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Meet the new teacher: Ms. Wilberding

By Bridget Galibois and Ryan Thomas, Contributors

Ms. Wilberding previously taught at Girl Forward in Chicago, an organization that supports refugee girls.

“At Payton, there seems to be sometimes a divide between student engagement in class and … what students are passionate about outside of class, in the world. And I want to build a bridge between those two things,”  Ms. Wilberding said.  Ms. Wilberding is one of the new English teachers at Payton. She teaches one freshman English I class, and has a freshman advisory.  Additionally, she teaches four AP Multimedia Literature classes, which is a new class available to juniors and seniors at Payton.  However, although this course covers news literacy and aspects of journalism, it also  reinforces some aspects of existing courses in the Payton curriculum.  “There’s aspects of [classes] like AP Research, or AP Seminar in it. And then there’s also a lot of aspects of clubs at Payton, that I think are … integrated within the class. And so the real push for the classes is that students are able to identify topics that they’re deeply passionate about, then they’re able to interview communities, for solutions. And then finally, they’re actually able to take action themselves.”

Ms. Wilberding is a graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts, one of the all-female Seven Sisters colleges.  She calls her decision to go to Smith “the best decision that I ever made in my life, hands down.”  After a rough high school experience where she was often bullied, this was a place where she felt accepted.  During her years in high school, “other students would pull my hand down in class and not let me answer questions. [Students] shoved honey in my locker … students were very … malicious.” From her negative high school experience, she now has a goal as a teacher to advocate for students and give them the support she needed in high school.

The Paw Print had a chance to interview Ms. Wilberding and ask her questions to learn more about her as she engages in her first year at Payton.

The Paw Print:  Have you ever taught before?  If yes, where did you teach?

Ms. Wilberding:  “I worked as an intern [at] Young Women’s Leadership Charter School on 26th and Calumet, and a few places in Massachusetts when I was at Smith. […] My student teaching was done at Uplift in Uptown … it’s a really interesting school, because community members and teachers [founded it] … it was a really interesting perspective. They had a lot of real focus on social justice.  [I also taught at] CICS Northtown, [and there was a large] amount of flexibility at that school. So you could do a lot of things with policy, you could do a lot of things with different classes.  They had a class called Humanities, where you blended in social action, art, and literature [which had] a ton of student choice; students were really all about it.  And I taught a class called Art into Action, where [we went to] The Art Institute, and the MCA, and all these different art museums.  We analyzed art … like art critics, which was really cool, we got to meet a bunch of artists, they came to see us and really used that as not only visual literacy, but also [literacy] around really seeing the world as a text … [and] partnering that with written text too.

“I also taught a class called Race in the Prison Industrial Complex. […] That class was really interesting, because there was [a] social justice idea [that] was really based on [the] Facing History frameworks, that it was right around when Michelle Alexander came out with ‘The New Jim Crow.’ It was one of [student’s] passions, one of their deep interests to truly understand what was happening with the criminal justice system … around racism.  We also partnered with a middle school and [high school] students took what they learned in the social justice course and taught it to middle schoolers. These were mentorships that were built over time based on Michigan State’s identity wheel, based on ideas [such as] analyzing white supremacy.  

“After that, I moved to Von Steuben, [where] I taught predominantly English [I] to which we overhauled the curriculum and did a lot of other work within English II.  […] I also taught English III, and I taught One Goal.  [At] One Goal, [you’re] mentoring and supporting students [who are] going to college. And I loved it.”

The Paw Print: What led you to choose a career in education?

Ms. Wilberding: “I want to be able to give students the high school experience I didn’t have, and make them feel cared for and valued. And seen. And so that’s a real inspiration for me. You know, there’s that idea [when you’re a teacher to] be the person that you needed. […] That’s something that I really think deeply about, like, what do students need right now? What did I need? How can I keep on growing and becoming better to be that? And so that’s a real inspiration for me. […] I had this amazing teacher in the fifth grade, Mrs. Franchette.  […] She was always pushing us to believe in ourselves and to be your best. […] I know that that’s very cliche, but she was the first person who really made me think like … I could write, and I could eventually be published. And I could be thought of as a writer, and I could be a writer myself. And so that’s also a big part of it. […] What does it mean to be part of a community of writers? What does it mean to have someone that really believes in you and really champions what you do, but also pushes you to think and challenge yourself? […] I think I had some real mentors in my life that kind of pushed that work for me. Yeah, I think a lot about that.

