Welcome to The Year Ahead, a mini-series from the Heinemann Podcast, hosted by Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re) Invigorate Your Teaching. Meenoo has always believed that teaching is harder if you do it alone, and teaching during a once in a lifetime pandemic is as hard as it gets, but by meeting educators around the world who are going through this too, maybe together, we can share ideas, commiserate, and be a witness to each other’s experiences. In this podcast series, we’ll meet educators who are getting ready to return to school under the most challenging and unusual circumstances.
In today’s episode we are meeting Bonee Bentum. Bonnee teaches her students English in the School District of Philadelphia and will be focused on building and maintaining student relationships during this unusual year. More information about our guest and resources mentioned during this episode are in the show notes. Now, let’s meet Bonnee.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Meenoo: Hi, Bonnee. Welcome to, The Year Ahead. This episode is extra special to me because you teach your students in The School District of Philadelphia. And that's the place that made me an educator teaching the children of that city was the greatest privilege of my life. And so we share a bond that only the people who teach in the same city, especially in a large urban school district like Philly have. There is a lot of unspoken understanding that goes with that, and so that means a lot to me. And it means a lot to me that you would take time out of your you're busy first weeks in school to do this with me, so thank you.
Bonnee: Thank you so much Meenoo. It is very special to be here with you. Not only because you were an educator and Philadelphia and I still am, but also that I ended up teaching in the same school family that started your education Trek in the Science Leadership Academy School Family. And I am, for your listeners and followers, I teach students at the second location which is Science Leadership Academy at Bieber. However, we follow all of the same core values under different leadership, but it is very much similar one school to the other. And it's very special for that to have happened in Philadelphia, public schools.
Meenoo: Absolutely, SLA and shout out to Chris Lehman and the founding team for what they have created and now expanding to a second location and a Middle School. So it's my home and it's my home and in many ways, so this is really exciting for me. For people, you started to share a little bit, but I think it would be helpful for people who don't know you to hear a little bit about your teaching journey. A little bit about what SLA Beeber means to you, a little bit about the context of your students and just your background to the school.
Bonnee: Okay. Well, first of all, I have to give shout outs to my founding principal, Chris Johnson at SLA at Beeber. And then I have to give a shout out to Timothy Boyle, who we went through Phil with together, who is the founding principal at SLA Middle School. So SLA where Meeno taught is just SLA. I was telling someone they just call themselves Science Leadership Academy, SLA. However, when you read information through the schools, SLA CC, Center City and we're SLA B, SLAB, and then the other school is SLA MS, SLA, SLAMS. So we all have these little cutesy names now as a result of the growth spurt that has happened, which was seeded by Chris Lehman.
So yes, we do have to take our hat off to him. And also Matt Vancoun, one of the founding teachers in science, we did the Yale National Initiative for the Teachers Program at Yale University together. He wrote the curriculum about the soybean and bio diesel gas that year. So he was really like our famous Philadelphia teacher at that time. And I don't even think many of you all are still in the business [crosstalk 00:04:16].
Meenoo: Yeah. That's the good thing about that place. It kind of makes you realize how else you might want to contribute to the world of education and that's always amazing.
Bonnee: So your extra special connection to me was prior to me coming into the SLA families, because you did the Twitter Eng Chat. You could hashtags on the map for all the students and nowhere gives you those props but I'm going to give you these props right now, right here today in a setting that many people follow and listen to. You are more than the bomb.com. While I'm here with you, I just need to say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." So many tips and tricks and pedagogy and people were connected one to another, not just in the city of Philadelphia but all over the frigging world, girl. You built that thing for us. You did it for us, you set the stage for teachers of English around the world, because you are a change agent. You are a change agent of a solid foundation, so thank you.
Meenoo: It means so much to me Bonnee. It's probably one of the things that people associate with me, but it was a labor of love for many years and at the advent of really the ability to connect strangers and help them become partners in crime and in the service of making teaching and learning better ultimately for students. So it's one of my favorite things that I had a small part in, but your kind words mean so much to me. So let's get right into it.
