Podcast: LaQuisha in Baltimore, Maryland, for Teachers in America

Picture: Noelle Morris (left), podcast host, with teacher Mrs. LaQuisha Hall.

On the Learning Moments podcast today, we have the first episode of our second season of the Teachers in America series!

Our guest is LaQuisha Hall, a 17-year teaching veteran who currently teaches English Language Arts at Carver Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore City Public Schools. In 2018, she was the Teacher of the Year for Baltimore. She is also the founder of the girls’ mentoring program Queendom T.E.A., the Baltimore branch of Project LIT, and the SheRose Awards which honors the unsung “sheroses” of sexual assault and domestic violence. LaQuisha is an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse and is now passionate about supporting young women who are survivors and preventing further abuse from happening. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @MrsHallScholars. 

A full transcript of the episode is below.

You can follow HMH Learning Moments: Teachers in America wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsStitcher, or iHeartRadio.

Please consider rating, reviewing, and sharing Learning Moments with your network. We value our listeners' support and feedback. Email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.

--

TW: This episode of Teachers in America includes mention of suicide and sexual assault. If you or someone you know needs help today, support is available from the Crisis Text Line and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Onalee Smith and I work at HMH. For our first episode of 2020, we’re excited to introduce our new host for Teachers in America, my colleague at HMH, Noelle Morris. I'll turn it over to Noelle to tell you a little bit about herself and introduce you to our amazing teacher in this episode, Mrs. LaQuisha Hall from Baltimore. Now here's Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Hey fellow educators, or better yet, teachers. As a matter of fact, I like being referred to as a teacher more than an educator. Over 20 years ago, Sharon Draper politely corrected me to never refer to myself as “just a teacher”. She looked me straight in my eyes and said, Noelle, you are a teacher. Be proud. And ever since, I've carried that with me. I am now celebrating my 25th year in education. I was an ELA teacher, reading intervention specialist, editor and writer of teacher materials, a literacy coach. And now my role is the best of the best of all of my experiences. I'm the director of content and programing for HMH, The Learning Company, a teacher advocate always, and your host, future friend, of Teachers in America. Mrs. LaQuisha Hall is a high school English teacher at Carver Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore City Public Schools. As you listen to this episode, you'll hear her creativity, her authenticity, and genuine care for her students, fellow teachers, leaders, her city, and herself. Enjoy this conversation with a phenomenal teacher.

Mrs. LaQuisha Hall prepares discussion questions while her students enjoy independent reading.

Noelle: Ms. Hall, I'm so thrilled to be here talking with you today. I am in awe of everything that I'm seeing and I want to bring that to life to our listeners. But the first thing is I'd like you to just share a little bit about yourself and Baltimore City Public Schools.

LaQuisha Hall: Sure. Thank you for coming. I have been in Baltimore City schools my entire career. This is my 17th year. I did not necessarily have intentions of becoming a teacher in my youth. I went to college at Elizabeth City State University for English. I had intentions of being a writer, you know, those like dreamy jobs. Towards the end of my matriculation through school and by the time I graduated, I was offered an opportunity to be a part of a transitional program at Morgan State University. And in exchange for five years of teaching in Baltimore City, they were going to give me my master's degree. And so I thought to myself, because I was a ward of the state prior to entering college and I really didn't have what I felt was a lot of people that I could depend on. I had no idea what was next for me after I graduated from college. I said, I'm going to take them up on this offer. I had no idea what the future held because I'm from North Carolina, you know, very, very southern. And had never been to Baltimore. Nowhere near it. So anticipating what that might look like. And when I came, I thought that I was only going to do the five years required of me for the master's degree. But here I am. I’m still here.

Noelle: And it is evident that you belong here and you're needed here. How wonderful for Baltimore City schools to have that opportunity to invite people and with five years, because you can make a huge impact for five years.

LaQuisha: Absolutely. 

Noelle: But you've been here 17. Tell me a little bit about that specific journey of 17 years. How were you starting to think about as you were getting closer to that five years, were you already committed and you were going to continue or were you still thinking something different?

