Article & Interview by Josh Ramos and Chris Smith
When Josh first pitched the idea for a series of interviews to highlight initiatives addressing educational disparities, it struck me just how deep the two of us are into careers as educators. Neither of us were overachievers in school, and yet here we were: two teachers committed to education as a tool of liberation and empowerment.
After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reignited the conversation regarding the institutional racism ever present throughout all facets of society, education has become a hot bed for reform, civil activism, and decolonizing of school systems. Three initiatives that Josh and I decided to highlight in this educational series operating outside the traditional school structure are the volunteer organization Norwood Community Library, the literacy based non-profit Start Lighthouse, and the consultancy and social entrepreneurship school Basecamp.
This is the second interview with Start Lighthouse to highlight the benefits that these programs hold for the educational community outside of the classroom. It is our hope not only to highlight the necessary work that must be done outside of the educational system to ensure that we continue to elevate, but also to inspire others to give back to their community in any way they deem possible. Whether donating time, funds, or developing their own community ideas, investment in educational programs and the community around us is a clear cut way to work against the injustice that is rampant throughout society.
Learn more about the series here.
Students are not reading on grade-level. There are many reasons for illiteracy, but it seems obvious that schools should be the answer. Sadly, schools are developing students capable of passing a state aligned test, but not necessarily reading on their grade level. With a few exceptions, such as specialized public high schools or private schools, underclass English curriculums are very uniform, with little opportunity for diversity or student choice. While literature competes with engrossing social media and lack of necessary resources to drum up student interest, reading ability grows worse. A focus on passing the state based Regents exam only hurts the possibility to fix such a social disparity. Education’s love of data and tracking has once again created a roadblock that prevents students from developing their own interests in reading outside of mundane, skill-driven steps. By introducing the concept of reading as a robotic skill set instead of the impassioned act of researching a topic that fascinates you, students tend to shy away from ELA and focus on STEM.
The founders of Start Lighthouse, however, are doing their best to get kids interested in reading young. Former classroom teachers who have moved into the school psychology and policy world of education, Anya Morales and Rina Madhani launched their non-profit in the beginning of the COVID-19 as a national book drive inspired by widespread library and school closings. Rina tells us that while the initiative started during the pandemic, “Start Lighthouse’s mission is to foster lifelong literacy through a two generational approach. We not only believe in empowering students but also their family members and caregivers.” It’s through this two-fold approach that love of learning can be developed throughout the household with reading becoming a communal experience that families can still share past the bed-time story of our younger days. Start Lighthouse’s work may have begun during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the disparity Rina and Anya are highlighting has been an issue for decades and will likely remain so without any community intervention. For Start Lighthouse, collaboration is a key. Anya tells us they focus on collaborating with families “because they know their kids best. I think a lot of time we put educators against parents and it shouldn’t be like that. They should have an opinion on how their kid is being taught and what’s efficient and what they can do at home. Especially elementary reading.”
Since then, they have developed a socially relevant program called “Little Woke Activists” that builds mastery literacy skills through culturally responsive, personalized literacy kits that deepen reading comprehension and engagement. Inspired by her time working in a charter school, Anya laments the time she was unable to discuss certain things contractually such as feminism and race. “I only have Black and Latino students so how am I not talking about stuff that affects them?” is a question which rings true for many educators in a majority POC environment still forced to teach culturally irrelevant texts that are often revered as “the classics.”
Through their first year, Start Lighthouse has found success in their initiatives. “We found that students were so engaged with the content that we were putting out there,” says Rina. “I think it goes back to what we were talking about with things that they could actually connect with and relate to and that it really spoke to just what was happening in our country and that is relevant.” In a world where representation and identity have become the forefront of decolonizing curriculum, Start Lighthouse takes that responsibility and leads in a way that gives students a place where they can see themselves in the education they are pursuing. Working through the pandemic virtually as a non-profit has been difficult, but rewarding. Rina mentions that “it’s taught us to be very flexible and creative, and because of that we’ve been able to do the work that we do thoughtfully. Even in terms of the number of books we’ve been able to collect, we set a modest goal when we started collecting. I sent a cold email to one of my favorite children’s book authors, and it took him three weeks to respond to that email, so I didn’t even know if I was gonna get a response. He gave me an hour of his time and at the end of the conversation he said he wanted to donate 500 brand new books that would be signed by him and he would cover the shipping because he believes so deeply in the work that we are doing. It’s like the community has really rallied behind us and the response we’ve gotten is tremendous.” With a powerful initiative like Start Lighthouse, it is no surprise that others invested in education are giving their time and financial support to this educational program.
