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Ed. Magazine

The Seekers

Meet eight current students and recent graduates who experienced or identified problems in education — and are now working on solutions to help others.
Illustration of head with squiggly arrow
Illustrations: The Project Twins

In the education world, it’s easy to identify problems, less easy to find solutions. Everyone has a different idea of what could or should happen, and change is never simple — or fast. But solutions are out there, especially if you look close to the source: people who have been impacted in some way by the problem. Meet eight current students and recent graduates who experienced something — sometimes pain, sometimes frustration, sometimes hope — and are now working on ways to help others.

SEEKER: Elijah Armstrong, Ed.M.'20

Elijah Armstrong

“This motivated me to become an activist in the space of disability and education,” he says. “Education is supposed to act as a gateway for students, but far too often, for people with disabilities, it acts as a barrier.”

His experience led him to start a nonprofit while he was in college at Penn State called Equal Opportunities for Students “as a way to help tell the stories of marginalized students in education.” Then last year, he won the 2021 Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award, an award given by the American Association of People with Disabilities that recognizes up and coming leaders with disabilities. With his prize money, Armstrong started his own award program: the Heumann-Armstrong Educational Awards, named partly for disability rights activist Judy Heumann. The award is given annually to students (sixth grade and up) who have experienced ableism — the social prejudice against people with disabilities — and have fought against it.

“Students with disabilities face barriers in education that aren’t faced by their non-disabled peers,” he says. “At all levels of education, students are forced to do intense emotional and logistical labor to fight for accommodations or go without accommodations at all. This is on top of the day-to-day challenges of having a disability or chronic illness, and the challenges that go along with that. Students with disabilities should have ways of being compensated for that labor and denoting that labor on resumes.”

One of the unique aspects of the award program, he says, is that winners aren’t restricted on how they can use their award money, although several from the inaugural round have used it to fund their own activism. For example, Otto Lana, a high school student, started a company called Otto’s Mottos that sells T-shirts and letterboards to help purchase communication devices for non-speaking students who can’t afford them. Himani Hitendra, a middle schooler, has been producing videos to educate her teachers and classmates about her disability, as well as ways they can be more inclusive. Jennifer Lee, a Princeton student, founded the Asian Americans with Disabilities Initiative.

Armstrong, who is also currently living and working in Washington, D.C. as a fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, says beyond awarding money to other young activists, one of the biggest and most impactful ways he thinks he’s helping to challenge the education system is through the videos his nonprofit produces for each of the winners.

“We highlight the award winners and give them a platform to tell their stories in a way that gives them agency,” he says. “Education doesn’t often take the voices or experiences of disabled students into account when discussing accessibility in education. We want to make sure we develop a platform that gives voice to the narratives of these students, so that everyone can listen to and learn from them.”

Learn about his nonprofit:


SEEKER: Elisa Guerra, Ed.M.’21

Elisa Guerra

In the early 2000s, Guerra wasn’t finding the kind of educational experience for her young children near her home in Aguascalientes, México, that she was looking for — one that was warm, but also ambitious and fun and stimulating.

“I saw a gap between what schools offered at that time and what parents like me were dreaming of for their young,” she says. “After my son went through three different schools and none was a true fit, I decided that I needed to imagine and create the school I wanted for my children.”

So Guerra, without any formal teaching experience, started Colegio Valle de Filadelfia, a small preschool with 17 kids that was based on what she was doing informally at home with her ownchildren. Those first few years, she says she pretty much did every job the school had, learning along the way.

“I taught. I answered the phone. I designed our programs. I managed promotion and enrollment,” she says. “I also changed diapers, cleaned noses, and mopped puke.” For many years, she served as the principal.

She also fine-tuned their learning model, what they started calling Método Filadelfia, or the Philadelphia Method. Based on the work of Glenn Doman and The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, their model isn’t your typical approach for helping young children learn.

“We teach — playfully and respectfully — tiny children, starting at age three, to read, and [we also teach] art, physical excellence, and world cultures as the first steps of global citizenship,” she says. Music lessons, including violin, are started at the preschool level, and classes are taught in two foreign languages in addition to a student’s first language. When Guerra first started the school, there were no commercial textbooks that fit what she was trying to do, so she wrote her own.

