Souls Afire

Photo Courtesy of Perspectives Charter School/Flickr

I teach in one of the most culturally and socioeconomically diverse communities in the entire city of Chicago. My school is located where the Lincoln Park neighborhood meets Old Town in an area previously (and notoriously) known as Cabrini Green. A few blocks north, one will pass upscale restaurants and newly renovated luxury condominiums for sale, while just south of the school, one will find tent cities tucked into underpasses and vacant lots home to abandoned buildings. My classroom windows are bulletproof, which speak to my school community’s rough history. Across the street is a brand new shopping center, which speaks to my school community’s auspicious future. It’s a constant current events lesson for my students who come from all sectors of Chicagoland, who are predominantly Black and Hispanic, who are majority low-income. Our school community is a lesson on gentrification; on the intersection of race, socioeconomic status, gender, and family dynamics; on the coexistence of various identities and realities in a single space; on code-switching. My school is an eclectic mix of a tough past and a gentrified future; it’s at a truly special crossroads.

These aspects of where I teach are important because they shape my students’ understanding of the city of Chicago. As a proud Chicago native, my school community influences how I incorporate our home into course material, how I help my students realize their responsibility as citizens of the City of Big Shoulders, how I weave the magic of Chicago into its gritty edges to help my students take pride in our school’s home. As an educator, it is my responsibility to practice intentionality while equipping my students to explore the differences within the community and between various communities in a safe, respectful, and meaningful manner.

Intentionality is being deliberate and purposeful in every aspect of your life in order to achieve desired outcomes. Operating with intentionality means recognizing that even the most miniscule decisions I make in the classroom can lead to drastic outcomes for my students—both good and bad. Before becoming a teacher, I did not think about how creating actionable plans to achieve goals is something that must be taught; it does not come naturally to many people. As teenagers, my students need strong examples of operating with acute intentionality and the benefits of it. As a result, I aim to communicate the importance of intentionality to my students with everything I do, from considering my word choice in the classroom and how I start to get to know a student to using my school’s community to help my students create their own definitions of success.

Arnold H. Glasow once said, “Success isn’t the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” Over the course of my education and experience, I have learned that an effective teacher is driven to help students become more confident in their personal potential by intentionally cultivating and encouraging a growth mindset as well as engaging in culturally responsive teaching practices. They believe that all students can achieve at the highest level and purposefully use all of the resources at their disposal to overcome obstacles and ensure success. This is the type of educator that I learned the most from and the type of educator I strive to be for my students. These are the types of results I work to help my students achieve every day by being intentional in my practice. My role as an intentional educator is to help my students write tickets to the brightest futures possible, to set their souls on fire.

In my classroom, we are not only learning about grammar and the writing process; we are learning how to learn, how to use reading and writing as avenues for inquiry. I strive to give my students a quality literacy education that will give them power over their own lives and goals, to show them that they can experience incredible power with the ability to communicate effectively. We are becoming wordsmiths, or people who wield power over words, who bend them to their will: code-switchers. Wordsmiths are effective communicators because they are intentional with their grammar, diction, syntax, and organization.

My students have internalized this vision for themselves and are intentional about growing their wordsmith capabilities. For example, I see my students practice intentionality by attending Office Hours prepared with questions for their teachers as well as requests for clarification, extra practice, and makeup work in order to improve their grades each week. Furthermore, students who normally attend office hours are encouraging other friends to attend with them for their mutual benefit. This demonstrates not only the ability to advocate for themselves, but the desire to. My students have pride in their own work and that of their peers. In the words of one of my most promising young scholars, “I feel like if I work hard, I’ll be better at who I am. ‘Cause if I don’t, I don’t know who I’ll be. Me working hard shows myself and Ms. Kelenyi that I can do what I put my mind to.” This student, Dequan, is being deliberate and purposeful about being the best version of himself, about becoming a better writer, about helping people not have “down days.” When Dequan greets me each morning with a bright smile and a firm handshake, he embodies the idea that even the most miniscule actions can lead to boundless outcomes. He wants those outcomes to be positive ones, so he practices intentionality.

My students believe their voices and ideas are important, and they want to be able to share them with multiple and varied audiences. Chicago and I have taught my students to recognize the importance of code-switching and the power it gives people to enact change in their communities. They are eager to continue improving the effectiveness of their communication. Every day we meet at a truly special crossroads: a diffident past and a promising future.




Gabrielle Kelenyi wrote this piece for Flux, a forum for those of us encountering adulthood.  She is a 9th Grade Composition Teacher and a Class of 2018 Advisor at a top-performing charter school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Before becoming an educator, Gabbi earned her BA in English and Spanish at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and participated in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program as an English Teaching Assistant at a private university in Panama City, Panama. She is a member of Teach For America’s 2015 Corps and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Teaching at Relay Graduate School of Education. Eventually, Gabbi hopes to return to school to earn a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition to study writing program administration and research best practices for teaching writing effectively at all grade levels.


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