“I really didn’t want to be a teacher growing up. [It was] not my first choice. That was not a thing I wanted to do. But then I moved to New Zealand for a while and then ended up managing part of an education center. And while I was there, I [realized that] I really, really loved teaching … but I was still unsure. […] I think my story is very much an undecided one … it’s the champion of the undecided. […] When I came back from New Zealand, I started working through this program called The Cuba Project. And I actually traveled to Cuba and trained teachers in teaching. […] It’s kind of like when you’re first trying a new food. And you might try it on an appetizer, and [you think], ‘that’s an interesting taste.’ And then you try the full meal. And [then you think], ‘Actually, I could eat this for the rest of my life.’ That’s what teaching was like for me. So at first, I was just really excited about the idea of curiosity and being curious about things like policy. I’m an American Studies major, so I’m interested in [things like] critique and analyzing the world as text. That was my undergrad. And then this sampling of education came around, and I [realized], ‘Oh, I like that’. […] I realized, I think over time that I just really love teaching. And I started from non traditional means, like teaching internationally, working for The Cuba Project, and then working for a program called Girl Forward [which champions refugee girls] and used Chicago as a campus [and is based in the area]. […] We would go every Friday somewhere in Chicago to learn from that place. […] Thinking about education in ways that are outside of traditional classrooms, that’s kind of where I started. And [I] only recently, in the last seven years, have been [teaching] in traditional classrooms.”

The Paw Print: What experience do you have with working for equity?

Ms. Wilberding: “Last year, I got a grant from the Office of Equity to support student solutions to school problems. And I was really excited about that work and students at previous schools that I’ve worked at have identified issues within their school and then created solutions, and actually enacted them. […] That’s the inspiration for [me] and [the] inspiration for Payton. […] I’ve been working a lot with the Office of Equity. And the CEO [of the Office of Equity], Dr. Maurice Sweeney … he’s incredible. He’s just an incredible person. And the way that he describes equity, and the way that that team works on equity, and the way that they champion teacher and student voices across the district and really grapple with some incredibly difficult things, to undo unfair policies, and to make sure that resources are equitable [is] something that really inspires me. […] I really believe in working where I work … [and] a large part of that [is because of the] team. And so I really, really like that. [I] believe in what the Office of Equity is doing. And knowing that they’re pushing people in CPS right now. [The] first thing is that I really want to listen, my goal is to, as a new teacher at Payton, [is] to really listen to other teachers and to listen to students, and to really understand the community. And I think that’s a huge part of equity work, to really understand and value the strengths of a community and understand the history of a community. […] That’s what I’m working on right now … I’d like to see all of us do the equity work. […]  Sometimes there’s certain groups or certain people that are doing equity work. And I’d love to see all of us invited in to do it, and all of us doing it.”

The Paw Print: What are your hopes for moving forward as a community?

Ms. Wilberding: “I think there’s a lot of great people at Payton, who are doing incredible work. And I want to value that work. And I want to lift that work up, and I want to honor that work, while I’m also thinking about how I can push myself and push the people around me, and push the students around me to do more in depth work. […] We’re beginning to use the equity framework in my Multimedia class and we’re going to be using that the entire year … going through it ourselves and going through with others. So that’s something I’m really excited about. In English I, we’re really focusing on Barbara Love [and the] idea that [regarding] liberatory consciousness, and there is this call for everyone to join in. It’s not a matter of everyone having the same experience. It’s not a matter of everyone, you know, having the same privileges because we know that’s not true. But it’s a matter of everyone feeling responsible to make their community better, and to critique themselves and to make themselves better, too. And so, equity work is work on ourselves. Equity work is work on our communities. And so for me, when I think about … liberatory consciousness, I have a lot of work to do … I have a lot of unlearning to do. And I have a lot of relearning to do, and that’s going to be my whole life. So Payton’s a part of that … [and the question is] how can we invite people in to do their own learning, while also holding people accountable when they hurt other people.

“Once again, I haven’t been here for long … but I’ve noticed that … the way that [the Payton community] understands things is sometimes very isolated, and very insulated. Payton thinks about Payton. And something I’d love Payton to do for equity work is think about other schools in the district and its context as well. You know, if we have a lot of privilege as a school, I’d like to see how we’re using that not just for ourselves, but for other schools and other people around us as well to truly understand our world and not just Payton.”