Promising some surprise initiatives in 2021, Start Lighthouse has made a community impact in its first year. If we are going to ensure an equitable and just world, we have to acknowledge that reading will be critical in the battle against injustice. If people are going to be informed and able to express themselves, reading will be essential to understanding the world around them and how they fit into it. Start Lighthouse fills a gap that many schools sadly cannot due to a lack of resources, funding, or other socio-political factors. Anya notes that she “felt like when I was teaching I could only do so much when you have twenty something kids in front of you. You can’t help every single kid. It’s impossible. I tried to, but I still can’t do as much as I want.” Start Lighthouse’s initiative meets kids on the elementary level, working to ensure students stay on grade level instead of playing the typical catch up game.
Check out our interview below where we discuss lack of school resources, reinventing white characters as POC, and appreciating teachers.
Josh: Who are you and how do you identify?
Rina: My name is Rina Madhani and I go by she/her.
Anya: I’m Anya Morales and I go by she/her.
Chris: What was the spark for the original idea for Start Lighthouse? Take us through the timeline of that lightbulb moment. How did you get inspired to do this?
Rina: So I met Anya five years ago now. We crossed paths during our first year teaching. We were both teaching English at public schools in the South Bronx and I think for us immediately we noticed the disparities that exist within our education system. I had students that were in tenth grade, but reading at a fourth or fifth grade level. I’m also facing pressure from admin to make sure that these kids are ready for the English Regents in order for them to graduate from high school. I think I was constantly grappling with why these discrepancies actually existed. Ultimately I shifted into elementary education because I was really inspired by early literacy and I wanted to understand how early does it actually start. And Anya knows this because we’ve been talking about this for years in terms of launching something of our own that addresses the root of the problem.
Anya: I didn’t move right into elementary like Rina did. I taught middle school ELA for a little bit and then I taught art at a middle school and elementary school. Now I just work with elementary school kids as a school psychology intern. I like elementary, but I didn’t really believe what I was teaching when I was teaching ELA. I was teaching white washed books. When I was at a charter school I literally was not allowed to talk about certain things in my contract, like feminism and race, and I only have Black and Latino students so how am I not talking about stuff that affects them? What happens outside the classroom still impacts the classroom. And I know personally, as a first generation student, I did not have access to these types of books. It wasn’t until I was 19 in college that I took my first Latin American History Class. I was like, “oh wow there’s a whole different type of feminism that isn’t white washed and led by white women.” And I think kids should know about this and even though I was teaching art, and art history along with it, I’m teaching kids Frida Kahlo and we’re having these conversations I didn’t know about. I’m talking to a fourth grader like, “what is feminism?” You should know about this. There is chaos happening around them and they should have the language to speak on it because they do have an opinion and I think with our curriculum they are able to do that because we do talk about what is identity? What is race? What does it look like to be an activist? What does racism look like? We scaffold it down for kids because everything is Eurocentric. I was part of the problem when I was in Blue Engine and at these charter schools. I told Rina I can’t keep doing that knowing consciously I am fucking up these kids more. I want them to have the opportunity to critically think about what’s happening and question authority and have their own opinions.
Josh: How did the Blue Engine Americorps program experience impact how you put together Start Lighthouse?
