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Classrooms Rich in Belonging, Love, and Joy: Celestina Lee, HDE'22

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Human Development and Education reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Celestina Lee
Celestina Lee
Photo: Jill Anderson

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes graduating Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Celestina Lee will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Human Development and Education (HDE) Program during HGSE's Convocation exercises on May 25.

Senior Lecturer Junlei Li and Professor Meredith Rowe, faculty directors of HDE, comments on Lee’s selection: “With a focus on children’s language and literacy development, Celestina inspired and impacted others’ learning even as she deepened her own understanding. Her intellectual contribution is deeply grounded by her experiences as a teacher and her upbringing as a human being. She brings her whole self into the classroom — her stories, her communities, her feelings, and her eagerness to learn and apply knowledge. She embodied curiosity, conviction, joy, and respect in all her interactions with peers and faculty. To Celestina, research, teaching, and learning in service of educational equity is deeply personal — and she is a wonderful example of our collective education profession precisely because she embraces it so personally.”

We spoke to Lee — who will be returning to her first-grade classroom in Washington, D.C. — about her time at HGSE and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What were the goals that brought you to the Ed School — and have those goals changed?   

Before HGSE, I taught first grade at a wonderful school called Garrison Elementary in Washington, D.C. For the last few years, our team has been implementing significant shifts to our foundational literacy programming to reflect what research tells us about how children learn to decode. I’ve always loved teaching reading and viewed literacy as one critical tool to shape outcomes for children, but had no previous training on the linguistic, cognitive, or neurobiological underpinnings of reading development. The DC Reading Clinic has played an instrumental role in building our district’s and my personal understanding of how to support struggling decoders with research-based best practices. This learning has been completely transformative to my instructional practice and I saw huge growth in my students as I began to intentionally focus on phonemic awareness and explicit, systematic, and multisensory phonics instruction. 

I’m now passionate about ensuring access to joyful, evidence-based literacy practices rooted in cognitive development for all students. I firmly believe that this cannot be done effectively without also ensuring that our reading instruction leverages and celebrates the individual and communal strengths of our children. I did not often feel seen or affirmed in my full humanity during my own schooling and want that to be central to the reading experiences of my first graders. I came to HGSE to explore ways to infuse culturally sustaining practices into a structured literacy at the kindergarten to second grade levels. 

It has been such a privilege to expand my understanding of reading development, particularly for students with disabilities, and to envision the possibilities that exist at the intersections of literacy and liberation with my professors and peers. I’ll be forever grateful to have received the Urban Scholars Fellowship and the support of DC Public Schools, without which this journey would not have been possible for me.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education?  

I’ve always aspired to center holistic care in my practice and that was reaffirmed tenfold during the pandemic. The blurred lines between personal, school, and professional lives forced us to acknowledge how much we all have on our plates as whole people living in a complex world. We all needed and deserved grace and compassion extended to us. 

I care deeply about literacy as an issue of equity, but a myopic focus on academic outcomes obscures the reality that our first and most important job as teachers is ensuring children feel safe and loved. That job never felt more important than during the last two school years, especially as part of a predominantly Black and brown school community which was disproportionately affected by COVID in so many ways. 

I’ve always loved the Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That sentiment was my guiding light during the pandemic and will continue to be. The babies I teach likely won’t remember why we use "ck" instead of "k" after a short vowel at the end of a single-syllable word, but I hope they carry the feeling of my classroom being a refuge of belonging, love, and joy. 

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

In [Lecturer Aaliyah El-Amin's] Black Liberatory Education, we read an interview of a Black teacher from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools. She described, “When someone makes something just for you, it says, 'I love you.' I think sometimes when we talk about Freedom Schools we sometimes miss that point. They were made and created for those children and those children knew that. They knew that. And when you feel special, when you feel loved, you begin to see yourself in a way that you would not perhaps see yourself. And you begin to dream in a different way, you begin to believe in yourself.” 

I loved this articulation of the transformative power of both being seen and reflected in your own learning, particularly for those for whom schools were not historically — or currently — structured to serve. I’ll be carrying this in my heart as I continue to think through foundational literacy activities, resources, and practices that reflect and affirm the identities of our youngest readers. I hope that my reading instruction can serve as both an “I love you” and an invitation for all my students to dream in new ways. 

Final thoughts?

The opportunity to come to Harvard was a dream come true for me and my family, but one that also coincided with the most painful period of my personal life following the sudden loss of my big brother in November. I would not have been able to continue and complete this journey without the encouragement of my mom who used to ride the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan four times a day to ensure I received the education I deserved and remains my fiercest advocate and the strongest person I know, the comfort of my core HGSE friends, and the compassionate support of my professors and TFs. 

It’s impossible to imagine that I won’t hear my brother’s insanely loud cheer as I walk across that stage, but I am the teacher, learner, and person I am because of where I come from and who I come from, so he’ll be accepting that diploma right along with me. Thank you, JoJo. We love and miss you more than words can say.


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