"We, as Cunningham's Class of 2021, strive to learn and grow and experience and thrive and dream and explore in our classroom--our society. Throughout the year, the Hive Society will implement our creative ideas through technology, participate in insightful conversations and debates, interact with literature we love, and delve into the corners of our brains using an array of expository texts and thought-provoking literature...
Emily Smith, of Cunningham Elementary, is the first teacher to be recognized for the Austin Under 40 Awards. Not only did she receive a nomination, she also walked home with the Youth and Education award at Friday night's ceremony.
"I'm probably the only person that let children write their letter of recommendation, but I feel that children really need to have a voice."
Smith is pushing for excellence and equality across the AISD spectrum. Her goal is to rearrange the stoic classroom structure and streamline education with innovation, optimism, and opportunity for all. These convictions fuel her mission to bring awareness to the short-comings many public education systems face: allocation of funds and grant availability are two hurdles that impact Title 1 schools.
Where does the community aid, or fall short, with its youth?
I see firsthand the inequity that happens on a day-to-day basis. Resources are bleak, although [I am] lucky enough to work with a principal [Amy Lloyd] who knows how to scrape the bottom of the barrel to make magical things happen at [Cunningham]. There are many school districts that ensure all campuses are equally equipped to serve their population, and I feel that each year Austin ISD is moving closer and closer toward closing the resource gap that has continued to keep all children from succeeding.
If you only had one opportunity to make a change, what footprint would you leave?
This is a difficult question, because I am a dreamer...however, I feel that my heart most strongly lies with closing the achievement gap between children who are sometimes considered the “underdogs.” I, for one, do not see them through this lens. I see them as vibrant individuals who have an amazing story to tell. My footprint will hopefully be to give many of the children I work with a different future in the world, but also a different perception of what they have to offer.
Smith's nook of chalkboard space is buzzing with ambition - like a hive, and so aptly referred to as the Hive Society. Behind these doors, students are engaging with one another to foster teamwork and cultivate creativity. Smith's fifth grade students work collectively to achieve goals; her curriculum integrates projects like NPR's Story Corps and TEDTalks, where students are given the opportunity to build ideas and display their work on a public platform - the Hive Society website.
You teach fifth grade, and you are the last elementary memory your students have before middle school. What is the message you want to leave with your students?
I have a love/hate relationship with the grade level I teach because I love that I’m the last thing they know before they move on, but I hate not seeing them in the hallways the following year. I feel like my primary goal as their teacher is to instill a sense of pride in my children. It’s important that every child know how important and brilliant he or she is. In order for them to preserve this feeling, I am always very clear that once they are my kids, they are always my kids. My time with them [does not] end when they leave Cunningham Elementary…it continues and adapts as they need it to.
It is Saturday afternoon: where are you?
Hopefully I’m out and about with my two rescue pups. I love going to Town Lake and watching all the dogs interact with each other. Some weekends I even make plans with current scholars or kids that have graduated from my class to accompany my dogs and me. It’s a great opportunity to mentor outside of the classroom and keep in touch with my kiddos as they continue their journeys into middle school.
Teachers have the ability to shape lives and nurture growth, it takes a sincere passion for children execute that responsibility. Ms. Smith is dedicated to her students and to the betterment of her industry - she is a pioneer for others to follow. Cunningham Elementary has set an example for AISD: underdog? There is no such thing.
In your own opinion, what elements contribute to a student's success?
I truly believe that one influential adult can make a difference in a child’s life. This could be a parent, a community member, a mentor, or a teacher. There is a spectrum of inequality that affects the lives of children across America, but we can break this cycle with active community members, informed parents, and passionate teachers.
Emily Smith is a fresh face in education - she embodies change. It is easy to become caught up in the cyclical sameness that changes September to June, but Smith doesn't leave her apple at the desk when 3pm rings. She carries her commitment out of the classroom and into the streets with this message:
We are today. We are the future. We are the Hive Society.
Follow the Hive Society on Twitter (@HiveSocietyATX) or through their web portal, here.
© Lindsay Watson