This month, we're highlighting Cyekeia Lee, Director of The Learning Network.
January 6, 2017
Tell us your name and title:
Cyekeia Lee – I’m the new Director of The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo.
What does a normal day look like for you:
Haha! Well, I moved to Kalamazoo from the east side of Michigan in November, so every day has been full of new discoveries. I start my day with coffee, and my best brainstorming comes with a full breakfast, so I like to take time for mental and nutritional energy first thing in the morning. Day to day, I’m meeting educators, school superintendents, administrative leaders at various agencies, heads of nonprofits, and building my knowledge of education in Kalamazoo. It’s a lot of meetings!
I am also doing a lot of reading and research. I’ve read about a million studies and articles about best practices at Cradle-to-Career initiatives across the country, and I’m developing a plan for The Learning Network, so yeah, so far, I haven’t had any normal days :)
Can you tell us more about what you envision for The Learning Network, especially with the collaborative nature of the organization?
Do you know the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child?” I grew up as a child that was raised by my village – grandparents, teachers, mentors, after-school program leaders, librarians, and so many others. So, what I’d ideally like to see is The Learning Network serving as the village square. We’re the hub for the entire village to get together, to share information and data so that we’re sure every child is being served, and to develop new initiatives that collaborate across sectors.
The Learning Network uses a model called Collective Impact, and I love the idea behind that. We just have to find out how best to make it work in our community.
Tell us about your background/passions – what led you to where you are now:
Broadly, my career is dedicated to removing barriers.
I spent 3 years as a Life Coach for homeless, foster care, runaway, and unaccompanied youth aged 17-21. My degree is in counseling, so I’m at my best when I’m helping people, but I really thrive when I’m working to overcome the systemic barriers that prevent young people from accessing education, jobs, and stability.
I then spent 6 years at Wayne State University as a Financial Aid officer. There, again, I got to work with low-income, first generation students who often faced additional roadblocks to completing their degree.
From Wayne State, I moved to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth and Children. I spent 4 years as the Director of Higher Education Initiatives, building partnerships and initiatives across 17 states to increase access to education for students from vulnerable backgrounds.
And now I’m here! The Learning Network has the potential to impact so many lives and really change the future of this city. To that end, I’m really excited to start building a more extensive network of changemakers and education leaders in Kalamazoo to ramp up our work!
How does Literacy fit into your life and work?
Literacy, to me, is not just about reading and writing, even though those two skills are most often identified with Literacy. On my wall, there’s a sunburst drawing with the work “Literacy” at the center, and colorful rays that point to health literacy, financial literacy, numeracy, tech & information literacy…
So, what I mean to say is that literacy is about preparedness. It’s about preparing all individuals to lead healthy, successful, productive, and independent lives through general literacy in basic life skills.
We want to weave literacy into all aspects of our work, whether it’s finding trends in 3rd grade reading and math scores, or studying social-emotional literacy in kids who participate in out-of-school time programs, looking at financial literacy and aid for students entering college, or with our adult learners who will need to fill out tax forms and read prescription labels.
What was your question? How does literacy fit into my life and work? It’s absolutely everywhere!
Do you have an all-time favorite book?
Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day
That kid is so persistent! It's a children's book, I know, but the message in there is relevant to everyone of all ages. You can get gum in your hair and lima beans for dinner, and everything can be the awful, but Alexander just gets through the day. I love it!
Finally, in your own words, how to do you fit into The Learning Network?
As the Director of The Learning Network, that’s a complicated question. The Learning Network strives to be hub of resources for anyone whose work or life touches education. I fit into that, because I’m working to strengthen the resources that are available to the Network. Stay tuned for more, because I’d love to organize some cross-sector learning sessions so that we can really align our goals. I’m also looking at how to make data sharing easier across sectors, since metrics are the best way to measure impact.
The only other thing I’ll say about how I or anyone else “fit” into The Learning Network is this: it’s not something that you need to fit into. If you go back to that village metaphor where the everyone comes together to raise a child, The Learning Network is the central meeting place and everyone is welcome. We want to encourage every organization, agency, and individual to feel ownership over the success of our community's learners. And it’s up to all of us together to make sure every student can reach their full learning potential.
