It was a characteristically warm early September day as I walked up the path towards KIPP SHINE Prep. The feeling in the air held all the promise of a new school year playing out everywhere across America. Unlike many schools, though, it was clear this place was designed for one thing: to create a love of learning. Hanging above the entrance were lots of blue and orange signs with inspirational words like, “Excellence is a habit” by Aristotle, “There is no easy walk to freedom”, by Nelson Mandela and “She tugged and pulled and pulled and tugged and slowly, slowly, slowly they started off” from The Little Engine that could. The building itself burst with colors in a way that grabbed my attention right away. This was not a dull drab school house.
KIPP SHINE. Work Hard. Be Nice.
Those four words are the foundation of co-founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin’s vision of a different kind of learning environment. An environment designed to reshape classrooms so students succeed in college while building a better tomorrow for their communities. It’s a bold vision and one that has been put into practice each day since KIPP’s founding in 1994. Today, KIPP serves over 70,000 traditionally under-served students and in 183 schools across the country. The results of have been impressive: 82% of KIPP students start college compared to the national average of 64%. Also, 45% of KIPP students graduate college vs. the national average of 34%. Today, there are over 6,000 KIPP graduates in college. KIPP works.
I’ve had the great pleasure of spending time at KIPP before and it’s always given me an opportunity to learn something new. After a few minutes, it’s hard not to fall in love with KIPP. Today, I was there to spend time with Mrs. Rheem Sobhani, one of the teachers at KIPP. I spent time with Mrs. Sobhani’s class last year watching and learning as she lead her class of brilliant four year olds called the Purple Penguins. I’ve been curious about her approach to learning and what she thought about how to design the perfect learning environment.
Mrs. Sobhani and Me
Mrs. Sobhani began her career in teaching after graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in marketing. She spent two years in the Teach for America program. After Teach for America, she worked on teacher recruitment for KIPP and eventually joined the KIPP team as a teacher. She said she didn’t plan on becoming a teacher but eventually discovered it was the right place for her and she learned how much she loved teaching.
I asked her what makes KIPP special and she explained that,
KIPP teaches us that modeling what we want to teach and meeting where the student is in that moment is a big part of our success. In the beginning of the school year, we spend a lot time getting to know the students and their families. This gives us a deeper understanding of whole person and it builds a sense of trust with the student. Every child has a different personality and we try to understand the individual
She uses this understanding and trust to help connect concepts to the lives of students. Rather than teach concepts in a stale academic environment, KIPP guides its young learners to relate concepts to real world ideas and in a way that makes it personal for them. For example, when teaching about the color red, she relates to what the student might have at home that is red. This means teaching about the “idea” of red in life versus just simply explaining how to spell the word.
Another example of modeling is how teachers at KIPP approach learning by valuing making mistakes. This simple idea of embracing mistakes as a part of the learning journey provides a great model for students as they tackle their own challenges. Mrs. Sobhani explained that whether you are a new teacher or a veteran teacher, the expectation at KIPP is that you constantly learn and grow.
One of the other things that makes KIPP different is the connection the school has to the community. In fact, Mrs. Sobhani listed the community as one of the ways she learns how to become more effective.
It’s important to have open relationships with the community and I’ve been amazed how much I’ve learned from having these relationships.
KIPP has a deep understanding that it’s not just a school that teaches but an entire community. KIPP works hard to engage the community in the learning process. I’ve experienced first hand how engaged young learners are at KIPP and I’ve wondered how this happens. Mrs Sobhani explained that KIPP approaches each student in a flexible way.
It’s important to understand where the student is in the moment and to make adjustments to the way we learn versus following a pre-set structure.
It makes sense that each person’s state of mind in the moment is an important part of connecting with them. It’s this kind of emotional intelligence that is a hallmark of the team at KIPP.
I asked Mrs. Sobhani how she would design the ideal learning environment if there were no limits on time or resources and she knew she couldn’t fail in whatever she tried. She said that the world is so vast and it provides endless opportunities to learn and in lots of ways. She said she would design a learning environment that allows students to learn from the world around them. She would expand field trips and other real world experiences. She also said that she would also invite people into her classroom to share what they’ve learned about their lives and occupations.
Everyone and everything can be a teacher.
As we wrapped up our time together, I asked Mrs. Sobhani what she loves about learning.
I want to be a better version of myself each day.
I love that answer because of the simple wisdom in her words. This the idea of continual and gradual improvement each day which is the perfect model for the young minds that pass through the doors at KIPP each day. Just like the little engine that could, the amazing people at KIPP tug and pull and pull and tug each day to help the grand vision that Feinberg and Levin developed many years ago. Work Hard. Be Nice.