January Person of the Month: Arabella Zeba
Arabella Zeba is the reading specialist at Malcolm X Elementary School, a second-year Washington, D.C. partner school. She was nominated by social work consultant Matthew Vialva for her leadership in Malcolm X’s kindergarten and first grade Kid Talk meetings and for “challenging teachers’ thinking and helping them to see the benefits of early intervention.”
THE 180: Did you always know that you wanted to be in education?
ARABELLA ZEBA: I started out as a high school English teacher. I saw a lot of high school kids who could not read on grade level, and I just kept saying, “What is going on?” For example, you might see a tenth-grader reading on a fifth or sixth grade level. In high school, there really isn’t any literacy support; it’s all content-based.
It motivated me to go back and get my master’s degree to study curriculum, reading and leadership. Once I did that, I started off in a charter school as a reading specialist, an instructional coach, then came to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It was my high school experience that really drove me to go back and become a reading specialist, because I realized after elementary school, kids really do not get literacy support.
THE 180: You act as the care manager for the kindergarten and first grade Kid Talk meetings. What does that entail?
ARABELLA ZEBA: Kid Talk is part of our response to intervention (RTI) program. I meet with the kindergarten and first grade teachers to talk about students who really seem to struggle and look at what’s going on. We talk about intervention strategies – what is the problem that they see, what strategies are they currently using and what suggestions the group has to improve. We also talk about what might be causing the behaviors – what’s going on that’s causing them not to do well. The end goal is to improve academics, but we do discuss behavior a lot because sometimes that’s what’s hindering a student’s progress.
THE 180: When you say interventions, what kinds of things are you generally recommending?
ARABELLA ZEBA: It really depends. If the student is struggling with decoding text, he might need a double dose (meaning extra time) of phonemic awareness. If a student is struggling with breaking down a math problem, give them more manipulatives to use. Basically, it’s coming up with different ways to address a situation and having the teacher try it out.
THE 180: Why is it so important to intervene early?
ARABELLA ZEBA: It’s important to make sure kids get this information to learn how to read and solve problems early on. You can’t just assume, well, if I don’t hit this or if I don’t help this child, somebody else will help them. If a teacher doesn’t know how to help a student, the teacher might stop focusing on the student. Then the student is lost.
I bring a different perspective. If a teacher is struggling with a particular student, I will say, “Hey, let me talk to them. Let me do some assessments. Let me evaluate and see what’s going on.” I may see something that they wouldn’t necessarily see, because they’re worried about 26 students in a classroom, whereas I’m dealing with an individual student. I bring fresh eyes to the project.
Because I don’t believe that kids are lost. I’ve never believed that. I believe they may have hard circumstances. I know our kids have deficits because they come from homes where they’re not being read to, where they don’t have books. There are so many different things that impact what’s happening with the child. I know that students may be dealing with something outside of school that is preventing them from focusing in school. So that’s why I love when Turnaround talks about brain development and what’s happening in the brain and how it can impact the learning.
THE 180: What changes have you noticed in the school since partnering with Turnaround?
ARABELLA ZEBA: They have given teachers strategies to help with kids, like de-escalating certain behaviors, which has been really important. Last year, there was a first-year teacher who inherited a class that had a lot of challenges and I know that the Turnaround for Children staff really worked with her and helped her out. They started doing mindfulness and it was really amazing. I saw her blossom from that – she was able to keep her students calm and manage her classroom.
They’re doing an excellent job working with teachers. The Wednesday workshops have been really helpful….talking about brain development and what happens with fight-flight-or-freeze – they explained why it’s important to get kids to calm down and calm ourselves down.
THE 180: What do you think is the most important thing that students need to succeed?
ARABELLA ZEBA: They need confidence. They need support. They need people to support them, believe in them and give them the confidence that they can do it. It’s letting them know that they might not get it when someone else does, but that’s okay, and they will.
THE 180: Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
ARABELLA ZEBA: Just, I really love what I do. I love helping kids read. I used to have problems reading when I was a little kid, but I went to private school and my grandma and my mom were teachers. By the time I was in high school they were like, “Okay, put the book down, we’re at the dinner table.”
But I know, a lot of kids did not have that; they didn’t have the same support. I love to give kids books to open them up and expose them to new things that maybe they didn’t think about before. I love to see them, like, “Oh wow.” Just to be awed by beautiful writing is so important. It’s something that I love to give kids.