By Megan Driscoll
Study.com: What inspired you to become a teacher, and how did you end up teaching at Chicago's Phoenix Military Academy?
Anthony Curtis: My inspiration to teach comes from my first few months on this earth. I was born a premature baby, and my parents were told I only had a month to live, but I survived. This gift of life has always reminded me that I was meant to influence the youth of this generation.
As a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wanted to be a Biology major and become a pediatrician; I figured I could help young children with their health needs. However, as I began to embark on my fourth semester at the U of I, I realized that I was meant to influence young people in a different way. I worked at many summer camps and as a student leader in high school, and somehow it 'dawned' on me: teaching. That year I changed my major to English and enrolled in education classes; it was the best decision of my life.
After student teaching in the Chicago Public Schools at Benito Juarez High School and Orozco Fine Arts and Sciences Elementary School, I knew that I wanted to continue teaching in Chicago. I saw the dire need for a young African-American man to be a positive role model to the youth of CPS schools. I knew I could be an influence to young African-American and Latino students and show them that success, higher education and positive core values are not just on an episode of my favorite family sitcom, The Cosby Show, but reality.
Therefore, after student teaching, I applied for a job at the Phoenix Military Academy in 2005, and after my summer interview, I was hired. I've seen our school transform from one of the lowest ranking schools in CPS to the number 14 school based on ACT/PSAE scores. At the same time, it's transformed from a neighborhood school to a selective enrollment college preparatory school. It's been an honor to be a part of this process with our amazing staff, including our administration team, and our visionary, encouraging and supportive principal, Mr. Ferdinand Wipachit.
Study.com: Can you describe the achievements that earned you the 2010 Golden Apple Award recognition?
AC: Honestly, I still wonder, 'How did I receive this award?' I truly believe that the other nine Golden Apple Fellows of 2010 are extraordinary teachers and people of influence, and I am inspired by all of them. I do not think I do anything special; I just go in the classroom and give 150 percent everyday. I come home late nights from long days at Phoenix Military Academy and still give 150 percent. I teach with a desire to change the world through the lives and futures of my students. That desire, that drive, is what may make me stand out.
Study.com: In your bio, you note that striving for excellence is a key part of your classroom. Can you elaborate more on your expectations for both yourself and students and how that helps them succeed?
AC: Most of my students despise the first day of school in my class. I'm the teacher who assigns summer reading and requires book reports or online assessments this first day. I'm the teacher who does not accept late homework assignments, but also assigns homework every night except during Christmas and Spring break. Although I look young and they think that I'll be the cool, easy teacher, their reality is crushed when the bell rings on the first day of school.
I demand and encourage a spirit of excellence and perfection in my classroom. Everyday at the beginning of class, my students recite a creed when the class leaders call them to attention to begin instruction and ask them, 'Who are you?' My students answer: 'I am a proud cadet in Survey Literature where success is not an option, but a requirement for me. I will strive for perfection in everything I do, sir!' Not only do I push my students to live by this affirmation everyday in my class, but I also try to inspire them to live a life that exhibits this creed. At the same time, I remind them that everyday I promise to do the same for them because it is my purpose on earth, not just my job as their teacher.
I also believe that I should follow the same guidelines I set for them: striving for perfection. This means that I think critically about every assignment and how it will engage the learning of my students. It also means that I must reflect after every week, or even after most days, about what I can do better. Since I set high academic standards, I also believe I should provide supportive academic support; that is why I run the afterschool study hall program for the 9th grade team, and work until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. on most school days to assist students or plan for the next lesson.
Study.com: Do you find that the classroom environment at a military academy is different from a traditional public school? In what ways?
AC: I have only been a teacher at Phoenix Military Academy, so I can only compare our school to the schools I've visited or observed, and those at which I student taught. Most people think Phoenix Military Academy is all about sending a student to the military, like a boot camp, or teaching kids about discipline. Phoenix Military Academy is far from any of those things. Although we do have two cadets (who are also former students my Survey Literature Honors Class) at West Point, fewer than 20 percent of our students enlist in the military.
Other than that, our students are encouraged to pursue postsecondary success in college, and our academic standards can be compared to some of the other top 20 schools in CPS. Our improved test scores and high attendance rates demonstrate our ability to prepare students for college just like any other school.