Anya: I think because I stayed an extra year without y’all and that sucked, I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have my friend group here. I think my TC [Team Coordinator] year made me realize I needed to change things. I was at a Renewal School, which is a school that is going to be shut down if they don’t get it together. So there was a lot of pressure to have these kids do well on the state test. They moved me down to eighth grade and we didn’t have the resources. Thank God for Blue Engine because I had some money to buy books, but it wasn’t ever enough because I had almost thirty kids in that ELA class per class and I wanted them to take these books home. I would have to go down to the dirty basement to go through these dusty ass books to get them stuff. Sometimes I got stuff out of pocket, and mind you Americorps is another form of slavery. They just take people straight out of college and don’t pay them money.
Josh: And put them on food stamps!
Anya: So I’m putting money towards this and I’m crashing through. I’m like, “this is not fair.” I went to a charter school next year and I got everything I asked for. I just put in a form and boom it was approved. No problem. And this school was a stop away from [P.S. 126 Dr Marjorie H] Dunbar when I worked at the charter. Literally a stop away from this Dunbar Middle School and I’m like, “this is fucked up!” We need to give kids access to books. With our literacy kits they get a brand new culturally relevant book because they deserve brand new books. We shouldn’t be searching dusty basements to find enough guided books to read with this kid at this level.
Josh: When I worked at Fordham High School for the Arts across the street from Fordham University kids did not have books. We made photocopies of everything.
Anya: I’m like, “why am I doing this? Why can’t I just get a brand new book?” But you can’t cause it’s not there. Teachers are expected to perform miracles. I’m teaching stuff I don’t really believe in, but I’m in panic because I need a job. I got bills to pay, but I’m still like this isn’t great. When Rina and I first started I was like we’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna do this right if we’re gonna do it.
Chris: That goes a long way. I think kids notice when they’re undersupplied. Kids are not stupid. It’s obvious.
Anya: I was happy sometimes when kids were absent which is messed up cause it meant like I didn’t have to photocopy something book wise. I guess my BETA (Blue Engine Teaching Assistant) year showed me how schools put us in that discrepancy for sure. Not getting support and doing things by the book because you’re supposed to and you’re scared you’re gonna lose your job. That was a big thing I learned from my BETA year. You can be a social justice person but a lot of it is performative. If you think about people in Americorps, how many of them are still teaching or in education? Not a lot. A lot of them went to med school or law school. They’re doing something else and it’s just a bullet point on their resume. You’re making the problem worse. You’re putting inexperienced teachers in these schools. Don’t Black and brown students deserve teachers who are well educated and ready to teach them? They’re not guinea pigs. BETAs are in and out in two years. I appreciated my BETA experience, but I’m still in education. I’m not teaching but I am going to be a school pyschologist. I’m still in a school so it definitely helped me understand how these schools function. TFA and all those teaching programs where they just put people in for two years and take them out, that’s just not working and it’s not fair to these kids. If we can help give them extra supplies and curriculum that can address these issues, we’re gonna keep doing that cause it’s not happening now. Someone needs to do something cause the whole school system is fucked. It needs to be torn down and rebuilt again.
Chris: Are there any reading initiatives you think every school could implement tomorrow that would have an immediate impact? Obviously this work is long term, but are there immediate steps you guys see that aren’t being taken?
Rina: I think it goes back to looking at the classroom libraries that a lot of schools already have. The classroom libraries themselves do not have books that are culturally relevant or inclusive. I think it’s really important to have books that reaffirm students’ identities with stories where they can see themselves represented in literature. Growing up I didn’t see strong South Asian female protagonists in the books that I had. I felt so ashamed of who I was and my culture and my skin color. It wasn’t until I was seventeen, eighteen when I moved to New York and I realized it was okay to be who I am. It took eighteen years of my life for me to get there. I don’t think that’s fair. That’s one thing. Revisiting the literature that’s already in schools and seeing what exists. Then also thinking about the emphasis that a lot of schools place on testing and Regents. It’s just so detrimental to children and stifles their creativity. I’ve seen this especially on the elementary level having taught in charter schools.
