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I’ve Got Big Shoes To Fill

When I decided to apply for the Kenan Fellows Program this year, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. The KFP felt like an abstraction out of my reach, a well-revered fellowship program for STEM teachers in North Carolina with an elite group of alumni who have gone on to collect accolades and accomplish great things within and beyond our state.

As I thought about the application process, I reflected on how I would be following in the footsteps of the great teachers who have come before me. Doubts grew in my head. Am I a good teacher, really? Do I really stand a chance at getting this fellowship? Will I be able to fill the shoes of a Kenan Fellow? Do I deserve this opportunity?

But then again, I’ve always suffered from a little bit of imposter syndrome.

The noise in my head was loud, but I took a chance and applied anyway, seeking support from my professional network along the way. I found out in March that I was invited for an interview, which seemed like a step in the right direction. I was hopeful but wasn’t holding on to hope, because I didn’t want to be disappointed if it fell through.

Then, the pandemic hit. School shut down. My classroom was empty. I started working and teaching from home, and my life as a teacher was upended. Time flew as I made it through the weeks, grasping to Zoom calls and Google Classroom assignments and holding on to a semblance of normalcy in our new digital world.

In early May, I heard the news that I had been selected as a 2020-21 Kenan Fellow. When I got the congratulatory email I was excited and overwhelmed, and to be honest, it still doesn’t feel very real. It still hasn’t sunken in, and I’m still asking myself the same questions I’ve had since I started the application process.

But I am Emily Felker, a 2020-21 Kenan Fellow.

So, what DO I hope to gain from my fellowship experience, anyway?

On a professional level, I’m hoping that the connections I make at the industry and university level will bridge the divide between my classroom and the real world of science. I’m hoping that the words ‘Kenan Fellow’ behind my name will help my words, as a young teacher, hold more power. I’m hoping that I walk away from this experience as a more knowledgeable, more equitable, more impactful teacher in my classroom. 

On a personal level, I’m hoping that this experience will boost my confidence as an educator and help me to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in my own ability. I’m hoping that the imposter in me will quiet down and allow the inborn teacher in me to shine a little brighter and speak a little louder.

I am keeping my fingers crossed.

“Light Activated…Something Something Something” – Notes From The Lab

In just a few short weeks, I’ve already learned a tremendous amount from my Kenan Fellows internship. My mind is constantly racing thinking about all of the things I want to do, make, and create based off of my experiences, so much so that it is often hard to actually sit down and focus on one thing!

So far in the lab, I’ve been able to sit in and observe a lot of different processes. I’ve watched the feeding, splitting, and managing of cell cultures, which requires a sterile procedure to ensure that the cells aren’t killed or contaminated. I’ve seen and helped out with the preparing of agar plates for future experiments. I’ve learned that the word laser stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulation Emission of Radiation”. And, I’ve had the chance to watch cells be imaged with the big fancy microscopes, which are a far cry from anything I’ve ever seen or used before! The idea of watching a cell go through mitosis, live and on camera, right before my eyes, is SO COOL! However, in practice, it has at times made my eyes droop – not from boredom, but from the act of sitting in a warm, quiet, dark, imaging room for two hours at a time. Can you blame me? It’s worth it in the end when we get a time-lapse of a cell, and when we can see the process of mitosis through from beginning to end. How amazing is it that I get to be here and watch it happen?!?

A big takeaway from this experience is that being in the lab and being in the classroom have something quite obvious in common – sometimes, things don’t go as planned! Quite a few times, we’ve been working on something in the lab only to find out that it didn’t work – like when the microscope stopped working during imaging and when the computer crashed (twice) during another imaging session, or when the gel on an electrophoresis machine cracked and we had to start all over, and that time the lens wasn’t the right one for the microscope, sending us on a goose chase through a six-story building.

Being in the lab, I’ve also learned how much of what goes on here is a team effort. No one single person is on their own, and there is always someone around to help collect data, prepare materials, or talk thorough ideas as needed. It’s just like in education – no one person holds all of the answers, and we have to rely on each other to make sure we are putting our best work out there.

Lastly, science is for everyone, and “you don’t have to be super special to do science” (Thanks for the quote, Paul!). I’ve always known that in my head, but here, I’m feeling it in my heart. I don’t think I truly felt it deep down that I could do this, too, until I sat down with sterile hands and helped exchange media for a cell culture or planned to thaw and culture a cell line all on my own. Science is empowering, and I can’t wait to take what I’m learning and experiencing here back to my students and to my classroom and help them feel empowered to be scientists, too.

Summer Institute Reflections

Better late than never, right? Well, the Summer Institute is over and I’m already in Week 2 of my internship. It’s taken me some to reflect on the Summer Institute experience, but in comparison to other professional development opportunities, it was definitely one of the best.

One thing that stood out the most to me was the reflections from prior Kenan Fellows. Everyone reflected on this being such a profound experience for them – and I hope that I’ll reach the same apex after the conclusion of my own experience! I truly felt connected to a network of like-minded and impassioned educators throughout the week.

There were quite a few “fun” activities that I want to bring back to my classroom. I had such an amazing time on the GooseChase scavenger hunt, and I can see myself using this as a social-emotional bonding activity with my new crew students, especially if we start the year in some sort of virtual format. Overall, I saw lots of good digital learning practices being modeled during the Summer Institute and I think I walked away with some tools that I can use myself.

The most challenging but inspiring material from the Summer Institute was the work and discussions around equity and diversity in education. These are not issues that a few days of PD can solve, but they were certainly steps in the right direction. Our discussions really got me thinking about my own privilege and experiences as a white-passing Latinx person and as a person who has struggled with mental health and anxiety. I walked away with a deeper understanding of how I can use my own diversity of experiences to reach out to and stand up for my Latinx students of color and students with mental health concerns and help them be seen and represented both in and beyond the classroom. I really need to make sure I am stepping up and speaking out for equity when I can, and especially for my students of color, and I also understand that there is lots of room for me to grow and learn in regards to increasing equity and diversity in my classroom.

The following are a few resources I’ve enjoyed delving into regarding equity and diversity in the classroom:
Standards-based assessment: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/52813/how-teachers-are-changing-grading-practices-with-an-eye-on-equity
#DisruptTexts movement: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55039/how-the-disrupttexts-movement-can-help-english-teachers-be-more-inclusive?fbclid=IwAR1qrOp3ltVJtmaMJ7inPMJNz_WZmV_LjejC3yxLUCmRwMKV7hyvzYVsYmU
Rita Pierson – ‘Every Kid Needs A Champion’: https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion 
Rosemarie Allen – ‘School Suspensions are an Adult Behavior’ 

Overall, the Summer Institute was some of the best PD that I’ve experienced, which leads me looking forward to the Fall and Spring Institutes as well as the year-long support I hope to receive from the Kenan Fellows Program.