Revealing a Hidden Talent: Isaac Tejeda's Hunger for the 'Taste of Glory' (and a glimpse of what's possible for urban students everywhere)

by cynthia mcccallister

Cynthia: You came to High School for Green Careers (in New York City) from another NYC high school. Why did you transfer? How was Green Careers different from your previous school?

Isaac: I went to a school in the Bronx, and it was far for me [to get to] and bad--the second most dangerous school in the city. I had three friends in Green Careers. I heard they learned differently at that school than anybody else. Despite knowing that, I still went. The first lesson, I was weirded out. They started reading out loud together.

Cynthia: Oh, that was Cooperative Unison Reading!

Isaac: I thought it was optional, and I didn’t read. The teacher said, “You gotta read with everybody else.” I decided to read but everybody was reading at the same pace, and everybody just tripped on their own words. The teacher broke it down that you gotta read at the same time. I had a questions. I guess my facial expression said I had a question, and the teacher asked me if I had a question. I was wondering how she knew I had a question. Everybody started dishin’ out their answers. I didn’t know who was right. Then we had to get an outside source to clear up the answer.

Cynthia: What were you thinking?

Isaac: I was thinking, whose advice should I take? I turned to the teacher and asked her. She wouldn’t tell me. She said I’m not supposed to give you the answer unless you can’t figure it out at all. We got on the iPad and we searched up the pythagorean theorem on Kahn Academy. That could have saved us 20 minutes of Unison Reading if I’d of known that earlier.

Cynthia: But you probably learned something important in that period of 20 minutes, trying to find answers to your own questions, right?

Cynthia: When I was at Green awhile back, I sat with your Cooperative Unison Reading group one day when your group was reading a text on the topic of monogamy. Can you tell me the back-story about how you got to that topic?

Isaac: The English Department lets us choose a topic we want to learn. That's how my group ended up with the monogamy subject. It really interests you choose your own texts. At the end [of the two-week group cycle] you bring it all together and write one page trying to convince the teacher and your peers why your group’s answer to their research question is correct.

Cynthia: So tell me more about how Green was different from your other school.

Isaac: At Green Careers I entered with a work ethic from a traditional school. At my old school, I knew if I did enough worksheets I'd get that 65. Green Careers was different. It's different because worksheets don’t determine your grades. Your effort does. You get whatever you put into it. And everyone is so eager to get higher and achieve higher. It kinda just rubbed off on me. The bare minimum wasn't cutting it anymore for me.

Cynthia: The Learning Cultures curriculum is formulated to make kids motivated. Every format in Learning Cultures gives kids a little autonomy, some competence feedback, and a chance to feel relatedness to others. Scholars by the name of Deci and Ryan developed a something called ‘Self-determination Theory.’ They say that autonomy, competence, and  relatedness, are all elements that contribute to motivation. When these elements are present, people have energy to act for themselves. I’m so glad to hear the plan worked!

Cynthia: In the media there is a lot of talk about high stakes tests and pressure on kids and teachers. Did you feel pressure when you were a student at Green Careers?

Isaac: Your whole high school career goes down the drain if you don’t pass the test. I personally think it’s unfair. But I was easier as it went on. At my school, they secretly were preparing you as you went along, they just didn’t tell you. At my old school in May they would start preparing. At Green in September they start preparing you, you just don’t know it. The kids are more likely to pass the English exam at Green than any other exam from that school. It’s the way they we are tested [a method called Responsibility Teams are used, in which students work in groups to use the state standards and assessments as guides to structure collaborative inquiry--see]. We have to submit annotations before that. You have to think about a book that you’ve read and that the Regents asks you a question about. It was like nothing to us. ‘Cause we’d been doing it all year. The purpose, the central idea, the way the author wrote certain words is what the tests from Green Careers asks us all year.

Learning Cultures put good pressure on me to pass high school and get into college. Good pressure means to me the power I'm placing on myself to succeed. For example, seeing everyone at school having the taste of glory and achievements made me hungry for some. And when you finally get some, you want more. Wanting success became a good habit of mines.

Cynthia: Let’s focus on another part of the curriculum--writing. A program I developed called Genre Practice is used as the writing curriculum at Green Careers. Students are expected to find a purpose, a form or genre they want to write in, examples of texts they want to imitate, and share drafts to get feedback. What was that experience like for you? 

Isaac: Writing happened for me in 10th grade. The teacher was like, you can write anything you want and how you feel about it and how your day went. I said, you can curse if you want? They said, “Yea, within reason.” It was like freedom. So much freedom. Then I started seeing kids writing like pages and pages. Some kids were writing faster than others. At some point they were saying we gotta improve the speed of writing. So they started doing CBMs. In 7 minutes by the end of 10th grade I was writing like 200 words. They were all sentences you could read!