LaQuisha: I was definitely committed by year five. I met my husband here. By year four, I just was enamored by him that I wouldn't go anywhere else. And so he's supported me through my early years of being a teacher, which I really appreciated, because I didn't quite feel that I knew exactly what I was doing. And I've seen. . . my stress level seemed to be heightened around the time that we met. So having his support meant a lot to me and being married to him made me feel like I could keep going forward. So by year 5, I had gotten my groove. I had already been seen as a leader in my first school and I connected, had already learned how to connect with students. And so I just felt like, I guess, this is for me. I'm doing well.

A panoramic view of Mrs. Hall's beautiful, colorful classroom.

Noelle: So one of the things that I notice about your room is it is not painted as a typical classroom. Students get to walk into a beautifully purple accent wall where the first thing they see are kings, queens, and then the word scholar. And then as you walk around, you get to another side of the room where it's black and white stripes. So one, how did you come up with this idea and how did you get permission? And more importantly, how did you fund this? Because this could not have been an inexpensive facelift.

LaQuisha: I, outside of being a teacher, am very creative. So I've always been artistic. I paint at home. I’m a hand letterer. So that's where the vision for the color scheme came from actually incorporates three of my favorite colors. So purple is my favorite color because I'm a domestic violence survivor and that's the cause color representation. And then teal, same, but it is representative of sexual assault prevention and so purple and teal and everything I have and own, my house, it’s everywhere in my life just to remind me how strong I am. You'll also see the accent color in the room of mustard, which is supposed to be gold representation. I just believe that that's the place that God brought me to after I overcame what I dealt with in my past. The black and white stripes I just think are cute. I've been in this classroom for four years. This is my fifth year. And so I literally just said it out loud in front of an administrator. I was like, I wish I could paint my room. He said, well, just ask the principal. And so he made it seem real simple. But in my head I was still like, oh, she's not going to let me do what I have in mind. ’Cause this is what I had in mind. [Laughter] I went to her, she said sure, as long as is a professional painter. And I was like, Oh, no problem. I immediately called a friend who does all the home improvements in my home and said, look, I got a big project for you. I got permission before the summer break last school year. And I told myself in order to make this happen, I’m going to have to sacrifice some things. So I did sacrifice two paychecks because I get paid all year. And so two paychecks is what it took for me to fund the painting of the room, especially with the intricacies of the stripes and then things like this. 

Noelle: Yes! Because they are completely perfect. You sacrificed two paychecks. So all of this is funded by you?

LaQuisha: Yes.

Noelle: OK. Was that a conversation with your wonderful husband? I mean, how did you all talk about it?

LaQuisha: Was It? [Laughs.] I will say this. My husband truly supports everything that I do, and I do the same for him. I think he feels like if I came up with the idea, the concept is coming from somewhere else. And so I didn't just ask him, could we fund this? I said, I want to do this because the kids I had the past year inspired me so much. They read over a hundred and seventy books. I want to give the next group more than what these kids got. Maybe they can read more than that number of books. Like I just wanted so much more because I was so inspired by the previous year and my husband was like if that’s the vision God gave you. And he sacrificed with me and I really appreciated his support in it.

Noelle: And I like how you said y'all support each other. And it is nice to know that you're from North Carolina. I was trying to figure out how we had the y'all connection. I was born in Alabama and raised in Florida. So y'all is a permanent fixture of my grammar and pronouns.

Mrs. LaQuisha Hall with one of her scholars at Carver Vocational Technical High School.

Noelle: You know, Ms. Hall, one of the things that I really admired about you as I was listening to you talk with one of your young scholars, seems like you're going on a trip. And she didn't turn something in on time. And I want you to talk about the conversation, and is that how you encourage each of them to always acknowledge why they have this opportunity and why they deserve this opportunity? But I also want to bring out in that moment, it seems very similar to some characteristics and personality I see in you. She said one of the reasons she was avoiding the process was she does not like to hear no. And I don't want to give it away. I want you to share what your response was, because I also feel like at some point you probably also didn't like to hear no, and you've worked through that.

