Whitley Morse greets her first-hour Monday history class with smiles at the door – “I love your glasses!” – then with a chat-around about their weekends. A couple of her Ottawa Hills High School students tell of fixing their moms dinner for Mother’s Day. Morse salutes their culinary skills: “I didn’t know you guys could throw down like this!”
But she’s quickly on to more serious matters: the economic and racial disparities of 1950s America. She projects photos of two families gathered around TVs, one white, in a Norman Rockwell-ish living room, the other black, with children sitting on a bare floor and no parents evident.
“What’s different about these two photos?” Morse asks the class. “How might their lives be different? Maybe one of the families has a nice car that they’re driving to work, when the other is walking or taking a bus …”
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“Or don’t even have a job,” interjects a male student.
This drilling down into the two Americas of the Fifties – and the lingering inequalities and racism of today – dominates Morse’s U.S. history class this day. Even at 7:40 a.m. she cuts through students’ grogginess with nonstop energy, pointed questions and affectionate banter.
Her immediate aim is to teach these young people the hard lessons of history. But more broadly, she says, she wants to prepare them for the professional world and support them in their personal challenges. Urban education is her passion.
“As a woman of color, I feel almost a calling,” says Morse, 26. “It is what I was meant to do. These are my kids.”
Teaching Is in Her Bones
Many of her students’ struggles and challenges are similar to those she experienced as a teen, even while clearing hurdles in the classroom and on the track.
Born in Kalamazoo, after her parents’ divorce she moved with her mother in sixth grade to tiny Bloomingdale in rural Van Buren County. She felt “a complete culture shock” going from a predominantly African-American middle school to being one of only four students of color in her graduating class of 50.
But she enjoyed her school work, especially history, and excelled in basketball, track and field, and volleyball. She considered college athletics offers but decided to focus on her studies. Besides, teaching was in her bones.
“I was that cousin that when the others came over, I was like bullying them into letting me teach them: ‘You’re going to take this spelling test!’” she recalls with a laugh.
While earning a social studies teaching degree from Grand Valley State University, Morse student taught with a history teacher at Creston High School. That reignited her love for history and her conviction that students should learn from it, “so we’re not continually making the same mistakes.”
Working in GRPS, including a year of middle school before coming to Ottawa in 2013, also reinforced her commitment to urban education. She is pursuing a master’s degree in that field from Davenport University’s College of Urban Education, a partnership with GRPS, along with her husband, Innovation Central teacher Dan Morse.
‘It’s Not Just Teaching’
Her studies as well as personal experience inform Morse’s approach to her history and Advanced Placement psychology students. She keeps top of mind not just what they’re learning in class, but what’s happening in their lives.
“So often in an urban setting, these kids are bringing in so much,” says Morse. “It’s easy to be like, ‘Why didn’t you bring your school work?’ When you actually talk to them, there is so much going on that education is not always their top priority.”
She tells of a student who passed her a note after a class: “I think I may be pregnant.” Morse walked her to the school health clinic, which confirmed her fear, and kept in touch with her through the school year and the birth.
“It’s not just teaching,” she says. “It’s going above and beyond and helping these kids. For some of them, (school) is their only stability.”
Morse encourages students to share their struggles, and shares her own struggles and joys, like photos of her childhood or news of her wedding. Every Monday and Friday she holds “restorative circles” – safe conversation spaces for students to talk about their lives. “If you can’t build relationships with our kids, you can’t teach them,” she says.
She asks a quiet student on a recent morning if she’s doing OK. She doesn’t get much back.
“That is one I have yet to crack,” she confides. “She misses a lot of school, and I don’t know why.”
Rigorous, But Passionate
Back in U.S. history, Morse moves constantly and speaks forcefully in her lesson on 1950s America. With the contrasting family photos, readings from their text and data maps of 1960 Chicago, she draws out discussion of how different life was for suburban whites vs. urban blacks and poor rural whites.
One student remarks that white America looked like the movie “Pleasantville.” Another reads from a 1956 speech by Richard Nixon predicting economic distress would soon be “wiped out” – a hopelessly unrealistic forecast, students agree.
“Does poverty exist today?” Morse asks them, getting a quick affirmative. “You may know people living in poverty or you just may see them rolling down Division (Avenue). We still have people that are struggling, right?”
She has them write answers to questions about how society once viewed poor people and how they were “socially invisible” to the more affluent. As always, she requires evidence: “You can have whatever opinion you want, but you’ve got to back it up.”
She also requires attentiveness, taking cell phones from two students who won’t leave them alone.
Freshmen Ja’land Whitehead and Baqir Mohamed often chime in on the discussion. That’s because they like her class, they say afterward.
“It was in the past, but she makes it seem like it’s an important thing now because it’s still going on,” says Baqir, adding her enthusiasm “just draws you in closer and closer.”
“She knows what we know and how we know it, so she’ll break it down to where we can understand it the best,” Ja’land says. “She makes learning fun. You want to learn about this: ‘Give me more.’ She makes it addictive.”
They would seem to suggest Morse is succeeding at her mission of engaging and preparing students to become “literate, active, participating members of society.”
“They’re figuring out who they are, they’re coming into their own,” Morse says of her students. “Helping them along that journey is great.”