The Power of “Yet” — Rising to the Challenge Amid a Global Pandemic

Carmen leiva

Carmen Leiva, a math teacher at Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy, loves watching students in her classroom experience “light bulb moments” of realization. In these instances she’d see a spark in their eyes when they’d see their hard work come to fruition. “Carmen works so hard to build positive mindsets toward math in her students,” said Esther Deth, principal at Ánimo Watts. “Every year, she talks with her students about the word “yet,” and the power of adding it to the end of a sentence like “I don’t know how to do this,” or “I don’t like math.”

Earlier this year, when the pandemic closed schools around the country, Leiva rose to the challenge of ensuring that her students finished the year strong. Leiva’s Algebra 2 students we’re entering a unit on statistics, known to be one of the most challenging math standards. “It was a difficult transition, but I knew I had to have a growth mindset, I had to make it work,” said Leiva.

This year, Green Dot established a distance learning program that allowed us to implement our high quality curriculum and effective pedagogical practices in virtual classrooms. To ensure the success of our distance learning program, we addressed the digital divide that persists in the communities we serve by providing students with computers and internet hotspots. We also invested in additional professional development, coaching, and curriculum support to help teachers feel successful.

At Ánimo Watts, Leiva took on a crucial role in supporting her school and students overcome the unique challenges brought forth by the pandemic. “She took on 12th grade level lead this school year and helped her team navigate school closures while still keeping students first,” said Lauren Morimoto, Ánimo Watts assistant principal. “Seniors looked to her for consistency, dependability, and guidance during such unprecedented times.”

Learning Continues

In her virtual classroom Leiva quickly established norms, created structures within her presentations and lessons, and tailored her teaching approach to meet the new needs of her students. To best serve her students Leiva leveraged student data to increase her effectiveness in the virtual classroom. In our virtual classrooms, every lesson ends with an exit ticket, a formative assessment tool that allows teachers to quickly assess students’ understanding of that day’s material. Leiva would use this data to help surface and address learning gaps and determine how best to differentiate instruction in the following class. She built in class time to solicit feedback directly from students. She promoted self-efficacy in her learnings and pushed her students to effectively advocate for themselves by using their math vocabulary to ask specific questions about the concepts they were struggling with. “They would just tell me ‘I don’t get it’ and so I would ask very specific questions and at first it was really hard for them, but after I modeled it for them, they got better,” said Leiva.

"Ms.Leiva is a passionate, hard-working, driven and caring teacher. She always just wants the best for her students and helps them become better versions of themselves.”

--Breanna Maldonado, Ánimo Watts alumna

This information allowed Leiva to tailor instruction and resources to best serve her students, one of the ways was through creating YouTube videos. Although there were similar resources online, Leiva knew her students would benefit most from resources that drew on problems similar to those they were encountering in class assignments and exams. “So if they were struggling with the Empirical Rule I’d make a video specifically about that using problems from the book,” said Leiva. Though she was no longer able to witness the light bulb moments in person, she knew they were happening. She began to see a positive shift in the exit exams and by the end of the semester many students had improved their grades. “Ms.Leiva is a passionate, hard-working, driven and caring teacher. She always just wants the best for her students and helps them become better versions of themselves,” said Breanna Maldonado, Ánimo Watts alumna.

Mission to Serve

Leiva’s commitment to going above and beyond to ensure the success of her students, came as no surprise to her colleagues at Ánimo Watts. “Carmen shows up every day ready to give it her all. She doesn't shy away from tough tasks,” said Morimoto.

More than ever, this year our schools and educators have demonstrated the power of education. During these unprecedented times, they’ve continued student learning and provided support to ensure the health and well-being of students and their families. “Mrs. Leiva has such a deep respect for the teaching profession, and this is so evident when you see her interact with her students and colleagues. We are so fortunate to have a teacher like her!,” said Deth.

Leiva admits that this semester was challenging, but the resilience demonstrated by her students has been a constant source of inspiration. “I can’t even imagine what they were going through. It’s like wow, you’re coming to school every day with a smile on your face, being so respectful and so willing to try,” reflected Leiva. She is extremely proud of the class of 2020 and all of the great things she and her fellow educators have been able to accomplish this year.

Entering her sixth year in education, she is reminded of why she became a teacher: “Every day is a new day to learn and get better at what you do and an opportunity to reflect on the content and reflect on yourself, because the students really shape you.” As educators we teach students to view challenges and feedback as opportunities to continuously grow and learn, but so must we. At Green Dot we know that in order to empower students to reach their full potential we must develop a growth mindset in both our teachers and students.

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