Since then, schools across Mexico, as well as Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador now use her textbooks. Al Jazeera made a documentary about her as part of their Rebel Educator series. Twice she was a finalist for Global Teacher of the Year. Just before the pandemic hit, she was appointed to unesco’s International Commission on the Futures of Education, a small group that includes writers, activists, professors (including Professor Fernando Reimers, Ed.M.’84, Ed.D.’88), anthropologists, entrepreneurs, and country presidents. (When UNESCO first reached out to her, she thought it was a scam and almost didn’t respond back to them.)

And it all started 23 years ago with an idea and, as she says, some naivete.

“In retrospect, it was crazy. Most people I know who have opened schools have done it ‘the right way,’ if such a thing exists,” Guerra says. “They were experienced teachers, or they even ran schools as principals, before jumping out to create a new one. They could do better because they knew better. I did not have that advantage. I had so much to learn myself. But in a way, that was also a blessing because I also had much less to ‘unlearn.’ …I said before that I became a teacher accidentally, but that is only partly accurate. Indeed, I was not expecting my life to take the path of education. But once I found myself there, it was my decision to stay. The discovery of a passion for teaching was the accident. To embrace the teaching profession was a choice.”

Read more about her work:


SEEKER: Cynthia Hagan, Ed.M.’22

Cynthia Hagan

“I’ve lived here for 35 years and have witnessed the impact of poverty and the opioid crisis on our communities,” she says, “both on current realities and hopes for the future.”

Initially, when she first applied to Harvard, she thought she’d create a children’s program using puppets, inspired, in part, by Sesame Street, but after taking a few classes, Hagan’s ideas on how to help children in her state evolved.

“I became fascinated with the concept of designing for joy as introduced to us in the course What Learning Designers Do,” taught by Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, she says. “Joy is an often-overlooked ingredient for learning.” The power of story also began to stick.

After creating a class project called Adventure Box, focused on increasing third-grade reading levels for children experiencing homelessness, Hagan’s idea for Book Joy emerged.

Research shows that children who are not proficient in reading by the third grade, when they transition from learning to read to reading to learn, are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and six times as likely to be incarcerated as an adult.

“I knew that the overall thirdgrade reading levels of children experiencing poverty in rural Appalachia were significantly lagging,” she says. “It just seemed like a logical move to modify Adventure Box to meet the needs of this population.”

She decided to focus first on McDowell County, West Virginia, once one of the largest coal producing areas in the world, where the child poverty rate in 2019 was a staggering 48.6%.

Hagan’s idea with Book Joy is simple but potentially life altering for the young children they began targeting starting this past September: give each incoming kindergarten student a curated box filled with high-quality books (printed and audio) based on interest and reading level, plus fun related activities to conceptualize the reading experience, and then follow up with new boxes quarterly (December, March, June) until third grade. The goal is to significantly increase third-grade reading proficiency.

For the launch this fall, Book Joy partnered with Scholastic to get discounted books and with Random House for free books. McDowell’s assistant superintendent/federal programs manager has been actively involved. Twice a year, Book Joy will conduct assessments with the students, their parents, and their teachers, to see how each box is working, and then tweak the content. They’ll also use feedback to improve on future boxes and teachers can use assessments to provide individualized intervention, as needed.

Illustration of  man on arrows

“When their interests, reading levels, or personal circumstances change,” says Hagan, “so does the contents of their box.”

Another goal for Book Joy, beyond improving third-grade reading proficiency for children in one of the poorest districts in Hagan’s state, is something fundamental to this former librarian: to bring joy to reading and learning, hence the name, Book Joy.

“Each box is truly a gift created just for them. No two boxes will be alike because no two children are alike,” she says. “And we are designing these boxes from an edutainment perspective, putting as much focus on eliciting joy as we do in choosing the best aligned reading material. We want every design element of the box, from the moment the children lay eyes on it to the emptying of every item, to elicit joy.”

Discover how you can help:


SEEKER: Ben Mackey, Ed.M.’13

Ben Mackey

In 2020, the district unanimously passed the Environmental & Climate Resolution, a massive overhaul of how schools in the Dallas Independent School District approach climate change. It includes reviewing and revising current policies across all schools and setting goals for reducing the district’s environmental footprint, while also keeping an eye on spending.

