Three Bruins Selected as LAUSD Teacher of the Year

Misti Kemmer, a TEP alumna; Grace Maddox, art teacher at UCLA Community School; and Daniel Buccieri, a UCLA Writing Project Fellow, honored for skill, commitment, and service.

Upon being notified that she was selected as one of 22 LAUSD Teachers of the Year, Grace Maddox noted that all of her colleagues at UCLA Community School in the Koreatown-Pico-Union area were also all in their own way, “teachers of the year.” In keeping with the school’s mission of developing self-directed and passionate learners who are active participants in society, weekly professional development sessions and a twice-yearly “Plan, Do, Study, Act” fair enable teachers and staff to share best practices and data.

“We learn from each other,” says Maddox. “I’m very fortunate to grow with so many amazing teachers at UCLA Community School.”

Likewise, UCLA alumna Misti Kemmer (’04, B.A., American Literature and Culture/Education; ’06, M.A., Teacher Education Program) and Daniel Buccieri, a Fellow in the UCLA Writing Project, were recognized with Maddox for their research-based teaching and leadership among their colleagues at the LAUSD Teacher of the Year awards luncheon on July 20 at USC’s Town and Gown Ballroom. Buccieri is currently in the running for Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year. Winners of this competition will be announced in September and qualify for state and national titles.

Kemmer has taught in a 4th grade magnet program at Russell Gifted/Highly Gifted/High Ability Magnet in South Los Angeles since 2005. Previously, she served as a teacher’s assistant in the Long Beach Unified School District for two years. She says that the challenge of meeting the needs of so many students with distinct personalities belies “what makes this job so mentally stimulating and exciting.”

UCLA TEP alumna Misti Kemmer (at right) with fellow LAUSD Teacher of the Year Carrie Merrihew, Seventh Street Elementary School; and Christopher Downing, LAUSD Area Superintendent, Local District South, at the Teacher of the Year Awards Luncheon in July.

“There’s always so much more to learn and new research and methods to try and learning all of that and applying it to help students is demanding work,” says Kemmer. “I want students in poverty and students of color to have the best opportunities, the best teachers, and the best schools. I think I am most successful when I am able to help new and early career teachers become great and stay in this field in hard-to-staff neighborhoods [and] when students make huge academic gains or when they are simply happy to be at school!”

Maddox, who teaches visual art to 7-12th graders at UCLA Community School, says that her goal is to share the transformative possibilities of art with at-risk students.

“Many of my students have been so mistreated in life that they don’t trust anyone, especially a teacher who says you can see the world differently and create new things with art,” she says. “Even students who are challenging can experience great change and improvement in class – they just need a place where they can explore their creativity.”

Buccieri teaches 10th and 11th grade world and U.S. history at the STEM Magnet of Venice High School and previously taught 8th grade U.S. history at Mark Twain Middle School in Los Angeles. Having worked with the UCLA Writing Project since 2009 as a Fellow, presenter, and on its leadership team, he says that the experience has “enhanced my teaching in countless ways.”

“Most of all, it has inspired me to follow my creative passions and allow the artist in me to manifest itself in the classroom,” Buccieri says. “What is paramount in social studies education to me is that students enter into the argument of history as a way to better see their own selves. In my social studies classes, students write daily. Through writing, students learn to grab hold of, develop, present, and defend their own ideas. That is what should be at the heart of education: the development of students’ own critical understanding of the world, not the memorization of the way others view the world. Through an emphasis on writing, in myriad ways–formal, informal, on-demand, research-based– students learn that what we are really doing is not just studying the past, but creating their future.”

Kemmer is involved in teacher advocate organizations including Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence. She says that giving teachers a voice in policy decisions elevates the profession.

“Knowing I can influence policy makers to do right by our nation’s urban students gives me incredible feelings of success toward my goal to change the world of schooling for the better,” she says.

Maddox embodies the UCLA Community School commitment to lifelong learning by encouraging her students to take advantage of opportunities like Saturday High at Art Center College of Design, Ryman Arts, and the Cal Art Summer Arts program. She proposed that her school establish a digital art program, took classes at Art Center in order to teach it, and was successful in getting digital labs set up for students. Annually, she writes and receives grants to take her students on field trips to the Getty Center, the Huntington Library and Gardens, and the Norton Simon Museum.

“My goal is give students an art education that will expand their perspectives just as it did mine,” says Maddox, who earned her B.A. in art from Art Center and her art and bilingual language development credentials and master’s in educational leadership from CSU Northridge. “In my class, students know that art can be learned and you are not just born with the talent. They learn that the more they practice, challenge, expand their knowledge, the better they will get.”

