Humanizing the World, Teaching for Change!

Posted on March 21, 2018

Alumni Spotlight: Becca Polk, Master of Art in Teaching with Social Justice

Becca Polk is a graduate of the Master of Art in Teaching with Social Justice program and Spark Teacher Institute (Spark) graduate, and currently teaches at Riverside Middle School in Springfield, Vermont. In her fourth year of teaching US History, Becca has continued to bring issues of justice into her classroom. “Spark has helped shape and inform my teaching,” she said, “…without analyzing the world that we live in, we are unable to see those forces which affect students inside and outside of our classrooms.”

Master of Arts in Teaching for Social Justice Alum Becca Polk and her students

Becca has not only continued her work with youth inside the classroom, but has also brought her students out into the world to organize events and activities that focus on issues of justice. In 2016, Becca and a group of students began a garden club that teaches youth those most basic and important skills associated with the important work of growing food. Spending time together taking part in an activity that is essential to human life, and really understanding how difficult growing food can be are both lessons students take home from garden club. Becca asks, “Here [in Vermont] we have land, we can grow local and healthy food, but why are so many of our students malnourished?”

When asked how Spark has continued to influence her teaching even after graduation, Becca responded, “It’s not only knowledge that I was able to take into my classroom, it was a means of analyzing the world that gave me hope. Spark taught me how to analyze the world, how to see normal, ordinary people as the change-makers in our society.”

This past January, Becca organized the first annual MLK Speak Out event in Springfield, Vermont. Becca invited former students, now in high school, to help her organize the event (for those interested, listen to songs, readings and poetry read out by students and community members at MLK event on Indigo Radio). Teachers, community members, and students of all ages all participated in reading poetry, personal writing, singing, and celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy. Second graders from Springfield attended the event with their teacher to perform a play. The Springfield newspaper published a large article in print on the event. Other teachers also participated by creating a large, collective art project for children to participate in while others read or sang. In her opening speech, Becca read, “As MLK said, we must “rededicate” ourselves, find strength in our common struggle, do more for each other and to do it better.“

Becca attributes her awareness and energy to history, the history of ordinary people working to change the world. “The conditions in which students learn are the conditions in which I teach. That makes our lives connected. If I speak out for my students, I speak out for myself and other teachers.” Spark, she says, influenced her understanding of the larger context of education, enabling her to participate more fully in the Springfield community, to invest her time both inside and outside of school energetically advocating for her students.  “I do believe that teachers are teachers outside of school hours. We set an example of how to act in the world and our students follow that example.”

Becca’s advise for future Sparklers?

“Think of the world you wish to see, not just for yourself but for all humans, and try to encourage your students to engage in the same practice. Once we can imagine and hope for a brighter future we can actively move towards that future. In the world I wish to see, all humans would have their basic needs met. Spark has taught me that there cannot be justice for one without justice for all, and so that is the world I will work towards.

Spark also gave me a full year in a classroom prior to beginning my first teaching job. That experience helped prepare me for my own classroom. I was able to learn how to lesson plan, how to differentiate. I was able to consult my mentor teacher and Spark faculty on the content and delivery of my Social Studies unit. Pedagogy, design, standards, all of these practical experiences inside the classroom were able to be discussed with other Spark students dealing with similarly new experiences. The dialectic of teaching and learning was clear and helpful at Spark. It was clear that even as a teacher, we were all always learning. That took a lot of the pressure off during my first year.

Spark has been a community for me, a community that has encouraged my thought and learning around what justice can and should look like. There is a necessity for a deep and historical equity inside and outside of a teacher’s classroom – we must teach children its importance, to humanize the world. I want my students to humanize the world, which means that is my task as a teacher everyday.”


Spark Teachers’ Institute works in partnership with Marlboro Graduate School to offer a one-year field-based program leading to certification at the elementary, middle school or secondary level, and/or a Marlboro MA in Teaching for Social Justice. Spark students spend a full year interning in a classroom, working side-by-side with skilled mentor teachers, learning to integrate social justice and equity content into mainstream curriculums.  Within this time students learn to design authentic and engaging experiences for diverse learners, work to build and manage a community of learners, promote cooperative skills and learning, foster social responsibility among students, and bring the world into the classroom.

One or two days a week students attend seminars with a diverse cohort of adult learners. These seminars are led by Spark faculty, who themselves are from diverse backgrounds and join content area expertise with teaching for social justice. Within seminars students learn current best practices in endorsement areas; explore language and literacy development, compare theories of child and adolescent development, develop strategies for working within the K-12 classroom, and examine educational policy and law.

 Students pursuing licensure are required to develop portfolios to demonstrate the content knowledge and pedagogical competencies required for state licensure in the endorsement area.  Included will be artifacts such as lesson plans with reflections, examples of student work, essays, photos, communications with parents and colleagues.

For those pursuing the MA only, action research is a vital part of the link between theory and practice.  Students learn to investigate questions relating to their practice, such as the economic and political context of the school and community, integrating cultural knowledge with subject matter, and assessment of teaching methods.  Each student designs and completes a field-based action research project due prior to completion of the Spark program. For those pursuing both the MA and licensure, both the licensure portfolio and action research are requirements for graduation.

Please contact Nicole Awwad to learn more about the Spark Teacher Institute ( or contact for more information on the Spark Teacher’s Institute’s partnership with Marlboro College and to set up a time to visit Saturday seminars! Join us in humanizing the world!

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Nicole Awwad, Master of Arts in Teaching for Social Justice Alum