THANKS, Cyekeia, FOR BEING PART OF OUR VERY FIRST Bookmarks and Highlights blog post!
March 10, 2017
To start, tell us your name and title:
I'm Emily Kastner. My title - I'm the co-founder and co-executive director of Read And Write Kalamazoo. Other titles include Mom, illustrator, writer, person, human :)
What does a normal day look like for you:
Oh, normal is hard, because we are still figuring things out, and we're still growing. But more often than not, an average day starts with me getting the kids ready for school. Dan (Emily's partner and co-founder of the Reality Factory, RAWK's cool headquarters) gets coffee and then we meet here, which is nice because we get to be in the same building.
I spend my mornings working for RAWK in whatever way that might look for the day. Sometimes I'm on site at our program at Maple Street; sometimes I'm meeting with partners.
Afternoons are kids, school pickup, and prepping for evening events. It's kind of all over the place.
I'm trying to squeeze in reading for myself, some more writing, illustrating, and my personal projects.
And then going to be way too late and waking up way too early and always lamenting that I just didn't make time to exercise.
Haha so I guess that's a pretty normal day!
How did Read And Write Kalamazoo come about?
I was a high school teacher for five years. I taught English for two years in Battle Creek at the alternative school and then I taught high school Biology and Integrated Science in San Francisco. I love that, and I love incorporating writing into my science classes.
Then we had our son Jack and we moved back to Kalamazoo. We came here because we loved Kalamazoo - it's a great community that supports art and culture, and then there's the Promise, so with a young baby we were like "how awesome is this going to be?!"
So, I was just trying to get my bearings and figure out what I wanted to do next, whether it was going back into the classroom, or finishing my masters, which I had started in Literacy. I was spending a lot of time with friends in a writing group, so what I figured out was that what I missed about teaching was writing and being with students. I spent some time trying to figure out how I could mesh this passion for writing, supporting the Promise in however way that I could, and maybe not necessarily being back in a traditional classroom.
My friend Anne Hensley was also in the writing group, and we began talking about the organization 826 Valencia. It's a San Francisco based organization that does creative writing workshops, afterschool homework help, and supports literacy arts. They have a fun model that publishes student work and gets kids excited about writing while also supporting kids in school. Anne also knew about this organization, and we had always talked about starting our own version someday, so then we thought, well why not do it now? What are we waiting for?
It felt like a big thing. Because, where do you even start with putting something like this together?
But at the same time as this idea was bubbling, a friend's daughter who was, then, in high school said something to us along the lines of "I really want a cool place to write this summer." And, on top of this, Steve Walsh (Executive Director of the Vine Neighborhood Association) told us about their neighborhood grants, and suggested that we start looking into different grants to support our idea.
So it all came together: a student wanted a writing opportunity, we were talking about grants...it was the perfect way of putting our toe in the water to see if this idea could really work.
And that's how we started! We had a summer writing workshop - 1 week for middle schoolers and 1 week for high schoolers, and at the end of it, we published a book. We also lucked out with a really talented set of friends: Anne's husband is a graphic designer, and another good friend works for a graphic design firm, so they put the book together. And it looked awesome!
And Derek and Joanna over at Bookbug have been supportive from day one, offering to host a reading or generally taking part in our activities.
So it all came together and has slowly grown from that two-week summer camp to building and growing every year.
What do you see as the future of RAWK?
Eventually, we want to be in our own building. We want to have regular after-school homework help, and we want to host field trips for classrooms to publish student work. And we want to be in close proximity to a school.
The 826 Valencia model has a storefront, which is the pull for people to come in and purchase student work, student books, and also other fun, quirky merchandise. We love that model, so I'd love to have a storefront with a writing space that really belongs to students and where we can creatively write with them and support them with their schoolwork.
Currently, we have a RAWK Writers' Room in a classroom at Maple Street. So as far as thinking about future growth, it would be great to be in elementary schools and other middle schools. That has been an amazing way to support teachers and support students during the school day. Ideally, we could grow that and continue to meet students where they are.
