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Carissa Duran is a Teacher, an ELD/Literacy/EdTech Instructional Coach, and Testing Coordinator at Del Lago Academy in the Escondido Union High School District in the San Diego, California area. I met Carissa at the Aurora Institute where she was awarded the 2019 Personalized Learning Teacher of the Year and invited her to share her story on my podcast.
I am a Californian native, born in Orange County, grew up mostly in Riverside County, and now live in San Diego County. Southern California is kind of my stomping ground. I did spend a few years living in Oregon right after my first year of college and then returned back to southern California to get my degree at UC Riverside.
A fun picture of me with siblings and cousins
I am the 7th of 9 children. We were raised by my mom and grew up in Riverside in one of the more disadvantaged neighborhoods and was exposed to a lot of diverse cultures from people from different backgrounds in my community and in my schools.
What it was like for you as a student
School for me was a place of privilege. I used to think I had no privilege at all. I grew up really poor as a minority female in a single-parent home. The first day I was terrified of the unknown with a puddle of tears. My teacher, Mrs. Takanaga, welcomed me in and gave me time and let me hide under her desk for four hours until I was ready to come out. She made school really safe for me because home was not a safe place for me. Because I felt safe [at school], I went all in and was really privileged because traditional school was more or less became natural for me. Being successful in school changed the entire trajectory of my life.
I was one of those under the radar kids who didn’t demand a lot of attention. My school had no idea that my family lost their home between 8th and 9th grade and that I started high school homeless. They didn’t know what was going on when it was happening. I was good at school and making myself small enough to fit into that mold, but the school didn’t see me the way I saw it. I was able to stay under the radar. That’s why I was unprepared for life after high school. I dropped out of college after my first year and moving out of state for three years before I realized what I had to do to be successful and how to navigate the system on my own before I returned to get my degree. Success was all about how I felt about a school not about how school saw me.
Your journey as a teacher
I did not always feel I was going to be a teacher. At one time, I thought of political science, pre-law, but none of that worked out. I became a teacher partly because of a dare and another part because of a tragedy. I haad a friend that was trying to become a teacher and was having a tough time passing his exams (CSETS) for his credential. He dared me to try to pass the exams myself. I passed on my first try. But I was close to graduation at UC Riverside. A couple of months later, my brother’s life was unexpectedly taken. I was a mess and couldn’t think of planning my future.
My friend reminded me that I passed that exam and should apply to the school of education. I got accepted to earn my credential and masters in education. I started teaching 9th grade English right out of my graduate program, but I was also given a release period to Educational Technology teacher on special assignment. I was later assigned a 7th-grade remediation class for high school seniors who had struggled to pass California’s HS exit exam and were in danger of not graduating and had scores in the elementary test score range.
After the first day, I realized that a handbook with worksheets for students to go through to prepare them for the test wasn’t going to work. I stopped using that handbook and didn’t use a lot of teaching and content delivery methods. I did a lot of relationship building and talked with them about where their skills were and the benefits of getting a high school diploma. What we learned is that these students mostly had the capability of passing the test already. Maybe they didn’t have the right mindset or motivation around it. In talking with them one-on-one and in small groups and what it meant for their future, they were able to show us what they already knew. They taught me more what it means to meet students’ needs.
Building those relationships with students makes it so school really sees kids. Feeling seen and known at the beginning helps build the foundation they will need for their future. Without that foundational connection with school as a place that knows you and is for you, it makes it less successful for you in the end. Relationships matter when someone cares. I thought about what I felt about school and realize that I could do it because I didn’t have the same problems they faced and thought about school. When you build relationships intentionally, you don’t have to wait for a student to tell you that something is happening.
Del Lago Academy
My second year of teaching was at Del Lago Academy, a public high school, in Escondido USD and I’ve been there ever since. We don’t have remediation classes. We believe all of our students can achieve high levels. All of our students take a pathway (college preparatory) regardless of their pathway, background, skill, language, or special needs. I’ve never had to teach a remediation class here. We may have a single pathway and support but the additional instruction, support, and scaffolding are completely personalized.
Del Lago Academy’s Core Beliefs
We believe learning is a social process and relationships are important. Scholars that are known as individuals, challenged intellectually, respected, supported, and connected to their learning will be successful. Read more…
Resources on personalized learning at Del Lago Academy
- Learn about Competency X…
- Read about Digital Badging and Internships…
- Read about Personalizing Assessments on the Fly..
Aurora Institute 2019 Personalized Learning Teacher of the Year
Press Release about Carissa’s Award
School changed my life. But it doesn’t do that for everyone. So I want to contribute to transforming education so schools see every child. So every child is empowered to change their own lives. I believe in education. I recognize the flaws in the traditional education system, but I do not believe that our system is beyond saving. Through the ingenuity of educators and the resilience of our youth, education can be the saving grace of society. I’m passionate about equity and providing opportunities for young people to have a voice in their own education. We don’t learn unless we participate in our learning.
I am dedicated to disrupting inequities within existing systems of education. I started my career in education in Southern California as an English teacher and now serve as a Teacher on Special Assignment, where I coach, coordinate, and consult in the areas of literacy, English language development, educational technology, and testing.
My brain is currently brimming with ideas about alternative assessment, curriculum redesign, and equipping students with the know-how to navigate complex systems.
I’ve been teaching since 2011 and have been fortunate to learn from some of the best educators from Riverside Unified School District, Temecula Valley Unified School District, and Escondido Union High School District.
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