The Paw Print: What has been your favorite thing about teaching at Payton so far?

Ms. Wilberding: “So many things. I think that there’s so much potential at Payton … there’s a lot of … potential everywhere. But Payton’s students really do want to develop their voices. And [they want to] act and connect with other students and adults to make things happen [and to] make positive change. And I think that’s something that I really like. For instance, I give surveys … during class that are about how to make the class better. And … students at Payton specifically are ready for that. […] Payton students give me specific solutions to better my practice. Payton students are really … good at building solutions. 

“I also really like in both [English I and 21st Century Multimedia Literature] … a lot of students are really ready to build a community and that’s something that I really like. [In] classes I just feel that there’s a real community [and a] connection between people. Payton students are also ready to connect with one another. There seems to be a push for connection, this push [for people to] better themselves, and better the school, and better the district. And I think that right now … I feel like I’ve come into Payton at a point where … there’s a lot of transition at Payton. And I’m really excited to be part of that. I like to look at the best practices of other educators at Payton, and I also like to look at the context that Payton exists within, and look at best practices outside of Payton, too.”

The Paw Print: How has the adjustment been from in-person learning to remote learning?  Do you have any other hopes or goals moving forward during remote learning?

Ms. Wilberding: “[Remote learning is] challenging. It’s tough. But I mean, I always want to … look for the silver lining. […] Relationship building and trust is the key to any course. And I think that I’m trying to really focus on that and remote learning, like, Can I get to know students, even through a screen? Can I … get to know who they are and what they care about, you know, what their preferences are, how they learn best in class, what they need, can I really understand that? […] If I can understand that, then I can move forward with content, I can move forward with skills, I can move forward with just about anything. But that relationship building piece, that’s the piece that I’m focusing [on] most in remote learning, because it’s the trickiest to do. In person, I can check in with students … I high-five students at the door, and then I can… assess students when they’re coming in to see how they’re feeling. It’s easier to have one on one conversations; it’s easier to check in with students; it’s easier to know what’s happening in their lives. I mean … it’s just easier; it’s easier to have a relationship. […] I think that if you can build those relationships, which is what I’m trying to do, you can get a little bit closer to that old normal being this new normal. And that’s really … been my push. Students need academic support, students need to be learning. But students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe … it just doesn’t happen. And you can’t get to real learning or talking about equity … if students don’t feel safe and comfortable with you. And so that’s something I’ve really been trying to work on.

“But, [there are] some students I’ve never seen before. […] I was blown away because there’s some students I haven’t seen yet. And I know their voice. Like if … we were if we were walking at a bus stop or something, I know their voice, but I’ve never seen their face. And so it’s … a struggle to … build those connections, but I still believe in those connections. And I think that a lot of people, when they talk about remote learning [they say that it is] brutal, and it’s not as good as in-person [learning], and [remote learning] is not effective. But I actually think remote learning can be incredibly effective. I think that some of the benefits are … briefly seeing students’ parents, or being able to see… how students are outside of school [since] I’ve never seen that before. […] So students are seeing my home life [and] I’m seeing theirs as well … there’s a connection there, and as long as we’re respecting one another … that’s a connection that I really care about.  

“I care about students not only for students’ sake, but also for their communities and their families and where they come from. And right now … that’s where we’re at. We’re all in our community and [with our] families. […] There’s a bridge there, there’s something to connect with there. […] I have plans … to have guest speakers in my Multimedia class, [and there’s] also a possibility that we’ll be exchanging classes with other teachers in the district, so that [students will] be able to discuss [and] talk with other students across the district. […] There’s a lot of opportunity, right? There’s a lot of opportunity for that, and so that’s something that I’m really excited about. […] A lot of people say remote learning is terrible. And I can understand why. But I also think it’s so necessary right now. And honestly, I’m just so glad we’re all safe. I’m so glad we’re all safe … if we were in person, because I care about students, I would just be concerned every day.  If I ever got a student sick … I’d never forgive myself. […] That’s something that I’m thinking about. While I’m not super happy [about remote learning and] that I’m living in [a Google Meet] avatar world, I’m also really grateful that I’m living in a safe world where I don’t have to feel any guilt or fear.”

Image Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools

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