Mackey, a former math teacher and principal, says that it was young people in the district who really got the ball rolling when it came to making sure the district was thinking about its impact on the environment and then making a plan for change — something few districts are doing.

“The genesis of this resolution and the work really started with students,” he says. “When I took office in 2019, there was a small but mighty group of students who had been coming and attending every board meeting and sharing their perspectives and imploring the school board to make strides in its sustainability work. I was able to work with these students to get this resolution drafted and passed by the school board.”

What passed is a 10-year plan to drastically improve the district’s sustainability practices, including some steps that have already been taken, including switching energy plans and contracting for 100% renewable energy, which is expected to save the district $1 million a year on top of the energy benefits. By 2027, all plates, utensils, and trash bags will be 100% compostable.

Longer term, the district has applied for a federal grant to pilot 25 electric busses and will begin moving away from gas-powered maintenance equipment. It will limit synthetic fertilizer. The district also created a set of policies that say any new school built or existing school remodeled must include LEED silver certified standards. Another goal is to plant more trees to combat the “heat island” effect that schools that are primarily blacktop experience.

“One area that stuck out to our community group and administration as they were formulating the recommendation is how the increase in tree canopy cover can combat carbon emissions, improve learning environments, and serve to decrease energy usage,” he says. “We’re aiming to increase canopy cover at all campuses to at least 30% and we’re working with a number of phenomenal partner organizations to get this started, including the Texas Trees Foundation and the Cool Schools Parks initiatives.”

Mackey, who is the executive director of a statewide education nonprofit called Texas Impact Network(in addition to being on the school board), says his advice to other districts that want to reduce their school’s climate footprint is to get buy-in across the district — and just get started.

“Dallas ISD’s process started with students at our board meetings, speaking every single month, about the need and importance for this to happen. These students reached out to trustees and school staff and continued to come forward with both a charge and ideas for what success looks like,” he says. “The hardest part is often to get it off the ground and I’d encourage all who care about this to call your school board trustees and be a consistent and sensible voice who will share their mind and provide concrete solutions to make this work happen.”

Sign up for his monthly newsletters:


SEEKER: Michael Ángel Vázquez, Ed.M.’19, current Ph.D. student

Michael Ángel Vázquez

That’s why he’s trying to make the graduate years, at least for Ed School students, less stressful.

“I just went through this huge burst of depression my first year, my master’s year,” he says, “and I realized that I wasn’t the only one that was going through that.”

Part of the problem, says Vázquez, a former teacher in the Navajo Nation, is that while universities often offer great resources, many students don’t know where to turn for help or don’t even think they should ask for help.

“There’s so much pressure to feel like you know everything and not admit when you don’t,” he says.

Vázquez decided to create a comprehensive student-to-student guidebook, based on resources he knew about and those shared by other students. This “labor of love,” as he calls it, includes everything from where to find books and readings to how to save money, including where to grocery shop, how to sign up for MassHealth, how to apply for snap benefits, and how to sell items to other students through the Harvard Grad Market. He has a section on job hunting. The mental health section offers tips for finding therapists, wellness options at Harvard, ways to combat vitamin D deficiencies, and advice for advocating for yourself. Other documents include ways to prep for graduation, must-have lists for living in a colder climate, and a link to local tenants’ rights.

“I just felt like it was important to do whatever was possible for the next group of students to have a safe, happy experience, because, ultimately, learning should be fun, should be exciting,” he says. Endemic to being back in school, with all of the pressure, “it’s very common for that fun and excitement of learning” to take a back seat. “I don’t want that be the case. This guidebook is just one way to mitigate that a little bit and make it more fun and exciting for people.”

None of this support and concern for the well-being of other students surprises Vázquez’s professors, who point out that he has been one of the most active students since he got to Harvard. He’s been especially in-tune with first-gen students (he’s first gen, starting with attending the University of Southern California) and for students of color, both at the Ed School and at the college, where he’s a tutor at Adams House. He’s also been a teaching fellow for ethnic studies classes at the Ed School since 2019 and will now help teach ethnic studies to undergraduates at Harvard starting this fall. He hopes creating and sharing his guide helps all of the students he’s around.

