Dionne Cross teaches freshman science at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, but in describing her work, she speaks often of rewriting scripts. She is not referring to playwriting, but rather to scripts that play continually in her students’ minds.
Bridgeport is a city too often known for its struggles – poverty, crime, low academic achievement – and some students arrive in her classes with little feeling of hope for the future.
“I ask ninth graders, `What have you heard about Harding?’ and they might say, `I heard they fight all the time,’” Cross said, “and I say, ‘Have you heard about our scholarship winners? Did you know you can earn college credit here? Do you know about our choir? Then you don’t know your school just yet.”
There are so many districts like ours. The kids come in not expecting to graduate. We have to work through so many negative things, but that’s why I love grade nine. We have the opportunity to rewrite the script in their minds.
These are excerpts of some of the scripts students have brought into Cross’ classes: “We see what’s going on in society. We’re not going to get a fair chance. What’s the point?” She remembered a boy who said, “You’re the first Black science teacher I’ve ever had or ever seen in my life. We don’t do science.”
Cross administered a reality check: “I’m here and I’m real and I’m not a ghost. And you’re going to do this science.” To those convinced they won’t graduate, she is direct and practical: “If I had to hire somebody, I’d prefer someone with a high school diploma. This is a decision you’re making, and I’m here to support you. So turn off what you’re hearing out there and let’s get it done.”
Scientists are ideal role models for her students, Cross said. “In science, so many kids are afraid to be wrong. But I tell them that’s what scientists do all the time. That’s at the heart of science – being willing to try and fail, and then get up and try again.”
Cross laughs easily, often at herself, and exudes affection for her students along with insistence that they buckle down and work hard. She has a talent for discovering what motivates students, then nurturing it. “So many transformations happen in the classroom, not necessarily because someone was blown away by an awesome science experiment,” she said. “There’s a human level. Unless you’re willing to go there, you miss out on seeing students blossom and grow.”
She recalled a student who struggled through one of her ninth grade classes. “I did a lot of talking and a lot of hand-holding. I always said, ‘Yes, you can do it.’ I got materials from my own kitchen for her science fair project,” she said. “The seeds were laid in ninth grade, and other teachers continued to water them. She came back to see me this past year in her mask and long curls and said, ‘Miss, don’t you realize it’s me? I did it! I got into college!’ She even got a partial scholarship.”
Winning this level of buy-in from students got a lot harder during the pandemic, when Cross had to persuade reluctant learners whom she’d never met to turn on their cameras. Some confided they wanted to hide what was going on behind them.
“The circumstances of some of their living situations were very hard and you could not force that to become another thing they had to deal with,” she said. So Cross used her own time to meet individually with students sometimes for three hours a day after class. “With one young lady, we were shouting to try to be heard over the background noise. She kept apologizing. I said, `No apology necessary. We are going to get this done.’”
Cross’s tenacity springs in part from the transformative power of education in her own life. Born and raised in Trinidad, she fell in love with biology as a girl and was the first in her family to go to college. “My maternal grandparents had ten kids, and I was the first among their kids and grandkids,” she said. Her husband was first in his family, too.
“One person can change the whole trajectory of a family,” she said. “You may not do it all in one generation, but you change the angle of the line. Then somebody comes behind you and changes it a little more. We have two children in college and one in high school. The generation below us says, ‘Of course we’re all going to college.’”
Cross taught science at the high school and college levels in Trinidad and Jamaica before she and her husband moved to the U.S., where their children have attended high-performing suburban schools. She took time off to raise them, went back to school to get her U.S. certification and began teaching at Harding in 2017.
Despite Bridgeport’s troubled reputation, Cross arrived with no script about it in her head and liked what she found. She said she was drawn immediately to the school’s racial diversity and mix of nationalities, along with the administrative team’s support for teachers. She felt welcomed by her fellow ninth-grade teachers, who meet weekly to help each other address individual students’ needs.
There are so many things we want to change in the wider society, but the change begins on these smaller levels – experiencing kindness, seeing people value each other. The classroom can contribute to the kind of society we want to have.