11th Grade English Literature and Writing Composition, KIPP Pride High School Gaston, NC
What does the American Dream mean at a school built on a former peanut field? How does a teacher explain to students why the three school districts in their county remain largely segregated in 2017? How can students grapple with those big questions through literature, turning the answers into college essays that earn them a place at the college of their choice?
These are the challenges that get Brett Noble fired up to teach eleventh-grade English at KIPP Pride High School in Gaston, North Carolina, a rural community of just over 1,000 people. In Mr. Noble’s classroom, students’ stories are inextricably linked to the American story—a rich history in their own backyard.
Through that lens, a complex play like Shakespeare’s King Lear comes to life on the page as students closely examine the text for how themes of exile resonate in a community where only nine percent of black males have college degrees and one of the biggest employers is a prison.
For Mr. Noble’s students, the journey to self-discovery begins in pre-AP American Literature class with intensive close reading during short story boot camp. Early in the school year, students begin listening to a chorus of voices in American literature, probing the nature of the American Dream. Who is included? Who is not? In time, they will learn how to translate those literary voices and techniques into their own writing. How would F. Scott Fitzgerald have written this? What could you do with a dash in this sentence? How does your own story fit in?
By the end of the year, students’ personal stories will form the foundation of a capstone writing assignment: their college application essay. This year marks the ninth consecutive time that 100 percent of KIPP Pride’s graduating class will head to the colleges of their choice—in no small part thanks to Brett’s influence on his students and the school culture at large.
“Brett coaches two English teachers, leads weekly professional development for our cohort of six first-year teachers, and leads quarterly professional development for all K-12 English teachers in KIPP ENC,” says Principal Kevika Amar. “He is as patient with his colleagues as he is with his students. His impact is felt throughout the building.”
For Noble, it’s critical that students apply lessons from his class to the world around him. “Every single day is an opportunity to talk about social justice issues, whether they are local or national,” he says. In recent years, students have started a young activist club, attended local NAACP meetings, and joined protests together. While Noble comes from a dramatically different background than his students, he wants them to know he doesn’t have all the answers, he just wants them to learn—and to question.
“It’s not a community that I grew up in—but they did,” he says. “I have to always approach it with a lot of humility, but over the course of the year, I see fires ignite. I see them grow into the proactive professionals who will strengthen their communities and lead a life of choice.”