“As a student and as somebody who is a teaching fellow and who has worked in different organizing groups on campus and off campus, I see that grad school and organizing are often very stressful,” he says. “I really want to drill that it’s OK to not know something and that learning is shared, which is why I did this. There were things I didn’t know at first. I want to share that knowledge with others, and I want it to be community-built. When you admit you don’t know something, that’s when you truly learn something.”


SEEKER: Grace Kossia, Ed.M.’17

Grace Kossia

“Anytime one of my friends unconsciously has a math moment, I always yell out, ‘You’re a mathematician!’” she says. “Too many people are walking through this life convinced that they could never be good at math. Math isn’t meant to be something we’re good at — it’s simply something we do, and when mistakes happen, we learn.”

It’s this philosophy that she and her coworkers bring to their edtech nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York, playfully called Almost Fun, which last year helped 1.5 million middle and high school students with free online math lessons.

“The title ‘Almost Fun’ winks at the way students perk up when they engage with our resources and find unexpected joy while learning math,” she says. “We value being real with our students, and part of that is understanding that math can be a hard pill to swallow and that schoolwork may not be the number one thing students are going to want to do. However, with the right approach, we can curate experiences that make math learning ‘almost fun’ and something to look forward to for even the least confident learners.”

The backbone of their approach includes explaining concepts using easy-to-understand examples, rather than through clinical, mathematical definitions. Their distributive property lesson, for example, relates expanding and factoring an expression to opening and closing an umbrella. Their functions lesson uses a vending machine to explain how functions represent the relationship between inputs and outputs. Another lesson compares absolute value to the overall power of a superhero or villain.

Kossia says their site is meant to complement existing online sites like Khan Academy, which she says has been a trailblazer in edtech that serves many students. But as helpful as Khan is, some students still need more help — or just a different approach.

“There is still a critical number of students who struggle with high levels of math anxiety and low math confidence, which limits their ability to take full advantage of the support online resources like Khan offer,” she says. “At Almost Fun, we want to position ourselves as a complement to these existing resources by using creative math analogies to explain foundational math concepts and bridge the gaps in students’ math confidence and motivation, so that they can better benefit from the support other resources offer.”

Kossia remembers the gaps she struggled to fill after she immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time, she was good at math, and decided to major in mechanical engineering in college. She had a hard time.

“I quickly realized that I had many gaps in my understanding of math and physics, which were essential skills I needed in this journey,” she says. “This chipped away at my confidence, but I was determined not to give up. I wanted to prove to myself and other people like me, especially Black women, that it could be done.” Later, when she worked as a physics teacher, her struggles helped her relate to students who were anxious about physics and pushed her to design creative lessons that focused on learning by doing, as opposed to learning by memorizing.

“At Almost Fun, I do the same thing but with math as the primary focus,” she says. “We believe math is more than just sets of memorized steps; it’s a way of describing relationships between things in our world.”

Access resources and lesson plans:


SEEKER: Shaina Lu, Ed.M.’17

Shaina Lu

“Learning about gentrification is unavoidable in placebased learning in a place like Chinatown,” Lu says. “However, it could be kind of a drag to spend your fourth-grade summer learning about gentrification.”

So Lu, an artist and former media arts teacher in Boston Public Schools, decided to make learning about this heavy topic more interesting: she created a graphic novel.

Noodle and Bao was my response to that feeling. I wanted to write and draw a story that elementary kids would devour and love — There’s a cat selling food in a cart! Neighborhood kids dress up and infiltrate a snobby restaurant! — but would also pay homage to some of these inspirational histories and present-day struggles they were learning about,” she says. While the novel isn’t specifically set in Boston’s Chinatown — it’s set in a fictional Town — Lu says it’s inspired by the many residents, activists, and community members of Boston’s Chinatown that she has met and worked with over the years — people who “have done so much exciting work that is more than comic book-worthy.”

Set to publish in the fall of 2024 by HarperCollins, Noodle and Bao also explores historical events from Boston’s Chinatown, most notably a fight for the land that now houses the community center where Lu worked and where elderly residents passionately voiced their displeasure to hotel developers at a meeting.

