Chessa Gross: Creating hands-on learning through a lens of social justice
Published in Commencement
As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Chessa Gross helped organize low-wage food service employees into a labor union. Her motivations were personal: when she was a child in Atlanta, a family of undocumented immigrants had come to live with her and her single mother. The girl in that family became “like my sister,” says Gross, an only child. Most of the Georgetown cafeteria workers also were undocumented immigrants whose first language was not English. Gross was moved by their struggles to feed and clothe their children and keep them in school. She attended an international school in Atlanta, became fluent in Spanish, and lived in Ecuador, where she saw firsthand the effects of extreme poverty.
But her passionate efforts on behalf of social and economic justice evolved into an academic philosophy as well. Gross, who received her master’s degree last month in Social Studies and Education, says her organizing campaign taught her about the pedagogical importance of turning theory into action. Gross decided to become a teacher of social studies – and not the kind who sits behind a desk all day. Instead, she would become an educator dedicated to creating a learning environment that taps into the rich cultural diversity of her students and teaches them to respect one another’s differences.
Mentored at TC by Bill Gaudelli, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education, Gross learned to teach her students to view social studies through the lens of social justice. She also came to understand John Dewey’s philosophy of “learning by doing” as an education constructed out of the challenges of everyday living.
For example, in her social studies classes at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, Queens – “one of the most diverse schools I’ve ever been in” – she encouraged her students to write about difficult social issues encountered in their neighborhoods, such as gun violence, prejudice and cross-culture differences, from their own perspectives and experiences. Soon enough, she says, the students were writing and sharing moving personal essays about their own lives.
With Gaudelli’s encouragement, Gross also created a blog, chessasclassroom.com, where she and fellow graduates of the Social Studies and Education program can post lessons, activities and innovations, to support one another “and learn how to get kids motivated.”
Eventually, Gross would like to work abroad, and then in education policy. But for the near term, she is seeking a job in New York City teaching low-income high school students whose first language may not be English, to honor and give back to their immigrant parents who work so hard to give their children the opportunities they themselves never had. “I want to make this world [a place] where we want our children to grow up,” she says. It’s a tall order, but that’s precisely what she’s looking for. “I think being out of the comfort zone is really necessary for a 25-year old.”