LaQuisha: You know, I love all of my scholars, but I have a real passion in heart for girls because I was a girl who was overlooked in school. I was doing well academically, but nobody ever pulled me to the side and said hey, I noticed you could have did a little better here. And not just in academics, but in my appearance and how I presented myself, how I approach problems. And so I take it real personal when girls don't approach things the right way. And I try to take on somewhat of a mentorship role even if they're not in my program. To just offer them an opportunity to say, hey, we are supposed to be queens, and this is how we handle things. So I'm taking my students on Friday to see the movie Harriet. And because I only have 40 seats and 120 students, I had to select students. When I gave out the permission slips, she didn't get one. Now, she was on my list, but I was waiting for one of the students that I did invite to say that they couldn't go because there was a fee involved. So earlier today, I had a student say, you know, I can't go on the trip and I wanted her to go. So when she came in class last week, I gave the permission slips out last week. When she didn't get one, she kind of threw like a temper tantrum at her desk. And I would have loved to have taken the opportunity to say, hey, I really want you to go. I'm just waiting on somebody to say I got to step out. But she didn't. She just sat at her seat and complained. And so I said, if I get the opportunity, I’m going to share with her how she should have handled it. And so today when the opportunity arrives, I made a permission slip out to her, and I already have my mind made up when she comes in I’m going to pull her to the side and have this conversation. So I pulled her and I said, so how are you feeling? And she said I’m good, and I do everything in your class I'm supposed to do. The same thing, she was saying [before]. She's like, I do all that you ask, Ms. Hall. I participate. I don't talk when I'm not supposed to talk. So I shook my head in agreement because I agreed with everything she said. I said, but there was one day that you didn't handle things quite like you probably should have. No, no, not me. I said, well, let me just play back what I remember. So I started repeating the things I heard her saying the day that I passed out the permission slips and she's like oh, yeah. That was when she realized that I heard her and that was the opportunity that she missed. And so I said, what you didn't know is that I did want you to go on the trip. I just didn't have an extra permission slip. And I do now. But I'm wondering, should I give this to you? Yes, Ms. Hall. You know, I'm sorry. You know, because I do do what you ask me to do. Except you didn't handle that well. And so she said, I just don't like to hear no. So I said, I understand that. None of us like to hear no. I said, but you won't even know that the answer is no if you don't ask the question. And I definitely have been rejected a lot of times in my life. And I wanted her to understand that just because you ask doesn't mean you’re gonna get the answer. But if you don't ask, you won't get an answer at all. 

Noelle: And you specifically also said you don't control the no. Sometimes it is going to be a no. We have to work our self through that and we have to understand that. 

LaQuisha: Right. 

Carver Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore, MD.

Noelle: So I’m huge [about] Twitter. I use it for so much. Tell me how you're using social media. 

[Read more about using social media as a teacher for professional development.]