I love the history we share, but this present moment is unlike any other. And I want to acknowledge that you and thousands of other educators in Philadelphia are lifting over a 125,000 students up and trying to create some semblance of normalcy for them. So I'll just get right to it. What is it like? How is it going? It's just the first few weeks. Can you tell us a little bit about what's going on in your school and with your students?
Bonnee: Oftentimes in the Literacy class where we look for keywords and phrases. The key word for me is kerfluffled.
Meenoo: That's a good one.
Bonnee: Because that's how I feel like I'm kerfluffled. However, I keep moving to the next thing in order for children to feel like they want to be inside learning. I can try to bring the humanity into virtual learning as well. We have to be able to talk with each other. We have to be able to laugh. We have to be able to even just see one another so that the virtual spaces that we're in, we can all feel connected in some form or fashion. And last week, the three days, last week I found myself saying, "Everybody, our classroom is now a bedroom, our kitchen, our porch, somebody's office space." But we are all sharing all these spaces together in this same time and same space to learn.
Meenoo: Are all classes virtual for you right now? And what's your schedule like, what's a typical day like for you?
Bonnee: So right now I am an SLA teacher, which is a wonderful thing because I can talk about both sides of that fence. At SLA we are fair, 90 minute courses, we teach three. So I teach two English four courses, and two days a week, I teach Journalism. So five days a week, I have two 19 minute each courses. And two of those five days, I have the Journalism course/ Writing Lab added on to my schedule. However, my friends, I used to teach at another public High school in Philadelphia, Overbrook High School that many listeners might even be familiar with because it's the school of Will Smith and a Wilt Chamberlain and U.S representative, Former U.S representative Shaka Fattah. So there, they are doing 8:30 to 3:30 five days a week, and they have crosses all day long. Yeah, and I think they get a prep.
So it's just so different. On Wednesdays, we also have a staff meeting, a virtual staff meeting. However, staff meetings at SLA are quite different because they're not top down, they're in a distributed leadership type model that those with the expertise we want to hear from you in order for all of us to learn and what we learn helps young people become better.
Meenoo: I mean, there's so much in what you said, bringing humanity to humanities, the difference between being in the same district, but completely different teacher and student experiences between the two schools that you named and the challenge of the sheer workload of creating content because literally you are now a full time, in some ways, content creator like a YouTube because you literally are live streaming all day long and the challenges of all that. So are there things that you're thinking about that you're prioritizing maybe over others?
Bonnee: What's essential first where the teacher is, you have to have at least two screens, you have to work with at least two computers. You cannot do this work on just one computer. You cannot people. So if you're new to it, be true to it and get two computers. And I shared that with the other staff at my school. The second thing that I learned, and this is through going through coursework in the summer with university of Pennsylvania and then coming into virtual learning in my own classroom from the main classroom to break out rooms, do not just assign time to get the job done.
Also allow for humanity time. Hi, how are you doing? How is your day? Where are you learning so that young people can just talk to each other about last night, I did such and such because they're not walking up and down the hallway anymore. They're not on public transit together anymore. They're not able to go out to McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Starbucks, none of that is happening. And where do they get to be human? That is essential right now. And that was something that I kept in front of our staff, even as we went through an entire week of PD prior to the first student showing up for class.
Meenoo: And I'm so glad that you just called it that because again, lack of coordinated response from essentially our federal government has put cities and towns in this really, in this very difficult situation. And the thing that you said about structuring the unstructured, making time for what happens, genuinely or organically is so important. And for educators to pause and to make room for that and to not see it as time loss is such an important thing. Because we're both also products of Philadelphia Writing Project, are there things that you're thinking about in terms of building community for your readers and writers in your humanities classroom that you might want to share with our listeners?
