Spotlight on Alumna Paige Conn: “I Allow My Passion To Be Incredibly Transparent” ☆

Paige Conn is a ninth grade English teacher at The Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem and a James and Judith K. Dimon Fellow.  She received her MA in English and Education in 2006, and recently returned to TC to present at the Student Press Initiative (SPI) Summer Institute, where she shared her classroom student publishing experience and offered actionable, inspirational “DIY” tips for fellow educators.

Paige, your SPI presentation was wonderful!  The audience was riveted.  How did it feel being on the other side of the table this year, presenting rather than learning how to create a student publication?

Thank you.  It was exciting.  I can’t believe that after just one year, I had learned enough to be able to share something with other people.

Can you please share your educational background?

I got my undergrad degree at the College of Wooster in Ohio.  When I got there, I knew that I wanted to be an English teacher, but I was hesitant to take Education courses.  I was really excited to take Literature and Gender Studies courses, and I actually minored in Women’s Studies and Black Studies.   So I didn’t take any Education courses!   When I graduated, I felt like I had a background in my field, then came to TC so I could get certified and learn about teaching.  I did TC in a calendar year and had a wonderful experience.  I arrived in the summer of 2005, right after I graduated college.

How did you choose TC?

I researched education programs around the country, and I was drawn to TC because it had a whole program dedicated to the teaching of English.  That was rare—I couldn’t find many other schools that dedicated so much to the teaching of English.  Plus, it had a social justice slant that I was drawn to and what I wanted my education to be centered on.  Teacher’s College was a great fit.

Tell us about your experience with the English and Education program, please.

It was such a great combination of hands-on teaching practice, and getting to think about my own pedagogy and beliefs.  There was lots of theory.  I remember at the time, my fellow students kept asking, “But how do you really do this?”.  Everyone wanted really specific information.  All my TC professors and instructors would say, “Believe us.  You’ll get there, you’ll get there.  You’ll figure that out on your own.  But you need this framework.”  It was frustrating but it was so true!  Once I got to the classroom I figured out all of the basics, like, what to do when someone is throwing a paper airplane across the room.  It was that background and foundation as an educator that TC helped me with, and that’s what I really needed.

Is there something about your TC education that perhaps uniquely prepared you for teaching today?

The basic curriculum at TC really prepared me for the day-to-day.  I use things that I learned in my Teaching of Writing and my Teaching of Reading classes  every single day.  There was a lot of practical information that I learned, like activities for analyzing a text, or writing exercises.  The books that I used in those classes I still refer to all the time.  Also my Teaching of Shakespeare class—I use those skills every year.

How long have you been teaching?

Five years.  I’m entering into my sixth year.

Did you start teaching at The Young Women’s Leadership School right from TC?

Yes.

How did you land such an incredible position right out of school?

When I was doing my job search, Erick Gordon was mentoring me and he asked if I had heard about The Young Women’s Leadership School because he thought it would be a great fit for me.  At the time, he was talking about the Bronx school, because they had a position.  Once I started to research the school, I knew it was the place I wanted to be.  I applied for a job at the East Harlem campus, because the Bronx school would have been a really difficult commute.  Now, they didn’t have an opening, but I sent all my information and my portfolio anyway.  Something became available and they called, and that was that!

Can you please give us a thumbnail about the school and its mission?

The Young Women’s Leadership School is an all-girls school founded in 1996 by Ann Tisch.  She believed that if girls from privileged backgrounds had the option of going to single-sex schools, then why shouldn’t girls in the inner city have that same option?  We serve girls mostly in East Harlem, and some in the Bronx.   The majority of the girls are Latina, and they are all over the place academically.  To get into the school, the girls pretty much just have to want to go there.   They have to interview and their parents have to go to an information session.  We explain to their parents that their daughters will be going to college:  We have a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college placement rate.  So we end up getting a pretty great batch of kids because the parents are on-board with their daughters’ education.

What do you think it means to study at an all-girls school?

It is just so empowering.  Girls are the leaders, the president, of every organization.  In class, they aren’t silent.  It provides this wonderful, safe environment for them to flourish and to take risks that they might not otherwise take.

Can you please tell me how you became a James and Judith K. Dimon Fellow?

That was initiated by Erick Gordon as well.  He sent me and my colleague Mary Maddox (also a TC English and Education MA graduate) an email.  He explained that he had received funding with SPI and thought we’d be perfect candidates to try it out in this inaugural year.  We said, “Definitely, we want to do it!”.

What did the Dimon support consist of?

Dimon Fellows receive a stipend of $2,000, plus our first run of books for free.  So that meant about 100 copies of our publication.  We had to meet with an after-school group at our school about once a week throughout the year.

Was brining SPI into your classroom something of a hard sell with your administrators?

Not at all.  Our Principal is incredibly supportive and was excited about it from the moment we told her.  She’s helped us with funding and giving us all the support we needed at school.  So we were really, really fortunate, because I know it can be difficult to prove to an administrator why a student publication is so important.

After your wonderful experience with SPI, will you be doing it again next year?

Absolutey!

How much of a challenge is it to inspire a love of literature in your students, and do you have any tricks?

It is incredibly challenging.  But what I try to do is allow my passion to be incredibly transparent.  So I’m not afraid to get emotional if a certain poem inspires that.  And my students see that.  I also like to bring in political literature, which is really relevant, and sometimes controversial.  This lets them see how literature can be pertinent to their lives and to the world and how they think and debate.

What do you do to inspire creativity in your students?

I try to give them a whole variety of mentor texts, where people have different ideas.  I get them to see a range of ideas, and then I let them play around with what they think.  So they see that there is not one right way to be creative or to express an idea.

Paige, how do you stay sharp in your teaching practice?

I like to get inspired in various ways.  Each year I find something new.  One year I got involved in a blogging program about college readiness.  And this year it’s been student publishing.  If I can find people who inspire me, that means everything.  Going to professional development with Jondou Chen (of TC’s National Center for Children and Families), working with other members of the SPI team, I always feel renewed to go back to school and try all sorts of new things.

Do you have a long-term goal?

My long-term goal is to stick with teaching and to be as passionate about it in 20 years as I am right now.