LaQuisha: Oh, wow. I am using it. That's for sure. When I started working here at Carver, so five years ago, I was so frustrated with cell phones being in everybody’s hands, I said I need to meet them where they are. And so I created an Instagram account just initially to post what was happening in the classroom and their homework assignments. I mean, I really thought I was gonna have school on Instagram. That was my goal. I was like, if you're going to look at this, I will give you something to look at. Every time you scroll, I want you to be reminded that you gotta do your homework. So that's how I started. What it turned into was me publicly acknowledging the great things that my scholars were doing in my class. And they really like, they like that way more than a homework post. Even after a while, parents would come in and say, thank you. That's my son. Thank you for showcasing him or sharing his work. Or kids would come to school and say, my mom said she really like that picture. It turned into not just being for the class, but also for the community. And what I realized happened maybe a year or two later was teachers were saying things like, oh, what was the idea behind this lesson? Or can you share this lesson with me? And I was like, sure! So teachers were getting ideas off of what I was sharing on social media, specifically Instagram at the time. I incorporated Twitter maybe about a year or two ago. And I did that because Twitter became popular around that time for the students. And so I was trying to connect with them there as well. But what I found was there were a lot of teachers on Twitter and I found myself having conversations with teachers about different ideas and creative strategies that could be used in the classrooms. I would share my stuff and people would retweet it and say, oh, I got to do this. I was impressed that they liked what I was doing. As much as people might look at what I do and say, that's so cool. I still see it as it’s not a big deal. So I started sharing on Twitter. I recognize that there were a lot of leaders from my district on there as well. So I follow them and I retweet things or share things that were going well, not just in my classroom, but throughout our district. Being in Baltimore, a lot of people have impressions of what happens here and what our kids are doing. And I wanted them to see the other side and I wanted them to see the opposite of what the media was putting out. And so I started defending Baltimore City on Twitter and sharing way more than I would have normally of the positive. Social media is probably my form of advocacy on behalf of my district. Last year, we had some events that happened back-to-back that when the media did not necessarily shed a good light on what was happening. And so what I did was I had a upcoming professional development with my superintendent and another school leader. And so in preparation for that, I made us an affirmation flyer, just us three, and I asked them to share it on social media. So when we shared it, I had all these people messaging me like, can you make me one? And I was like, sure. And so by the end of that weekend, I had made 200 [affirmation flyers] for people from across the district. And so my superintendent, she shared hers, and we had a great and positive response. This school year, before this school year started, I wanted to revamp that and have the 200 people that I made it for share it again. And I wanted to start the school year unified. So I came up with a campaign that came up with a hashtag #teamcityschools. And I just asked everybody to share on the Monday before school started back. And the response was incredible. They realized what was going on in the district. And I was happy because that was the change that I want to see via social media.

Noelle: Who's on your playlist? One of my big things that I always also ask teachers to have is know your walkup songs, like if LeBron can have one, if, you know, Michael Jordan had one, remember when the Chicago Bulls were big and it was like the final countdown. Teachers, we need to know what are our walkup songs and when we come in. If no one else is singing them, at least they’re in our heads. Tell me who’s in your playlist. 

LaQuisha: It's interesting that people are thinking like teachers do the walkup song. You know, I never even thought of it before in the past, but I believe the song that I chose for my walkup song as a teacher was "Fancy" by Drake. Because I feel like I'm fancy in the classroom. But I will admit, that's not my traditional playlist song. So what I might listen to at home when I'm doing arts and crafts or something like that is I listen to a lot of instrumental inspirational background music. I also listen to a lot of gospel. And my favorites of all time are Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. I really like her older music because all her albums really spoke to my heart in my childhood and I just carried it into my adulthood. And so the same music that kept me from giving up when I was young, is the same music that I keep on my playlist to help me move forward.

Some of the motivational signs Mrs. Hall has created for her room.

Noelle: Before I leave Baltimore, which I do get to come here often. And I do love the city. I love the historical perspective. I love the community. I love how open people are. I mean, I am bringing you a Smith Island cake from on the Eastern Shore because a teacher I met yesterday said what was the one thing I should try before, and she mentioned this. And as I walked in today and I had it, you're like, oh, was a Smith Island cake? Oh, that, you know, it is popular. But what is something that. . . or not just something, what are three things, whether it's food or a museum or a scenic spot that I should not miss when I am in Baltimore?

LaQuisha: Well, one scenic spot is my classroom. And you're here. I'm saying that because I want to see more community people in our schools. It should not just be students seeing teachers. And by everyone in the community to any classroom just to see what's happening in our schools and support as needed. One of the places that I personally like to go and I go to often and I have a membership there is the Baltimore Museum of Art. I've taken professional development for teachers there. I don't always recommend places as much as I do recommend going to the events that empower Baltimore. So like, for example, this weekend was the Baltimore Ceasefire weekend and they held several vigils and events throughout the city. If you come to Baltimore during those times, it’s important to support those causes and be at those places to me.