Bonnee: Oh, well, the first piece that I'm really dabbling in is Flipgrid, which is another software program so that students can enter into, exit out of, and then enter back into. Secondly, the breakout room. One group today, I noticed a lot of them were shy and didn't talk too much just normally. And how about the automatic system of breakout rooms and assigning people to break out rooms on Zoom mysteriously put all the quiet people in one room, which I thought was like, that is so cool. This is where it kind of has, it pulls the words from them. It pulls it.
And I thought that was special so that they each had to take a turn because each one of them, interestingly enough, this is my first year teaching seniors at SLA, I usually teach ninth and 11th grade.
Meenoo: I've had that happen. Sometimes it's a blessing and sometimes it's a curse.
Bonnee: Right. Well, for this set of quiet young people, it was a blessing because I knew all of them, I knew they were all quiet. I knew they normally didn't like to speak with one another, but I said, you all, you have to talk and every single one of you is quiet. How will you figure out what it is you have to do if you don't talk to one another and no woman in the room was talking, that means nothing will get done.
So they were fine after that. After they realized they were very similar in nature they were okay with that because to have a loud mouth in the room like me, and then you have a quiet person, there's always this angst that happens, to have all soothingly quiet, laid back folk all together. It was really nice.
Meenoo: And it's hard to also learn about your students' needs when you're not in person and you can't pick up on the cues and some of the nonverbal information that tell you so much about a student's need, how are you learning about your students' needs? And in what ways are you shifting your practice to meet those needs in this new normal?
Bonnee: I don't really have an answer for that yet, but it brings tears to my eyes to know that that part of the classroom is missing. I'm a person that's just spiritual in nature, anyway. I feel folk's energies. I'm sure you did too when you were in the classroom. We feel their energies and that's a part of the calling into this profession. Everybody cannot do this because it's more than just lessons of a text. There's more to this. And a part of that is that spiritual connection that's missing in virtual learning.
But at SLA Beeber what we decided to do was only teach one grade. So at least according to the child development scale, we know what we're dealing with. We only have to kind of configure our thinking and our lessons in accordance to that child's stage of development. So, that's the first thing. And then the next thing is like, today, I can take today. I had a new student who told me she was new. And I said, well, I didn't know your name. Who are you? She said, well, I'm new.
I said, new, how? It's hard to get a new student at SLA as a senior. And she said, well, I came from and she came from some charter school, some charter school that closed. So I said, oh, okay, baby. And that's what I called her, even though she's a senior, she was a baby, just warm that child up to me. And then she sent me three other questions in the chat afterwards. She said, I had an email on another screen from her.
So just knowing some of the oddities that happen, that was the fourth time I had that child but it was the first time I knew she was new, but if she was in the classroom with me, I would've known that from day one. So some things I'm not going to pick up on like how quickly I would pick up on them before.
Meenoo: But it's also interesting that the care and the welcoming and, the support that you showed is really the ground and the foundation, even in the new normal that treating young people, no matter how young they are with respect and love is what will help us get through this as best as we can for them and for teachers. And that, that never goes away. As teachers, we mess up and sometimes students mess up and you have to look at every day as a fresh day and bring that grace and kindness to these relationships. And they're even more important now because we miss things when we can't be in person.
Bonnee: So two things that I want to say is, this is why as a black female, we talk about representation is important. How can I be something I don't see in me. How can I grow to that when I don't see myself as that. So, here we are in this virtual world and we're being cut off and just sectioned, cordoned off into certain spaces at certain times on certain dates. Especially me being a churchgoing person, me, no one in America going to church. That's the most segregated time, 11 o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated time in this country.
It's not nice. The teachers carry society in a way for young people where we make it okay to just be. Whoever you are, even if you haven't figured it out yet, is okay. The one thing that I tell my students all the time is, you said it, I'm human. I am not a robot. I have feelings, I have emotions, and I am not perfect. So if I make a mistake, I have to say, I'm sorry.
Meenoo: Yeah, absolutely.
Bonnee: I have to, and I have to really look at what it was I did so that I don't repeat that same mistake, because I think about the times that a teacher said something to me that still plays in my head today.