Kemmer serves as a mentor to her more junior colleagues at Russell Gifted/Highly Gifted/High Ability Magnet. She most looks forward to watching them develop into “amazing professionals with a passion for change as I have.”

“I feel in some way that I am helping to change the world as I originally dreamt as a new teacher myself, but I am doing it one classroom at a time,” says Kemmer. “In this way, many more students will have a great teacher before them.”

Buccieri has published a number of his writings on the intersection of topics in art, in history, in music, and his own life, in journals such as The Still Points Arts Quarterly, which has published four of his essays. He looks forward to compiling his writings into a book, as well as writing a book on his philosophy of education, “to hopefully inspire other educators to re-imagine education.”

“Our system of education was designed along a factory model of efficiency, that has not significantly changed in structure or design for the last 100 years,” notes Buccieri. “In my teaching, I reflect on what aspects of education serve to perpetuate this factory mentality and why they still exist. I try to reimagine what school can be in order to make it feel less like school. We practice democracy in my class. What is emphasized is dialogue, freedom of expression, a commitment to questioning and justice. I try to replace the individualistic competition our schools and our society breed, with an emphasis on community. Every day, we are learning together, discussing together, helping one another to grow. And I am part of that community. Growing and learning alongside the students each day.”

Daniel Buccieri, a UCLA Writing Project Fellow, with his parents Valerie and Anthony Buccieri, at the LAUSD Teacher of the Year Awards Luncheon, held at USC in July.

Maddox’s commitment to her students goes well beyond graduation day. In 2011, when a college-bound senior at UCLA Community School was not able to come up with her $2,000 portion of her first year’s tuition, Maddox was inspired to create a silent auction so that her students’ talents would support their classmates’ higher education. Since then, the annual event, which so far has raised more than $10,000 in scholarships, takes place every December at the school’s Koreatown – Pico-Unon campus. The event has garnered the support of IKEA, Costco, Trader Joes, and Subway, who donate refreshments, and there are often performances by the UCLA Community School folklorico group to entertain the entire school community gathers at this pre-holiday festival.

“It’s a beautiful night where our school welcomes the community and celebrates all of our students’ talents,” says Maddox, who organizes the event with the help of students, parents, fellow teachers, faculty, UCLA, and the local community. “Student artists bring their families and showcase their art, and parents are surprised by their children’s newly discovered talent. Our auction has directly inspired others to establish scholarships at our school, including the Anderson Family Scholarship and the Founding Principal’s Scholarship.”

Kemmer says that that if her students take one thing away from their time in her classroom, she hopes it would be “the drive and passion for constant learning.”

“I want them to see that the more we know, the more we know nothing…but that’s okay!” she says. “I want them to feel an urge to answer the world’s mysteries and become the researchers, scientists, doctors, teachers, and dreamers of tomorrow.  I want them to feel empowered to be game changers and to have strong voices in whatever they decide to do with life.  And of course, I would hope they would remember their 4th grade teacher somewhere along the way.”

In his classes, Buccieri works to develop students’ critical thinking skills in the examination of history that he says he hopes his students apply to guiding their decisions in life.

“I don’t want my students to be passive spectators,” he says. “Without thinking critically, we all can easily accept single-story narratives of history, of current events, of our society, of anything. In my class, we practice critical thinking methods examining every source. We look for biases, examine power structures, and search out voices that are omitted. We ask why are certain voices are left out and ask about intended audiences of sources. We practice critical analyses of race, class, and gender in order to offer my students a more fuller understanding of a topic.”

Maddox, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 11, feels great empathy for her students, many of whom are recent immigrants themselves. Recalling how she was given the “busy work” of drawing in school before she had acquired competency in the English language, she strives for an environment of mutual respect and establishes unspoken rules for behavior and performance in her classroom. Maddox says that she hopes that they leave her charge with “the promise of opportunity, expanded perspective and new ways of looking at the world.”

“I don’t want them to feel what I did when placed at the back of my class, but instead I hope they feel they have a voice, a place, a chance to learn in an inclusive environment,” she says. “When I meet parents, I love seeing their reaction to my praise of their kids. ‘Really? He’s/She’s never like that at home!’ Parents know that I am here for the long haul for their children. I’ve learned that even the most challenging students can change for better. They just need time and patience. I know I did.

“When you teach at one school for seven years, your reputation as a teacher travels. New students hear from their brothers, sisters, cousins, and neighbors about what kind of teacher Ms. Maddox is. A student who has taken many classes with me and who was initially deemed ‘at-risk’ recently told me, ‘Ms., I hope someday you can teach my children, too.’”