Noelle: And as you think about your high school students, what do you hear them thinking about and saying, like what are they aspiring to be? What is their next step? Because we're also as I passed, I know we're at [a] vocational high school. So they're getting to experience, you know, some of their goals and aspirations as a career. What do you hear them talking about and where do they see themselves? Five years.

Mrs. LaQuisha Hall checking in with each scholar on their progress.

LaQuisha: Many of them are fearful of what's next. I often get questions on, do you think I could do this? Is this possible? What's it going to be like? I think instead of announcing where they feel they're headed, they're more so afraid of what's ahead and asking questions about what's possible. And I find myself in a position where I'm always giving them options. So reminding them that when they leave here, you'll be certified in a trade. Some of the young men here have asked questions about military. And do you think I should do that? You know, I give them the pros and cons and you can see them like really thinking, because to be quite honest with you, with the population that I serve, many of them don't know if they're going to survive to see their graduation. So just the fact that they consider survival means a lot to me, that you thought about what's going to happen after high school. It means that you're going to still strive beyond my classroom and I appreciate that in them. Because I can't imagine growing up the way that they have in places that they have. I just make myself available to answer whatever questions they have and kind of support and encourage them that it is going to work out. You might not like where you start. But you will end somewhere and you'll be in a position where you can help the next person. It won't be me helping you, but it’ll be you helping someone else.

Noelle: It's so powerful. And I'm sitting here and I apologize. I'm having this moment because the word fearful, I think just hit me.

Noelle: What else are you doing in the community? I know you give to the school, you personally, but you're also very connected to the community.

LaQuisha: So one of my community projects, which is actually kind of school-based as well, is my mentoring program for girls called Queendom T.E.A. So, I mentor a girls and in conjunction with some other women leaders from the community. And I've been doing it for about 14, 15 years now. I also have a nonprofit for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors to have a platform to share their stories for the first time publicly when they're ready. And so that's called SheRose Awards. I'm also into pageantry. And the only reason why I am is because I use it to promote the cause that I care about, which I just shared with you, because people have a hard time standing and listening to that type of conversation. And so I find that if I have a crown and a sash on, everybody wants to take a picture with me or talk to me. Okay, so while we talking, I need you to understand how important this is. So I use it to capture people's attention.

Mrs. LaQuisha Hall talks about how she ended up teaching in Baltimore.

Noelle: So earlier in our conversation, you talked about being a ward of the state. LaQuisha, where did this you become? I mean, because as a child, I can imagine you had fear. You had doubt. Probably anger. Tell me what and how you have made this journey to be such a positive person and find this deep soul to share your story.