Anya: “Lemme take you out of my class to do whatever.” I was teaching ELA and art at the same time doing F&P (formative reading assessment that measures decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills for K-8 students: determining students’ developmental reading levels for the purpose of informing instruction according to Fountas and Pinnell). They’d make me do those tests during my preps and sometimes during class they’d be like, “you have to test this kid.” I don’t get paid extra to teach ELA. The standardized tests I really feel are not fair. You’re expecting a lot of kids who are behind on a first grade, maybe fifth grade level to do well on these tests. Testing is everything at charter schools because they are a business. It was very intense and I didn’t think it was fair having kids come from these different backgrounds. It’s just racist in general. Look at these schools. They’re not getting the extra support and they don’t get money so how are they teaching these kids efficiently? Standardized testing is bullshit.
Also, just listen to teachers. Listen to teachers! We know what we’re doing. We’re at the frontlines. I don’t know how these policies get made. Even our new Secretary of Education. Betsy DeVos isn’t there but like he has like 3 years experience teaching. What does he know about anything? Listen to teachers. We know what we’re doing. We are always seen as disposable. Teachers are in the frontlines. We love our kids. No one goes into teaching to be a celebrity or rich and famous. We go because we care so why do we not get an opinion on these policies or how schools function when it comes to testing? Or when we’re struggling, it’s seen as we’re being selfish or lazy like with remote teaching. We do it because we love our students and you’re going to lose a lot of good teachers with the way this shit is going. That’s something, that’s number one, just love your teachers. Go to your staff and be like I appreciate what you’re doing and have to do. You can give them a raise? Do it. I’ve seen teachers who are remote learning for my internship and they are so enthusiastic and they love their job. Yeah they have issues with the school sometimes but teachers, we have soul. We’re the reason there’s education, education isn’t just a separate thing. You can’t be taught how to teach well, it has to be something that you genuinely want to do. I wanna say students are first but teachers are right there so… That’s a big thing that could be implemented tomorrow. Like thank you, how can I help you during this time? How can I be sympathetic?
Josh: Going back to what Rina said about reading books when she was a kid and not seeing people who looked like her, what books have been most impactful for your personal lives? What do you wish every adult was reading? What do you wish kids were reading?
Anya: A book I read a few months ago, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, everyone should read that book. I cried reading that book and I think it’s a great cultural book to read and to understand at least the Latinx family dynamic. It was so on point with having to code switch into that life of being that perfect daughter for my Catholic Hispanic family to that perfect student and that stress. I wish I had read, I wish this book was out when I was in high school. Reading that as an adult, I’m like every kid needs to read this. Also The Hate U Give, I know everyone says that but I really think it’s a good book that every adult and kid should read at some point. I say Harry Potter, and I know that’s problematic but I liked it before we had all the issues with JK Rowling. There’s no people of color but I imagined characters as people of color when I was reading it growing up. I was like Harry Potter is Black.
Josh: Same here. Ron was a Black guy to me. He was poor with a lot of siblings, which is a stereotype in its own way.
Chris: There’s very little racial description actually.
Anya: It wasn’t until I saw the movie, like Harry Potter was white but the other characters I don’t know could be whatever.
Josh: Hermione’s hair was really curly.
Anya: Yeah she could be Black or mixed. Half muggle?
Josh: They hated her for being half.
Anya: She’s biracial.
Josh: I wonder how many kids reinvent characters in books like that when they read them.
Anya: I think a lot of kids do. One of my old BETAs talked about that, all the characters are Black in her head. I was like you know that’s kind of true, I never imagined characters as white in my head when I was reading, at least when I was a kid.
Rina: I think for me, at least children’s books, one of them is When My Dadima Wears a Sari. I think that was the first book wear I saw my culture being represented and I was reminded of the bond I was able to share with my Grandmother growing up. I remember when I stumbled upon that book and read it myself I wanted to bring it in for a read aloud which I ultimately did with my kids because I wanted to share my culture with them. I think that book gave me the perfect entryway to do so and then in terms of books I would recommend for anyone to read is anything written by Jason Reynolds. I think they’re well written. I think if you’re in high school or middle school or even an adult you should be picking up anything that has been written by him.