Meenoo: Yeah, yeah.
Bonnee: Whether or not it was good and bad.
Bonnee: It still loops in my brain, and sometimes even in my actions. This is like heartstrings stuff for the people who didn't know before today that educators are dealing not only with matters of intellect, we are dealing with matters of the heart in growing young people to be a part of a whole, in a community that they don't even have permission to make any choice. But as an educator, I allow them to come through that, come through that, to be able to make a choice and a decision. And that's why I like [inaudible 00:02:18]. We're breeding thinkers. We're not [inaudible 00:22:23] doers.
Meenoo: Yeah. From your experience of segregation in society, what's going on in the world right now, the protests are still ongoing, protesting police brutality against black people everywhere. There is increased, and maybe it has always been this way, but it seems like there's increased violence in Philadelphia right now. I think what I hear, an underlying thread in what I hear you say when you talk about young people's place in a community and what happens in a classroom is sometimes what's happening outside of the classroom, enters your classroom.
And you have to develop the tools to provide a safe space for young people to grapple with those things because they are part of those experiences that like you very acutely and accurately said, they don't have control over. The classroom cannot be a simply a place to exchange knowledge or information, but it has to be a place ... I like to use the phrase, a sacred place, where exchange of also the hard work, but the hard work can happen too.
Bonnee: Yes. Yes. I forgot what I was going to say on that because I was just stuck with what you were saying. I mean, you are so right. Now, as far as the protest, that's what I wanted to say. I'm so happy that the young people are out there because I come from the cloth ... because y'all can see the gray hair starting to pop ... so I'm cut from the cloth of get your education so that you will be accepted by the world in the skin that you are in. If in fact, you have to deal with some adversities, just shook it off because you have a degree. These young people are like, "I don't need a DAM in education for you to respect me. You will respect me and you want to respect me right now in the skin that I'm in, in the place that I'm in, in the socioeconomic status that I'm, in and I'm loving it."
So I'm telling the young people, I got your back. I got your back. However, on the flip side of that, I do a lot of work in politics. As you know, I'm heavy in the union and all of that, which kind of safeguarded people of color for many, many years. But I am loving this. I do civic things as well in my community. I live in Delaware County even though I teach in Philadelphia, and I'm involved in organizations out here that is allowing me to educate families, especially families of color, many of the schools their children go to, their children are subjected to educators and professionals who they don't look like them. They don't even understand what's going on, and children are suffering in silence. But now they're starting to say some things and as a person in a civic organization, we're starting to help them because they're calling out. They're like, "Hey, well what's happened?"
Like myself, I thought that my daughter not going to an inner city public school was a better choice because of who was running the school, I'm not ... I tell families today, I'm not really sure that was the best choice to make. But what I did do on the back end of that, I made sure my daughter went to an HBCU. I said, "We're not doing that, uh-uh (negative)," and my daughter was fussing with me because where I sent her is not where she really wanted to go. That's at a time where children are making their own decisions, but I was like listen, we can't do this. We can't do it anymore. Well, by my daughter's second year, second semester, she was saying, "Oh mom, thank you."
Meenoo: Mama knows best.
Bonnee: That's right.
Meenoo: I mean, I'm really moved by what you said that you've got young people's back who are protesting for speaking up, because if those who are listening are asking themselves, "What can I do in this moment?" It's that very thing. It's time to listen to young people, it's time to give them the space to teach us, to lead us because they know what's up. They know what's not working in the world and they're speaking out, rightly so, and there are few things that we could certainly learn from them.
I often hear this or it's suggested in private conversations that politics should not be part of the classroom, that teaching is not political, but to think that is a level of privilege that I don't know. Any person who has taught in a place like Philadelphia would not have that privilege to think that way.
John Lewis passing this summer was a very important thing for me to reflect on. He meant a lot to me and to millions of people, but of all the civil rights heroes, I felt most connected to him. I loved his spirit of rooting for the young people that were out in the streets. Till his last days on earth, he was supporting them and he was rooting for them. His light is still with us and it guides us and guides our conscience as he was the conscience of the Congress.