Lu says the graphic novel is just one example of something that has been important to her for many years: the intersection of art, education, and activism. Another example is a creative placemaking project she recently worked on in Chinatown with a local student in partnership with a local resident.

“The resident, youth, and I painted a community mural that featured [the resident’s] personal lens on the history of Chinatown,” she says. “The mural was painted on a condemned building on a border of Chinatown that is elslowly being eroded away by the neighboring district. It’s hard to parse out which separate part was ‘art’ or ‘activism,’ or ‘education,’ so I feel like they’re interwoven.”

Although she’s interested in teaching, Lu says classrooms are tricky places. “There’s an inherent power structure with the teacher as the fountain of knowledge and students as recipients of that.” Instead, “I’m interested in disrupting the capitalist status quo of education with ‘winners and losers’ as described by activist- philosopher Grace Lee Boggs in her 1970 essay, Education: The Great Obsession.”

She’s not interested, though, in disrupting the system on her own. “I hope to be, alongside others, building a new system, where people’s needs and interests and social responsibility define their learning, rather than their ability to produce,” she says. “There’s actually so much incredible person- centered education out there, both in and out of schools. I’ve worked with teachers who engaged students with civics project-based learning about gentrification, youth workers who have helped young people organize community gardens for their neighborhoods, and more.”

Learn about her art:


SEEKER: Justis Lopez, Current Ed.L.D. student

Justis Lopez

“I hold near to me that there are ancestors that wanted to study, but didn’t get the chance to,” he says. “There are relatives that wanted to pursue their dreams, but they put food on the table instead so that I could pursue mine, and for that I am eternally grateful and full of joy.”

It’s this gratitude and happiness for life that Lopez, a DJ known as DJ Faro (for the Spanish word, lightkeeper), is bringing to his time at the Ed School and to Project Happyvism, the culturally responsive nonprofit he started with his friend, Ryan Parker, a youth empowerment teacher and activist, that is rooted in hip hop and is a combination of happiness + activism.

“Project Happyvism is a feeling, a philosophy, and a movement that centers joy and love as a radical form of activism,” he says, meaning the commitment to loving yourself and those around you unconditionally.

“The organization embraces the beauty and need for joy,” he says, “and emphasizes the fact that maintaining happiness about who you are and what you think, say, and do in a world that consistently goes against the grain of your identity is a form of activism in itself, hence: happyvism.”

The project started from a song and video that Lopez and Parker wrote and produced and has since expanded to include helping others write songs (what they call “joy anthems”) in their recording studio, publishing a children’s book, Happyvism: A Story About Choosing Joy, and working with K–12 districts on related curriculum. They also started Joy Lab, a community gathering space in Manchester, Connecticut, where Lopez grew up, that offers yoga, wellness and equity workshops, and book readings. He plans on starting a Joy Lab at the Ed School during his time here.

“I’m just trying to create the spaces I wish I had for myself growing up,” Lopez says. “Spaces that center healing, hope, and hip hop.”

Although this is his first year as a student at the Ed School, Lopez has been involved with the school in the past, including as an organizer, MC, and DJ at the Alumni of Color Conference, thanks to Lecturer Christina Villarreal, Ed.M.’05, who later convinced him that getting into Harvard was a possibility. He also attended the Hip Hop Experience Lab conference run by Lecturer Aysha Upchurch, Ed.M.’15.

Previously, Lopez was a high school social studies teacher in Connecticut and created a hip hop class and afterschool program in the Bronx. He worked in the Hartford public schools as a climate, culture, and equity strategist, and was an adjunct professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. One day, he’d like to reach even higher and become the secretary of education for the United States.

“Policy is created by people and it’s important to have people in positions of leadership that understand the experiences of the students and educators they serve,” he says. “An important factor of that being a classroom teacher. When you have taught in the classroom you understand the human-centered perspective that is needed in education that goes beyond any policy. Of the last 11 U.S. secretaries of education, only three have been classroom teachers. Secretary Cardona makes the fourth. I want to build upon the human-centered approach he has brought to the role.”

Find your joy and watch their music video:

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