Jacob Combs, Summerbridge San Francisco

Jacob Combs, Summerbridge San Francisco

Name: Jacob Combs
Breakthrough Program: Summerbridge San Francisco
Subject Teaching: English 
School Attending/Year: Brown 2011

To put it simply, the Mentor Teachers at Summerbridge San Francisco are awesome. So many of them were Summerbridge or Breakthrough intern teachers (or even students!) themselves, and the connection they feel to the program is really inspiring. At Summerbridge, we have a bit of an unusual system where English and math intern teachers are paired up one to one with a specific mentor. We lesson plan and co-teach every day, making the classroom a site of constant collaboration and improvisation.

Leah, my mentor teacher, is a model of calm and confidence in the classroom. In our first emails to each other, we found out that we’re both Brown alumni, and our views and passions about education mesh well, no doubt at least partly because of our common education. Leah takes the freedom and exploration that I loved about college and makes it work (and, I might add, remarkably well) for middle schoolers. Already, she has taught me to think of my lesson plans not as vehicles for me to impart some specific idea or concept upon my young students. Instead, she pushes me to let my students deduce their own way and improve their writing on their terms, and not mine.

And the truth is that working on writing is pretty difficult. I see writing as a means of expression that never quite feels completely natural—you can develop a voice and work your hardest to make the words sound just right, but there’s always going to be the possibility that it could be better. In a way, that’s what excites me about being a writer, and a writing teacher. First off, I get to know my kids not through equations or quizzes, but through their own writing. I get to hear them tell their stories and, I hope, learn to tell those stories in their own unique way.

For me, teaching is at its most rewarding when it’s really focused on one student. That’s hard, because as teachers we constantly face challenges that pull our focus away from individual students: we have to keep our whole class radar going at all times; we have to think of the school community as a whole. But when you listen to the things that students write, the words they use to express their own experiences, you realize that true learning happens person to person, and that big changes can be affected even on that seemingly microcosmic level. And that is a pretty amazing realization.