LaQuisha: I was molested for two years by a pastor. And so while I didn't give up on God, I gave up on people. Two years after it occurred, [I came] forward with what happened to my family, because it was eating me up, and I wasn't believed. The pastor’s side was taken. And so I just felt betrayed in such a major way. I can't even describe to you in words how I felt at that time. What I told myself was I had to get out of my home. And so I left home at 16. I went to live with my dad until I graduated from high school and I became a ward of the state because I needed health care and things like that. [And they] told me, it has to be—if you're going to vouch for yourself, it has to be legally done. But I started taking care of myself. And what I saw is strength on the outside wasn’t a strength on the inside. I was in absolute turmoil. Like I constantly thought about my sisters. I have two younger sisters and I always question[ed] why, you know, certain people in my family didn't have my back. What was wrong with me? And I always was brainstorming how I could regain the love and trust of my family. And so in all my efforts, they all failed. And so my freshman year of college, I tried to commit suicide. I’d swallowed over 100 pills and locked my dorm door. But I had a roommate who came back from class early that day, which is going to lead to how I became the person that I am. Like, how ironic that the day that I decide, I mean, literally, I put on my favorite dress. I had written all my notes and letters the night before, had the medicine set up, took it. My roommate tried to get in, but I had the door chained as well. And so they called for our resident assistant and they broke the chain, got in, and said I was foaming at the mouth, laying on the bed. Real embarrassing. But I was escorted out on a stretcher to an ambulance and spent two days in the hospital trying to recover from, you know, the amount of medicine I had taken. And I'll never forget it. The doctor came to me on my final day in the hospital and he said, in order for you to leave, you have to sign this statement that says that you won't try this again. And he said I’m going to give you some time to think about it, because I think he felt the hesitancy. Because when I woke up in the hospital it like, you know, y’all are really going on my nerves. This is not what I wanted. I don't want anyone's help. Y’all aren’t going through what I'm going through. That was how I was feeling. And so in that moment, my best friend, my roommate was in the room. She was like 'Quisha, please, just sign it so we can go home. I did it out—of obligation and out of wanting to leave, but I still didn't feel 100 percent sure about continuing my life. And so I had another roommate in the dorm who always seemed happy and it annoyed the crap out of me. And so I went to her one day. I said what is it with you? Like. What is it with you? She’s like, what do you mean? You are always happy. I don't have that. She sat me down. Now, I had heard all the Bible stories. I've been to church with my family in the past. All that. I mean, you couldn't tell me I wasn’t going to heaven. I felt I was a good person and I was supposed to go. The way she explained God to me that day made me feel like I did not have a relationship with Him like I was supposed to. She invited me to church and I'll never forget, when I went to her church, the people looked different, they acted different. And I was just like, I need what they have. And so on that day, the pastor, you know, was calling people to the front for salvation. And I'm sitting in my seat, like, I’m already saved. I don’t need to go up there. But he kept talking about maybe a family abandoned you. He was saying things that was directly connected to my issues. And out of nowhere I started sobbing like somebody had stabbed me and I couldn't control it. And I said to myself, I said, God, if you can help me through this, I will help somebody else. And I really just feel like that was the trajectory change of my life, like I just in that moment was like, OK. I felt like He said He'd help me. Now it's my turn to turn around, help someone else. And of course, I had to get myself grounded and all that. And I started getting support from the church. I started to feel more confident in being me and being okay with being alone, because that's what I felt like I was. And that helped me finish college. And, you know, of course, led to my coming to Baltimore. 

Noelle: And in that whole path, you had your own affirmations. So most likely why that continues to be something that you're contributing is helping people find their affirmations and to state those.

LaQuisha: Yes. 

Noelle: And not to state them, but believe them. You just described, you had to sign something, but you weren't wholeheartedly agreeing. But then once it did, became yours. So thank you for continuing to give forward. 

Left: Noelle and LaQuisha Hall enjoy a slice of the famed Smith Island Cake, recommended by teacher Debra Reynolds in Salisbury MD; Right: Classic Cakes in Salisbury, MD.

Noelle: 2018, you were the teacher of the year for Baltimore City Public Schools.

LaQuisha: Yes.

Noelle: How does that feel? And what are some of the cool things you got to do and experience?

LaQuisha: What really made it special was that I had an interview with my superintendent and I was scared to death that day. And I had met her before in passing. And she is a woman that I prayed for because I just saw a black woman in power. 

[Learn more about Baltimore City Schools' CEO, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises.]

And I was like, oh, we got to lift her up because there’s a lot of things going on in our city, in our school district. Every time I saw her, I would say, I'm praying for you. Of course, I always felt like she didn’t know who I was, she wouldn't remember me. I was like, oh, my God. I wonder if she’ll remember that I'm the girl that keeps walking up to her saying I’m praying for her and things like that. So I was really nervous about the interview, but she made me feel so comfortable. And I'm sure she made us all feel that way. But I was just in awe of her, that was the big like. . . I felt that day, that if I don't win, I got everything I needed today. Just by having the opportunity to sit in her office and to have that one-on-one conversation with her. And I was just so impressed with the fact that she really listened to what I had to say. She wasn’t just asking me questions to see if I should be the winner. She was really curious about how I felt. And so it was an amazing feeling because I didn't expect to win. I won't lie. Only because, I don't know, I think I second-guess myself a lot. And I was up against like a woman with her doctorate and a man who taught physics. I was like, oh, gosh. Okay. I'm proud I have made it to the top three. I was overwhelmed. So throughout the year, Maryland State Department of Education had an event for us monthly for us to collaborate with our cohort. So there's a teacher of the year from every district in Maryland and twenty-four of us total. And so we came together, all of us on those troops. And so we went to Smith Island, which is where I knew about the cake. We went and had a tour of the White House. We were honored and recognized in Annapolis. And we went to some professional conferences together, presented together at those conferences, and it was really awesome because the opportunity that I probably wouldn't have got without being Teacher of the Year I got as Teacher of the Year. So professional conferences that I may have wanted to attend, but was afraid to ask to take off work, I had permission to do. And so, it was a great feeling, and I connected so much with the other people in my cohort as well.

