New course at Aurora West Prep Academy builds confidence, promotes communication

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AURORA | When thinking of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, the brassy tunes of early 90s hip-hop group Five Fingers of Funk probably aren’t what float to the front of the mind.

But in Ryan Glasspoole’s new leadership class at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, the lyrics to the group’s 1994 ditty “Pass The Vibe” share the soundscape with questions on Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize and her support for the education of young women and girls.

“Why do we want our leaders to show perseverance?” Glasspoole asks the class of some two dozen AWCPA seventh graders.

“They could teach their people, like, even though…they went through hard times or something happened to them, they still continued going and, like, that they didn’t quit,” says Teresa Sandoval, a West seventh-grader who’s wearing a black T-shirt that reads “Straight Outta Money” in gold font.

“This shows people that life just doesn’t end when…you have a setback,” Glasspoole responds. “I like that.”

He types the response into a graphic organizer that appears on a screen in the front of the room. After explaining how the rest of the day’s lesson will work — with the students analyzing different portions of a text of Yousafzai’s life — Glasspoole turns on the Five Fingers of Funk and leaves the middle schoolers to their work. But not without providing snippets of individualized attention — in both English and Spanish — and adding one more directive.

“You may listen to music if you want to, but make sure that you don’t just listen to a YouTube ‘one song,’ because you’ll be (tabbing) back and forth,” Glasspoole says. “Put it on a station so you don’t have to be going back and forth. Raise your hands if you have questions.”

No hands go up.

“We good?” he asks one last time.

Heads go down and headphones go on.

That’s been the typical scene in Glasspoole’s classroom within the AWCPA media center this school year, which marks the first time the novel leadership class has been offered. Taught to students in grades six through eight, the course is intended to bolster the leadership and communication skills of West students, many of whom are English language learners, according to Glasspoole.

“The more we identify with some of these world leaders, the more they’re able to take a look within and see, ‘Alright, these are some things that I possess and these are some things that I want to try on.’” he says. “They’re not going to learn anything, as far as community is concerned, if they don’t take the time to sit down and have some mindfulness.”

So far this semester, the leadership students at West have learned about strong leadership qualities, such as courage, empathy and inspiration, as well as famous dignitaries like Yousafzai and César Chávez.

The class stems from a series of visits nearby fifth- and sixth-grade students made to West last year. The field trips were designed to chip away at some of the fears caused by moving to a new school, according to Glasspoole.

“The idea was to minimize the apprehension and having people really nervous about coming,” he says. “And hand in hand with that, (the administration) said, ‘Hey, next year we should have a leadership class so that the kids take ownership for what’s going on.’”

The class also dovetails with APS’ new “innovation zone,” a cluster of five northwest Aurora schools — including West — recently granted state-approved innovation status, which provides them with a slew of curricular and financial autonomies. The theme of the zone is international leadership.

Glasspoole, who has transitioned from a social studies teacher to solely a leadership instructor, says he’s already seen a buy-in from his leadership students that was rare in his social studies classes.

“It’s terra incognita, but I really like what I’m seeing so far,” he says.

About 54 percent of the some 900 students at West — which serves a student body that is about 60 percent Hispanic — are considered English language learners, according to the school’s website. That’s a fact that makes teaching the class challenging, but all the more important, according to Glasspoole.

“We’ve got students who have never been to school, and now I’ve got to scaffold that for them,” he says. “There’s a lot of scaffolding that has to take place for them to feel like they understand this stuff, instead of just swimming. But I’m seeing progress with all of them.”

Nirshika Neopany, one of Glasspoole’s students who moved to the Aurora area from Nepal when she was 8 years old, said she enjoys the class, as well as being a part of the diverse student body at West.

“I wanted to learn about leadership and about, like, how leadership helps other people,” says Neopany, now 12 years old. “And learning different languages from other people speaking different things and seeing new people, that’s cool.”

Still, Glasspoole says he’s working to break through a generally anti-academic atmosphere at West. To do that, he plans to have his students give a final presentation on a leader of their choosing to local elementary school students.

“It’s really hard to get them to present in class because there’s so much pressure that I don’t see or feel as an adult,” Glasspoole says. “There’s this definitive apprehension, there’s this ethic around the ‘hood that if you try hard, you’re a nerd; if you look like you’re interested, you’re a nerd. And thats not good. I’m trying to get past that.”