In September the park hosted its 16th annual Presidio Teachers' Night where Bay Area educators get inspired, learn what's new in the park, and kick-start the school year. Our 2017 Inspiring Teacher honoree – nominated by other teachers in the community – is Mark Ali, a high school English teacher in Hayward, California. Mark presented his talk, "Public School, Private Educations." He discussed the challenges students face as they navigate an educational system that has traditionally underserved a large segment of its students, whether by race, class, or gender. We talked with Mark to get his perspective.
How did you decide to become a teacher?
After high school, I went to San Francisco State, then I dropped out for several years. When I went back, I knew then that I didn't want to work in an office. I wanted to work with youth. I thought about my own high school experience and how I'd felt like a face in the crowd. I decided I wanted to be the teacher I never had.
How do you engage your students around the topic of racism and make them feel empowered?
I use writing as a vehicle to build up their sense of identity. I want them to feel that what they have to say is important. Writing is a tool, and it's one of the most important tools they have. I tell them, you shouldn't take the idea of being literate for granted; it's something people have fought for.
I also try to teach my students to read deeper so they can write with more depth. I want them to develop their own interpretations of what they read. They have ownership over their interpretation. If they realize this, they can engage more with a text.
What's your "secret sauce" as a teacher?
My "secret sauce" is that I don't have a secret sauce – whatever I have I want to share openly with my students. I'm just looking for a teachable moment. I want them to see how there's a connection between what they're reading and what's happening in the world. I'm always trying to push them to be critical thinkers.
When was the first time you visited the Presidio?
Even though I've been to San Francisco many times, attending Teachers' Night was the first time I'd stepped inside the Presidio. Learning about the park's roots as a military post and its transition to a national park site was interesting. It made me want to learn more.
How can you imagine your students using the park?
Before I came here, I wanted to teach about the Japanese internment in my sophomore class. I've sent students to the Jewish Contemporary Museum and the MOAD for different assignments, and I was trying to find a place related to the Japanese internment. When I found the Presidio's EXCLUSION exhibition, I knew that seeing this exhibition would be one way they'd use the park. I also have a student who's interested in nature, and I told him about the Monarch Butterfly Walk you're doing.
How do you encourage your students to explore the environment and our national parks?
It's important to start by getting them exploring the area directly around them. I want to get kids out for cultural field trips – this includes museums, libraries, and visiting our national parks. Sometimes we get out of the classroom and do a graffiti walk. I want them to learn about history and diversity of the area they live in because sometimes we take it for granted. This exploration is part of them becoming critical thinkers. They need to be aware of their environment, and read their environment in the same way they would read a text.