Mrs. Hall's classroom library.

Noelle: So, LaQuisha, when I first came in, I got to go walk around the room and of course, the book Speak popped out at me because 20 years ago I read that book. I was like, I have to teach this book. So I see your copies of that. And of course, I'm a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson. But then I tweeted something. Next thing I know, she's tweeting me how phenomenal you were, and I’m like, wait. I’m getting to meet LaQuisha and Laurie's already met you? So tell me a little bit about that, how you've connected to her and what that book means to you and how you use that to help girls find their voice. 

LaQuisha: Well, first of all, being a survivor of sexual abuse, it meant a lot to me to read such raw writing about how we really feel. And I appreciated her putting it in the language that even teenagers could acknowledge. And I became a part of a group called Project LIT. And her book was on the list. But prior to Project LIT, someone had donated 40 copies of Speak to me. I had no idea what I was going to do with them initially. But because of my mentoring program Queendom T.E.A., I said, you know, maybe my girls would want to discuss this because every now and again, the girls in my group would allude to some of the things going on at home. And so I gave them all a copy. They were excited that they got to keep it. But also they were coming back to me the next day. Oh, my gosh, Ms. Hall, this book is so good, I can't wait to finish it. They were walking down the hall reading it, reading it in the cafeteria, and they were even passing it to friends. And I noticed that some of them passed it to friends that they knew were going through sexual abuse or potential abuse at home. So I connected with Laurie on Instagram initially. I was messaging her and I wasn't expecting a response because I felt like [you're a] New York Times bestseller, like you don't care about some little teacher in Baltimore. She wrote me right back. I'm so impressed with what you're doing with your students, and keep it up. And so I continued to tag her, show her the students that were reading her book. We took a group picture as a group in my mentoring program. And I tagged her and she was just so impressed. I think she reposted it on her social media. But she came to D.C. for Shout, for a book signing. And I definitely had to add it to my library. So I signed up and my heart dropped when the director was like, OK, you all you can get in line for the signing, but no pictures and just write the name on the post-it that you want her to write inside your book. So I was like, oh, god, is it going to be like a real quick thing? So I'm getting down. No one is taking pictures because that was the rule. But when it got to me, she said, oh, my God, is that Ms. Hall? And I'm like, what, you remember me? And so she looked at the director. She said, no, I have to take a picture with her. I was like, oh, my God. This is so my day. My husband’s like all giddy on the side. And so, it worked out because she pulled me to the side and then she grabbed my shoulders and she just spoke life into me. And it meant so much to me to have a survivor of her caliber saying keep doing what you’re doing for the kids. Hang in there, don't give up. I know what you're going through, what you're facing, what you’ve come from. What you're doing is so awesome. And so I was like, oh, my God, I'm going to do everything she ever said forever.

A selection of scholars' works from Mrs. Hall's classroom.

Noelle: Tell me some specifics about how you relate to that book and how you're discussing it with your mentor group. Because I'm also just fascinated. I've always enjoyed having literary conversations about the artwork, right? The tree and her teacher. So tell me how you bring that and that discussion out with your girls. 