I love this idea of bringing your civic identity to your classroom. You mentioned your union role. I know that, that can often be a difficult balance. How do you think about your work as a classroom teacher and then your responsibilities to represent your brothers and sisters in the union? How do you balance that? How do you think about that in your own life?
Bonnee: How I think about it in my own life is simply, I am because unions were. My mother worked in education as well, and my father was a US postal worker. They would not have had the opportunity to be or even make the money that they make or send both their children to college if it were not for unions, period. Period. So it's very important for me.
I'm also really, Meenoo and to everyone who's listening in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of teachers, I sit on the executive board and really there is an inside problem within our own union. Younger people are rising up and saying, "Well, we know best. We want to take over. The people who came up through the ranks of the union are holding it down." I'm a part of the people who came up through the union and are holding it down kind of thought process while the young people are saying, "Okay, well we know what we're doing and let us in." For that, I don't know. This is a whole argument in my head. There are other ways to get in. You don't have to fight to get in your union. You're already in it. You don't have to, if you have a difference of opinion or ideas or values or ideals that are different, get your foot in the door first.
Now see, that's something that black people have always done. We've always done that because we weren't accepted just because of the skin we're in. We learned how to put our foot in the door at least so we could get in and then we start. Even a woman with locks in her hair, going to an interview wearing a wig for the interview. Get the job. I have my locks. And there's nothing you could say because I got my job. You know I got the job. A lot of young people aren't thinking like that. For folks whose livelihoods are attached to union. Folks want to know that what you're willing to do for me will provide for me and my family, that I won't lose anything, that I will gain. If I can't gain it, at least I'm going to stay steady on the path where I am now. So I think that's an issue.
Then the other issue for me, and I'm going to say this, because I said it before. How dare these folks who want to say on one side, black lives matter. Then you have black leadership and he doesn't matter. Everything he says, you're like, "No." Everything he does, he shouldn't have done that. When he's carrying all of us on our back. However, that's what black folks have done historically. We carry everybody on our back because we're not all sectioned off like, "Oh, we're just going to do for us and not do for them." Like even look at black lives matter. Oh, everybody wants to jump on bandwagon, oh all lives matter, dogs matter, children matter, everybody matters. All on the life of black people, over and over again.
Then on the flip side of that, Meenoo, I'm also in the politics too. So when you talked about politics, that's big for me. I chaired a state senatorial campaign in my neighborhood and I'll say this just so everybody knows. My state Senator is a white man and he won and I helped him get his seat in Harrisburg. Yes I did. I'm very proud of that.
Proud of that work and I'm elected too, me. Now, I don't even know if you knew that.
Meenoo: I don't think I do.
Bonnee: I lasted on the state committee for my political party. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say it here. But for my political party, I'm the state committee member and I was elected to serve in that capacity.
Meenoo: Yeah, we're recording this day after Labor Day. So we would be remiss if we didn't say that unions opened doors and they open doors for access to middle class life for people of color. They've done that for generations and they will continue to do that. I think when you share your civic pride and that's really what it is, it really makes me think that it's about the passion that you have for that beloved community or the idea of a beloved community and that community that is interconnected and interdependent and that you bring that spirit to your teaching and that's what makes it important. Hopefully transformational for your students that you can leave it at the door. It is what makes you, you, and then it also shapes your teaching identity and in doing so in a lot of ways, it makes your teaching identity better and the connections with students deeper.
Bonnee: Well, that's my hope, Meenoo. As you talked about bags, how often have we heard, "Leave your bag at the door. Don't bring your bag in here."
Bonnee: How can you just leave your bag at the door? Shucks. I am my bag.
Meenoo: Yeah. Yeah.