How does Literacy fit into your life and work:
Literacy is the fabric of everything I do. I love reading and I love stories, and personally, I write a lot of nonfiction. I love knowing about people and sharing real stories and the empathy that stories provide. And as a mom, I'm constantly encouraging my kids to tell stories, to be imaginative, to think big, and to really get to know people outside of themselves.
Literacy gives us an understanding of the world and how we fit into it. And it helps us build our community.
That love of stories, the focus on building imagination and empathy in young readers is reflected in what we do at RAWK.
We're celebrating voices.
We're also supporting reluctant readers and reluctant writers who are self-conscious of their voice and have had creative ways to access that voice outside of school.
Creative voice is so important. I feel like now, every day more than the last, it's vital to hear each other and listen to each other. Literacy is part of that connection.
Tell us about your
background/passions – what led you to where you are now:
I was the kid in elementary school who was like "I'm going to be a writer when I grow up, and I'm going to be a teacher when I grow up." I'd come home from school, and I'd play school! I love learning and sharing, and I love collaboration. I'm a team player. Sharing work and hearing feedback - these are the nerdy little ways that I found myself. I felt like it was the coolest thing to be able to read a book and learn about another person's life. So I feel like that really spoke to me wanting to be a writer. I also just love drawing, making things, crafting things.
It's really fun now that I get to do what I love all the time. And I get to encourage others to tell stories and make things.
Do you have an all
time favorite book?
It's so hard to pick a favorite book. I had the same teacher for 5th and 6th grade, and those two years were when I took a big leap and really fell in love with reading. It was so ingrained into every subject - no matter what we were studying, it involved reading. So, some of the books like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry or Number The Stars really shaped how I looked at the world.
Those books have some hard stuff for a young person to read, and I came from such a small, white town, so reading those stories about people who weren't like me made me think "WHOA, the world is such a huge place!" Which of course led me to think, "I need more books! I need to read more! I need to find out more! I want to go places! I want to travel!" During those years, I really leveled up as far as unlocking the world.
So to your question, I love a lot of books, and it's hard to pick a favorite, but the books from those years were pivotal for me moving forward.
Currently, I just read Long Division. It's a beautiful new-ish book. Everyone should read that one. He's a great writer.
I also recently read Shrill, and I'm reading An Untamed State right now. The stack on my nightstand and kitchen table...I just have stacks everywhere!
I don't know how people go back and re-read books, because I feel like I don't have time. There are so many books in the world!
Tell us about a
memorable learning or teaching moment:
It's hard to choose one when I'm thinking about memorable moments - a lot of them are one-on-one between me and my teacher. That same teacher I mentioned earlier, my 5th and 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Owings, would sit down with us one-on-one and go over our writings and really try to connect with us.
That's something I try to replicate with my students as a teacher and as an educator. That's what we're trying to do at RAWK: provide small groups and low ratios of students to volunteers. Those connections are so important.
In your own
words, how does RAWK fit into The Learning Network?
I feel like we've got the same aim as far as helping students reach their success potential. And that's exactly what we aim to do through the power of their own voice - helping students find and access their voice, celebrating voices, amplifying voices...it all has to do with the success of students.
And I want to be clear - it's not like we're telling them what their potential is, or telling them their worth. That already exists. RAWK is here to help students throughout the spectrum of achievement through support and validation and encouragement to keep moving and to keep growing as a learner and as a human being.
There's a story of an afterschool program during our first year of programming where students were prompted to write about an invention - what would you invent and why. We talked about inventing something that would really help you and that you could find practical use for. A lot of cute and funny stuff came up. There was one kid who wanted to create an encouragement robot who would follow him around and say encouraging things.
That was so heavy. Here we had a kid who know that he needs encouragement, and that's all he wanted - just a little bit of encouragement.
So his story is really informing the foundations of our practices about having a supportive community that's invested in helping students. Our volunteer base is vital to our program. These volunteers are that encouragement robot. And granted, we can't follow a student for their entire day, but hopefully during whatever timeframe that we're with them, that volunteer can be the encouragement source for them.
If you're interested in volunteering with RAWK, there are quarterly orientations with the next one coming up soon! Click here to find out more!
Thanks for sitting down with us, Emily! We can't wait to collaborate on new projects to help students achieve their full potential and to join the ranks of amazing RAWK-stars!