LaQuisha: I am not afraid to tell any student that I teach that I’m a survivor of sexual abuse. I feel like that's a way of them seeing me as human, because a lot of times when you put yourself together as a professional, you stand in front of youth. Oh, you don't know what I'm going through. You’re so far from me. And so I try to bridge the gap that they might feel in looking at me or being in my presence. And the kids are always amazed or shocked, even in my mentoring program. Like I know that they know that there's a reason why I want to pull them aside every week and spend all that time with them, and buy them snacks and talk, and that there's other things that I could be doing. But it means so much to me because I don't want them to turn out or have the same hiccups in their lives that I had. So I share my story with the girls and I tell them I, you know, while Melinda uses the tree symbol. I've always told people I want to be a bird. And there are so many reasons for that. And we talk about it. They even surmise on their own why would have chosen a bird as my symbol. And so they choose their own symbols. You know, I would want to be this because. . . They give the reasons that are kind of similar to what the tree and the bird might represent. And I'll be honest with you, I let them candidly talk. They do a lot of encouraging each other, a lot more than. . . I try not to be the voice that’s always giving the advice and all that because I don't want mentoring to feel like class. So they’ll say, man, my mom did that to me, too. And so when they hear from each other that they're not alone in it, it is more impactful and powerful for them. And so I just kind of guide the conversation, but I’ve never had to with the girls in the mentoring program because they're so dedicated to the program and they really want the answers to what they're going through that they're willing to invest in each other. So it works out.

Noelle: That invest in each other is huge, right? Because it's such [an] isolating experience. And I am completely taken that you are so strong to have those conversations and allow girls to have a space. Do you find like was that also something you had to get permission? You know, how do the girls share with their families or how does all that work?

LaQuisha: They complete an application prior to being in the program at all. And in the language of the application, it says that the goal of the program is to increase their self-esteem and also to prevent sexual abuse and violence from occurring in their lives. So the parents have an idea of what we are getting ready to delve into. The girls know that I’m mandated by the state or by law to report if they're in an abusive relationship. So a lot of times they’re really careful how they say things to each other and in front of me. But I think over the years, I've probably filed ten to twelve child protective services reports all for sexual abuse. And earlier when I started Queendom, it was more prevalent because I didn't know that it was going to come so strong when I shared my own story. Like the girls just all around the circle one at a time saying what was happening to them. And I was like, whoa, this is a lot. But just the fact that this is probably why they wanted to even be a part of the program, is that that they had all this stuff going on. They needed some way to release it. And that's where it came from for me. I was a student walking through the halls of a high school. No one ever stopped me and said, what's going on with you? I noticed that your clothes became baggy. That was one of the outward appearance changes that I had made. And sometimes when people gave me compliments, I thought they wanted something. So I would become defensive and things like that. No. As long as you had good grades, nobody bothered you. I didn't want them to feel that way. And I had some high achievers in my mentoring program all the way down to kids that needed to raise reading levels. All of them had the same platform in the group to share. So.

LaQuisha Hall and Noelle Morris recording this episode of Teachers in America.

Noelle: Well, it is completely amazing. It's amazing to see you in action. It's amazing. I, too, want to be as quick as you with some of your great little sly ways of saying, hey, you know, I see you on your phone or I noticed you came in late today. Like I loved how at the end of the day you reminded the student who was late, well, I heard from everyone, but. . . So it was this way for him to know I see you. I saw you were late. I accepted you in. But I did see you late.

LaQuisha: Right.

Noelle: Thank you so much for letting me come into your classroom, letting me listen in, take some pictures, have a little jealousy moment. But thank you so much. And I hope that we stay connected. And I definitely want to be your friend. 

LaQuisha: Absolutely. Thank you.

Noelle: If you want to see photos from behind the scenes and more from my visit to LaQuisha’s classroom, check it out on HMH’s YouTube channel. The link will be in the show notes. And if you would like to be a guest and have conversations with me on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at Shaped@hmhco.com. 

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us, be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please rate and review and share with your network. You can join our community and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. There you'll find a transcript and key takeaways. You can find a link in the show notes. Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.