Jessyca Mathews had been teaching at her alma mater, Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan, for nearly 15 years when the water crisis hit. Mathews asked her students to write about their personal experience with unsafe drinking water. Some wrote to the governor, some wrote poetry, some wrote about the loss of family members from Legionnaires disease.
A National Writing Project teacher-leader and a member of her state’s Teacher Leadership Advisory Council, Mathews believes that students are most engaged in their writing when they understand the power of their own voices to make change.
“A lot of times in English class, writing is just for the teacher,” she said recently. “Instead of doing that traditional persuasive essay, I try to think of different ways kids can use their voices. English class can be a powerful place to do that.”
This proved true during the water crisis. Through a partnership with the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, her students’ work was featured in art installation by artist Jan Tichy. Visitors to the exhibit turned water spigots to hear the voices of Mathews’ students reading their work.
Mathews said that for the students, seeing their work in the museum helped them understand the power of their collective voices to advocate for clean water and for community change.
“There was such a sense of pride in what they were doing,” she said.
Mathews began work with the National Writing Project when she enrolled in a training with the Red Cedar Writing Project.
The idea that other educators could learn from her was a new one for Mathews. “I’d never thought of myself as a teacher-leader before,” she said. “NWP training gave me the confidence to move forward. It taught me that my voice was important, and I needed to share it out.”
Mathews has used this voice to advocate for giving her school’s English program a greater focus on social justice and project-based learning. Her students now spend half of the semester taking an “activism and inquiry” class that Mathews developed with her colleagues. Students research and write on a topic of their choosing that they are passionate about and share it with the community.
Mathews is also a published author. She has published books of poetry and a play about the Flint water crisis. And as a member of her state’s Teacher Leader Advisory Council, Mathews relishes the opportunity to have a voice in conversations about education reform.
In 2018, she was named Secondary English Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Council of Teachers of English. She is the Region 5 Teacher of the Year for the state of Michigan and was a 2019 finalist for Teacher of the Year in Michigan.
Having a voice in education policy is particularly important to Mathews as an African American woman. She feels a responsibility to improve education for students of color in Michigan and to be a role model.
“One of my students said to me recently, ‘I’ve never had a black teacher. I didn’t know a black teacher could go and excel like that.’ I’m like we absolutely can and we should.”