Bonnee: My bag is me. So how can I just leave it at the door. So I do invite it. I think that part makes me a little touched with a little tape of insanity. I like doing multiple things at one time. So now even in my class, I don't even think the children recognized it yet. I told them, "We're doing three things in the first quarter with college application essay." We're doing political, I didn't want to call it theory or framework. So I called it political propaganda.
Bonnee: Starting with the US Post Office, so I don't act like I'm a Democrat or Republican. I'm just the person who wants to get my doggone mail. Then we're doing independent reading. Now I'm going to ask you. I usually do biography, multicultural literature, sci-fi. Those are my three favorite genres, but I'm looking for a different genre this year because some of the students had me three times.
So they've done those three genres of reading and I'm saying to myself, "What do I want them to read this time, what genre?" Let me tell you what I did for community with that.
Bonnee: I gave them a list of bookstores to go to. If Amazon is a part of your sponsorship, so sorry. We're not ordering from Amazon. We're relying on small, independently owned bookstores in our community.
Bonnee: All the hot links and everything. You know, me starting at talking about the spiritual connection to people and teaching, I'm starting to tap into that about myself now. That's what all this stuff is coming down to. Because being raised as a Christian, we're taught that some of that stuff is like, "Ooh."
Bonnee: Some of those stuff is...
Bonnee: I'm like, okay. Let me start looking at my [inaudible 00:37:24] and what I've known
Meenoo: In some ways, the ways that you want to open the minds of your students, you're allowing yourself to look at things with fresh eyes and fresh perspective. Maybe not only going by what was taught or expected of you. I'm interested in the idea of self-care and what that looks like for you. Maybe you have a tip or two for people who who understand the importance of self-care, but maybe have a hard time extending it to themselves.
Bonnee: Self-care looks like making sure you go to the doctor. You have great insurance, but you never take time to go to the doctor. The other thing is, I do acupuncture.
Meenoo: I've never tried that. I should try that.
Bonnee: Acupuncture is wonderful. Now my doctor was saying, I need to walk more. What COVID has done, it has set me down because I was a busy body. Always here, always there. So because I'm sitting down, other things are starting to crop up. What I recognize even is my love for cooking. I was never home to do all this cooking.
Meenoo: So even amidst all of this loss, you have found some new things to savor and new things to discover. Bonnee, thank you so much for your time today and for your very big hearted conversation. I'm grateful to know you and to have you as part of my group of people. I hope that this conversation has been interesting for others. I've definitely learned a number of things. So thank you so much for your time.
Bonnee: Thank you so much Meenoo. Just know that I am more than honored to be here with you because you are a national icon in the booklets of English education. So you go ahead with your bad self. Keep on keeping on and keep dragging us with you.
Meenoo: Yeah. Thank you so much, Bonnee. Thank you.
Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive, is a national board certified teacher who taught students English in Philadelphia for ten years, at the Science Leadership Academy and in other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo is a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project and an instructor in Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also worked as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as a Senior Program Manager helping education, nonprofit, and government organizations to accelerate their digital transformation at Microsoft. Follow Meenoo on Twitter @meenoorami
Bonnee did her undergraduate work at Wilkes University and her postgraduate degree work at Chestnut Hill College majoring in Special Education and Fort Hays State University majoring in Instructional Technology. Bonnee helps few grassroots organizations; supports summer journalism programming for high school students at Temple University through Prime Movers Media, links students to athletic programming with Village of Champions and much more. Bonnee also has her own business organization, A Matter of Xpression that has grown globally serving young people in Ghana and formerly Kenya. Bonnee serves public school teachers as a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) Executive Board member-at-large. Bonnee has served students in Philadephia since 2001. She has been active professionally through her participation in the Philadelphia Writing Project, Teachers Institute of Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, and served as a National Steering Committee member for Yale University National Initiative Teachers Institute. She has committed herself to widening her global information classroom horizons by creating diverse curriculum units that speak to her students and for teachers’ use in any country. Bonnee successfully completed the US Department of States’ Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) program, where she spent two weeks in Ghana, Africa. Bonnee is a wife and mother of her daughter and son.