Cynthia: Your writing fluency ramped up!

Isaac: Yea, ‘Cause we were writing. Every single day we had it. And we had to go farther than the last day we wrote. CBMs were happening every other week. Then the summer would come and nobody writes. And kids would lose it.

The writing program that is implemented at Green Careers made me feel like I could put my mind on the page. Made me wanna go further than the page, and I did. And I made about 7 songs so far. All on Soundcloud. The curriculum exposes you to other platforms by urging you to get feedback from one another and even outside feedback, so you are constantly learning how to improve your craft. The writing program revealed a hidden talent I was unaware of until I stepped into writing class.

Cynthia: Can you tell me more about your ‘hidden talent’ for music?

Isaac: In 11th grade I met Jess. I could always make raps cuz I have all these friends in the street. But I never wrote it down. I would critique the artist’s style. How he rhymed. Jess said, write me a verse. Cuz he was making a song for his project. So I wrote him a verse. He thought it would be just six  lines. But it was like a paragraph. And then Brent saw this as us maturing as poets. He kept pushing us to do poetry. I pushed it to a different genre because I got tired of the same thing. I felt like people couldn’t get the emotion I was putting on the page. So I like made a tape that like captures the whole year so if you heard all the songs you could see how my emotions changed over the year.. I even annotated the lyrics so people could  hear how I talked.

Cynthia: One of the ideas about the curriculum is that it lets kids participate in 'emotionships' with each another--relationships that let kids learn about themselves and figure out how to solve problems they face in the world. How did Learning Cultures formats help you foster relationships with other kids in ways that helped you learn about yourself?

Isaac: Because Learning Cultures allowed us to communicate with one another, we all grew to accept others’ opinions and ideas. How'd it work for me, I shared the lyrics to my song I made in class and a couple kids gave me pointers. They were into the music as much as I was. The communication we established would've never probably happened if it wasn't for the Share, and Table Shares [Learning Cultures formats]. I make music with the kids who gave me pointers and we are all good friends now. Also everyone gets to experience how to converse with people you'd never converse with. So by like your 10th grade year, you are not shy anymore. You’re more open with your ideas.

Cynthia: Keepers of the Culture® is a character education, school culture and discipline program that I developed to support the Learning Cultures academic formats. It was implemented at Green when you were a student there. Can you tell me what the experience of Keepers was like for you and the other kids at Green?  

Isaac: I had some friends in it. I wasn’t selected but I sat through one of those sessions [a Keepers of the Culture Intervention] because I wanted more information. So I had one. I needed this information to share with the parents who I talked to about the school. I used to not know what to say when they asked me, because they ask about Keepers of the Culture. What I can say now is that they are trying to make all the kids look out for each other. That person is the one that pushes you to do only the best. And the best is only what’s accepted. We don’t like to see each other fail. Having Keepers of the Culture reduced fights. You could be a freshman and you’re cool with a senior. I really feel like I could sit down with anyone.

They teach the Keepers about behaviors and what triggers them--so like an intro to psychology. Trying to get inside your mind to understand yourself is what they try to teach you. Try to get inside your mind before you make judgments. And I feel like that’s the best part. And they do follow up meetings with people. They follow you. They look at your grades. They don’t share that information. They’re there to help you. Everybody needs help at some point. I had three friends in it and I'd sat through a lesson or two. The Keepers are there to help their peers. I know students who actually did better behavior-wise and school-wise because the Keepers show you they care. And the students just loved the peer-to-peer help.

Cynthia: What are your aspirations? And how did your experience at Green Careers in the Learning Cultures curriculum help shape your sense of what is possible for your future?

Isaac: In the next few years I hope to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree from New York City College of Technology. Long term I hope to make to make a good impact in the field I choose and I actually want to publish a novel--make my life experiences into a book--and successfully release a mixtape for sale.

Before I came to Green careers I thought about passing high school and joining the air force or any armed services learning a skill and that would've been my life, because I thought I couldn't  do college. I came to Green Careers and my goals changed. I wanted more for myself. Nothing is wrong with military serviRece, but I feel like I can achieve more and not settle for the bare minimum to just get by anymore.

Listen to Isaac’s music

Back 2 Back Freestyle remix

3PM in Coney Island

Keepers of the Culture is a component of the Learning Cultures model that teaches character education, school discipline, and student behavior. Students at every grade nominate kids from their class who they think will ‘have their back’ and be good ‘Keepers’ of the school culture. These kids meet with kids to help them regulate their emotions and behaviors, identify behaviors that get in the way of being successful, and make goals and commitments in the form of promises. You can learn more about ‘Keepers’ and all of the other Learning Cultures formats at

cynthia mcccallister
cynthia mcccallister


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