Study.com: You're a lit teacher, so we have to know - who's your favorite author, and what's your favorite work of literature?
AC: My absolute favorite author is Jack Kerouac, the author of On The Road, the bible of the Beat generation. His writing is free, raw and spontaneous and his stories allow me to travel to a world unlike my own: Free from rules and full of the willingness to do whatever comes to mind. My love for him grew in my senior year at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign during a 300 level 'Kerouac and the Beats' course with one of my favorite and most challenging professors, Steven Davenport.
Study.com: What do you think should be required reading for all American high school students?
AC: Of course, all of the classics like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Frankenstein, The Cather in the Rye, On the Road and others, but I also think American students should be reading more novels or stories related to social justice and social issues.
No matter what the list is, required reading is influenced by a great teacher. If an engaging educator can bring the words of Shakespeare or Kerouac or Hemingway to life and students connect and think critically about the greater themes of the novel, the purpose of required reading has been achieved.
Study.com: What skills do you hope your students will take away from your classroom?
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AC: Every English teacher wants his or her students to be a better writer and reader, but I also want my students to have a stronger sense of their identities and become better critical thinkers through the lenses of literature, self, their peers and the world. Success is not about taking a test or writing a paper, that's a means to an end, but critical thinking, along with other skills, will help my students become purposeful human beings.
Study.com: What advice would you give to someone who's just starting a career teaching literature?
AC: No matter what type of environment you teach in, be sure to set high expectations for your students. Believe that they deserve the best education and standards possible, even when your administration, other staff members, parents or even the students themselves do not believe it.
Also, pace yourself, try not to overextend yourself and use your first two years to really craft your teaching style. Make your curriculum challenging, engaging and, most importantly, your own. Try to connect with your students in some way, whether it be through an extracurricular activity, within your classroom or both, and help your students see that you're invested in who they are as people - never forget that they are human beings, not robots. And on your worst days, remember that you have been given an amazing gift: The power to influence others.
Study.com: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your teaching philosophy and your work at the Phoenix Military Academy.
AC: I believe that all students, no matter their background, economic status or race, can be successful in postsecondary education and beyond. As a teacher, I am able to influence and encourage my students in many ways, but often genuine opportunities for encouragement and mentorship go beyond the academic school day. This desire to motivate my students inside and outside the classroom inspired me to start a mentoring program for the young men at Phoenix Military Academy: the Brotherhood.
Many of my students fail to see college as a realistic option for their lives, but this is even more evident for young African-American and Latino men in the city of Chicago. Even before I graduated from college and started teaching at Phoenix Military Academy, I saw overwhelmingly negative trends and hindrances for young men of color: Low high school graduation rates, poor college retention, school violence and identity crises are ongoing problems for our young men. For many years, the Chicago Public Schools have offered many initiatives and projects to help with this problem. However, I wanted to start a program that would personally affect and influence the young men at Phoenix Military Academy. My mentoring program titled, the Brotherhood: Brothers Making a Difference, started with a few students and two adults passionate for change.
The Brotherhood's mission is to empower the young males in grades 9-11 at Phoenix Military Academy to be the men they can be in academics, character, respect for themselves and, consequently, to be better role models. We do this through bimonthly meetings, field trips, college trips, fellowship activities, community service and sessions where we just sit around and have 'real talk' discussions about prevalent young male issues. We sometimes have guest speakers, and for the past few years we have used excerpts of Hill Harper's book Letters to a Young Brother to discuss and analyze life's problems for a young man. This helped the young men see reading as a life changing and active experience for greater knowledge and power.
In addition, we organize and attend two conferences every year in partnership with DePaul University and recently participated in our first global poverty battle in conjunction with the ONE campaign, a national awareness campaign that believes that one by one every American can change the history of poverty.
The Brotherhood is my passion at Phoenix Military Academy; it allows me to influence and connect with young men who have the potential to do great things in the future. It has proven that young men just need a positive environment and group of other young men to help them embark on the right path of success.
I am honored to have started a program that helps young African-American and Latino men 'be the change they wish to see in the world,' and I hope that I can influence other cities with this program. In the distant future, I hope to start my own school with the core concepts and pillars of our male mentoring program, but until then I will continue to influence the young men of Phoenix Military Academy with the characteristics of strong leadership, good character, academic motivation and authentic brotherhood.