who is charged by the hour. The result is 80% of low-income Americans with a legal problem cannot afford to hire lawyer.  In the years to come, I’m excited to see other tech solutions to help low-income Americans solve their legal problems on their own.

Retirement

Dr. John F. Tuton, Career Advisor

I’ve been thinking about retirement a lot lately, partly because one of my long-term colleagues at Career Services retired earlier this year and two others are about to retire this summer.  And, full disclosure, I’m old enough to “retire” myself, if I wanted to.  But the main reason retirement is on my mind is that I’ve been meeting with more and more Penn alumni who are approaching retirement age themselves and have come to me for advice.

But before I get into that, why should I even be blogging about “retiring” on this website when most of you who are reading this are probably younger than 30 and looking forward to a future career that may span over 40 more years?  How can you possibly look 40 years ahead, when it’s not at all certain what the future will be for any of us?  And how realistic is it to even consider retirement as a reality, when your first priority right now is launching your career, not ending it? 

My answer comes from the thoughts that senior alumni have shared with me, and even though they vary, there is a surprising consistency to what they’ve said.  When I met with the first one or two, I started the conversation by asking, “What sorts of skills do you have?” hoping to get some information that I’d want to see on a CV or resume.  But their answers went far beyond “job” skills, and included much more personal qualities, like curiosity, empathy, creativity and perseverance.  And when they shared these “skills”, they clearly were excited about claiming them, and I got the message that these were qualities that they truly enjoyed using and, from the examples they gave me, had become quite adept at doing so. 

So my “skills” question went well beyond a simple list of technical abilities, and became an exercise in affirming what they felt were their strengths and how rewarding it had been for them to put them to good use.  And because their enthusiasm was pretty obvious, it led to another question, “Why are these skills so important to you?”  Their answers were even more revealing, and ranged from “Because they’ve helped me solve a difficult problem…understand what someone needs…deal with setbacks…see things in a new way.”   And this led to lots of discussion and clarification about their basic motivations, what they valued most in their lives, and what their deepest concerns were.

Digging a little deeper soon led to a third question: “What helped you along the way?”  And here I discovered all sorts of information about the particulars of their relationships with the superiors, colleagues, family members and friends who had valued their “skills” and respected their motivations and concerns.  Out of all of this came a detailed picture of their ideal “environment” – the people and the places – that had supported the best use of their skills and honored the values and concerns that were most important to them.

From all this, it was possible to create a “template” for what they wanted to do next, why they wanted to do it and where might be the best setting to do it in, and the rest of our meetings were devoted to strategizing about specific opportunities that they might want to pursue. 

So here’s why I’m writing this blog for those of you who are under 30 and see retirement only as a vague concept in the distant future.  Because knowing your “what, why and where” is as important at the beginning of your career as it is for the alums who I’ve worked with who are at the tail end of theirs.  And the good news is that you already started to define your “what, why and where” the moment you discovered a particular job posting.  Choosing a job that fits your resume and skill set, creating a cover letter that communicates your interest and enthusiasm, and even answering an interview question like “Why do you want to work here?”—these are all opportunities to state your “what, why and where” in ways that will work best for you.  And if your application leads to you being hired, your next step is to continually keep track of what you do best, why you do it and where is the best, most supportive environment to do it in, so that your future career path becomes clearer and more fulfilling, no matter how far it may go.