Want Community Engagement in Your Classroom? Step 1: Ask!

November 4, 2016

by Jayne E. Pynes, Cobra Tech Academy @ Canyon Hills Middle School Social Studies Teacher

I am a New Tech Network Newbie at Cobra Tech Academy at Canyon Hills Middle School in El Paso, Texas; finding mentors to connect with the students in authentic ways both thrills and frightens me, but I am up for a challenge.

On September 6, 2016, which happens to be my birthday, I was suffering from my back-to-school cold which caused me to need to make some hot tea. While I was online waiting for the tea to steep,. I saw that Ginger Zee, the Chief Meteorologist for ABC News and Good Morning America, was Live on Facebook. I had learned how to go “Live” over the summer while I was at NTAC, so I starting watching to see what she was doing.

In my cold-induced, excited-to-be-back at school AND in a New Tech program state, I typed a comment asking how we could get her to talk to our students (shown below). Imagine my utter shock when she said, “Jayne, contact Samantha Wnek at….” I was stunned, but I got my computer out, and I emailed Ms. Wnek. Ms. Wnek responded by offering my students a ten minute interview with Ms. Zee on the morning of 9/21. Much faster than I had anticipated, we had a speaker but not a plan. I know that’s not the New Tech way…


However, Michelle Cervantes, my co-teacher, and I were thick in the middle of teaching protocols and norms. So, with the generous help of Ms Stephanie Valle, Good Morning El Paso co-anchor and a New Tech spouse, we spent an hour the afternoon of 9/19 having the 121 kids learn interview protocol. We used Ms. Valle and Ms. Zee’s professional biographies to teach backgrounding and descriptive text. Our students wrote questions for each of them based on their biographies. Two questions resounded with both Ms. Valle and Ms. Zee, “Have you been bullied in your professional lives?” (both have), and “How did you choose your career?”

Both women talked about how bullying has made them stronger; Ms Zee spoke about how she thanks people for their derisive comments to show them that she is human, too. In fact, she said, “A lot of bullying comes from online so I learned to separate my feelings and realize people online are people, too,” Ms Zee said. “So I say, ‘thank you for your opinion,’ and that makes them realize I’m a real person they are talking to. It has really made me stronger and helped me become a better person.” Further,  Ms Zee told the Cobra Tech Academy (CTA) students that they should follow their passions in life in order to truly be successful. She knew at 9 that weather was her passion.

Equally important, Ms Valle told the students, who were so eager to talk to her, that they should put their hands down and listen to the speaker’s response in order to both truly learn and to be polite. We call that the “Valle Protocol” in class now. When a group is responding to clarifying questions, the students know that “Valle Protocol” is in force so that everyone can be present to listen and learn. (Ms Valle is pictured below with the students.)


Another important takeaway for the students and for me is that this shows that El Paso is not isolated, that we are a global community and that people who are nationally recognized care about them. Teaching students that people care about shaping their futures and are willing to invest time with them shows them that they and their school are valuable.


After the interview, students discussed and wrote reflections about what Ms. Zee said and how her remarks resonated with them. Both Ms. Valle and Ms. Zee inspired sixth grader Sierra Richards to work hard to make her own dreams come true. Sierra said that both experiences, “Make me feel like I can accomplish anything I want to if I set my mind to it.” Richards wants to motivate others to achieve their goals too — in her own way. “I want to become a singer,” she said. “I want to inspire people to follow their dreams through music.” CTA student Mystique Singer plans on using Zee’s words of wisdom if she encounters bullying. “I learned if you are being bullied to just ignore it and focus on your own work and what you are doing.”

So, for me, perhaps the greatest takeaway is that you never know when and where you will find a mentor, and I am even more convinced that the New Tech Network is the only way to go. I am so thankful that El Paso ISD adopted the program for our students! Finally, this experience helped to reinforce trust, respect, and responsibility for our students as we worked on building our New Tech culture at Cobra Tech Academy.

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