What brought you to EPAA?
I had been teaching at a middle school in Berkeley for three years when I met Amika [Guillaume]. She just started her new role as principal at EPAA, and the way she talked about the school – I knew that I had to join her team. EPAA’s philosophy is to put students first, and it shows.
Unlike a lot of other schools, EPAA offers a full team of counselors and wraparound services. This is important. If a student has mental health needs, it is extremely challenging for them to be engaged in the classroom. On top of these services, EPAA provides its staff with the resources they need to serve our students in a holistic manner: teacher-coaches, professional development opportunities, and even grants to cover basic classroom supplies. I truly believe that every school should take this approach.
Why do you teach math? Isn’t that a subject that students tend to dislike?
That’s why I am so passionate about math! My goal is to teach in a way that students will really connect with. Algebra is a gatekeeper for other math classes as well as access to college, so I do everything in my power to make sure that this class isn’t a barrier for my students.
Many of our students can confidently add and subtract with positive integers, but it is definitely a challenge for them to catch up to algebra – manipulating variables, using equations, and graphing. But it is vital that they succeed: algebra is the first step to A-G eligibility, which is what they need to attend a four-year college directly after high school.
I heard you had a busy summer – what were you up to?
I was on that thesis grind! It has been so fascinating to design interactive, relevant curriculum that challenges students to solve real-world problems. I also kept investing in my professional development this summer.
First, I shadowed a colleague at Summer Bridge, our orientation program for rising ninth graders. Okay, this colleague, Harmony Hayes, is amazing! She taught in the Ravenswood City School District for years before joining us at EPAA, and her classroom culture is warm and her academic standards are high. I learned lots of tips and tricks from Harmony.
Then, I did my second summer at the Hollyhock Fellowship. It’s this program for early-career teachers, and my focus is on “low-floor, high ceiling” complex instructions that are accessible to struggling students and challenging to high-achieving students. I am in a mini-cohort with Maggie Ates and Pete Otte, who are two social science teachers here at EPAA. Throughout the year, the three of us meet to discuss our lesson plans and exchange ideas. We also receive video coaching and feedback from experienced teachers all across the country. Over the summer, we stayed at Stanford for more intensive professional development. The program is a lot of work, but it’s great to have the accountability to improve. I feel like I’ve learned new techniques and approaches that have transformed my teaching practice.
Your school-year days are busy, too! What keeps you motivated?
You’re right! This job is a lot of grind. It is always hard work and then more hard work, but stopping is not an option. I stay motivated because of the big impact that our school has. We serve incredibly motivated first-gen students, and they deserve every opportunity in this world. I am sustained by the love and care that I have for my students and colleagues, and by their love and care for me. We are a Bulldog family.
Now for the part that we’ve been waiting for!
Here is a day in the life of Allison Mok:
Her alarm goes off much earlier, but today, Allison decides to treat herself to a few extra minutes of rest – she’s going to need it!
As soon as she arrives on campus, Allison is busy making copies of her teaching materials and responding to emails from EPAA staff and students.
The bell rings to signal the beginning of the school day. “And then chaos,” she jokes.
Allison starts her morning off with an algebra class for ninth and tenth graders. Today, she prepared an activity to set the classroom culture. Going around the room, Allison shares a specific reason why she appreciates every single student in the class. Then, she turns the reins over to them: they affirm three of their peers in the same way.
This activity is a powerful opportunity for the class to focus on its purpose and to reflect on why they are fighting so hard for an education. Without lecturing, Allison is able to convey why she cares, why they should care, and why they can pass this algebra class. Students return to a graphing lesson with renewed energy.
Next, Allison welcomes her statistics class. While her algebra classes are full of younger students, statistics is one of the advanced options that upperclassmen can take. They, too, benefit from the appreciation activity before launching into a unit on probability. In addition to the mathematical concepts, Allison is determined to support them in developing other skills that are vital for college success: reading academic texts, taking useful notes, and ensuring that they understand the topic they read about.
At lunch break, Allison’s classroom fills with students who come to eat and hang out with her. She eats a quick meal while checking in on them, cracking jokes, and preparing for her next class.
Advisory is a special time at EPAA. Every student and teacher are assigned to a cohort, and this is their family on campus. Allison’s advisory is no different. Today’s workshop, co-facilitated by EPAA’s Social Services Manager, Marco Calderon, discusses the symptoms of depression and how to access support resources.
During her prep period, Allison doesn’t have time to linger. After a quick check-in with a student, she tries to beat the traffic to get to her grad school classes.
Just in time, she makes it to San Francisco State for a meeting with her advisor. They focus on redesigning curriculum to be more applicable to real-world problems. A unit on linear equations, for example, isn’t about delivering a lecture anymore. Instead, students are challenged to set up equations to represent different phone plan options and select the plan that offers the best deal.
Next, Allison races to her seminar on “Secondary Educational Leadership.” They are having a lively discussion on making classrooms accessible to all students. She reflects on the value of engaging in big-picture conversations with a cohort of peers who have the same commitment to social justice.
Before long, she is driving back to East Palo Alto. Many of her statistics students are seniors, and they have asked her to attend an evening event. How can she say no? Luckily, dinner is served – she will need the fuel to continue her night of lesson planning and homework grading!
Allison arrives home. She is pooped. She takes a shower, reflects in her journal, and off to bed she goes. What a day!
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