Chris: As educators I want to ask how do you think our education system adjusted to remote learning suddenly? Obviously there’s a wide range of adjustments that were made.
Anya: Our country or New York?
Chris: That’s a good question. Is there a program for at home learning that we could implement on a national level or is that impossible given the scope of things? What could we have done better at a local level to make sure that every kid has access to learning? Obviously remote learning does not happen the same for every kid. So both of those, what could be done better in the immediate but also looking back how should it have been implemented differently?
Rina: I don’t think remote learning was handled well in many districts. Many districts were highly unprepared. Students received their tech devices late or had to share them with their siblings at home. Not many students were actually partaking in remote learning. When we first started Start Lighthouse, we connected with a school partner that’s called PS5 Port Morris. It’s an elementary and middle school in the Bronx. I remember my very first conversation with the principal of the school she told me that more than half her students are homeless, so they’re living in temporary housing or shelters and because of that they’re not actually participating in remote learning. Connectivity issues, lack of devices. She said she was going into the school and into each classroom, trying to pull together as many resources as she could to give to her students at home. When she found out about our initiative and our willingness to bring these custom literacy kits, she was so excited about the work that we were doing. She said that’s actually what her kids needed: books that they could have on hand and read at home.
Anya: I think DeBlasio should stop defunding education. I think he needs to go as a mayor in general. It sucks because he’s the head of education in the city because it’s separate from upstate and all, so if you go to Long Island certain schools are poppin’, they got everything they need, but if you go to the South Bronx they don’t have anything. The elementary school I’m at now has been going above and beyond for their students. They have a supply thing where parents can come in and get supplies and we have a food pantry at that charter. Every school should be doing this, there should be access for kids to come in and get food, supplies. We give MiFi devices so if they don’t have internet they can get internet that way. Trying to support the families in different ways, like parents can talk to social workers, stuff like that. It’s not a fix all solution, they’re still working it out, but I think that’s a good model for every school in the country, especially schools that are in historically oppressed districts that don’t get that funding that they need. That’s when you need the food pantry, that’s when you need the social worker to talk to the parent because adults are going through it too. That’s a lot, but funding. We need funding so every kid has a device and is able to get WiFi at home. No kid should not be able to learn because of their financial situation, and I think the pandemic is exemplifying the problems we already had. Stop defunding education. Whenever anyone says “Defund the police” people freak out but education is defunded everyday. That’s a big thing.
Josh: What are your 2021 plans for Start Lighthouse? What initiatives can we expect from you this year?
Anya: A lot of things we can’t tell you yet actually.
Josh: Nice, I love a good surprise drop like Beyonce.
Anya: Literally, it’s gonna be a lot of surprise awesomeness.
Chris: How have you been taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rina: I actually spent March to early July at home and it was really difficult because I wasn’t able to leave my house in general. Once I got back into the city, Anya and I had weekly standing dates and we would go to botanical gardens or art exhibitions and we just took that time and actually spent time together as friends. We were able to strengthen our friendship bond because we took that time. For me, I haven’t learned how to disconnect because I’m always on Slack, I need to work on that. Something I have picked up is journaling, and I have the Bullet Journal and I just journal things I was proud of today. It was great to really practice gratitude amongst everything that we’re dealing with the chaos and the noise.
Anya: Again same thing as Rina, our weekend dates were great. Rupi Kaur, that author, has a poem called “godself.” I really take that to heart. I have anxiety and depression, so for me this pandemic has amplified that more. I studied art in college, so I have a B.A. in Studio Art that I don’t get to use anymore, but I started painting again a lot more frequently. I just shut off my phone and start painting or baking. I cut off my hair and I wear my hair curly now and stuff like that to reconnect to my roots and it’s been a few months of sticking to that. I can’t do it everyday but I try to do something each week like paint, bake something, do something that I enjoy.
Follow Start Lighthouse on IG and Twitter, and keep an eye out for their upcoming 2021 initiatives. You may even be able to help.
Article cover photo created by Rich Fabian.