Marquett Burton earned his bachelors in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. During his time at Cal he was a Ronald E. McNair and a George A Miller research scholar. Upon graduating he joined Teach For America’s 2009 Baltimore Corp. He began his teaching career at Booker T. Washington Middle School where he taught 6th grade Social Studies. Seeking to support students outside of the classroom, he played a critical role establishing a mentoring partnership with Union Baptist Church. This partnership still provides students with technological training and resources, college readiness field-trips, mentoring and tutoring.
In 2010, finding that literacy was critical to his student’s success, he transitioned into the role of 6th grade Humanities teacher at The Crossroads School. In 2011 he founded 5 Fingers Ltd. to empower students to teach themselves, their families and their communities about good health, positive interaction, and critical thinking. With the support of his 6th grade team, Marquett recently created a Healthy Minds & Bodies program that provided students with a daily cardio workout. This spring he earned his Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Mr. Burton is currently working to expand 5 Fingers and his Healthy Minds & Bodies program to other public schools in Baltimore.
DaretheSchool: Why do you educate?
Marquett: Because education is a transformative process. My father was incarcerated for selling crack and my mother was a crack user. Pretty much my entire extended family was in shambles. What led me to different outcomes was education. Although the majority of my educational experiences were negative, the few positive ones that I had I wanted to hold on to. I realized I was smart in the 4th grade. My teacher encouraged me to test for GATE and I was put in a classroom with other gifted students. Since I was always a competitive child, the pride I felt inspired me to work harder. I remember a similar feeling in 9th grade when my English teacher encouraged me to enter a poetry contest. I only entered the contest or finished the poem for that matter, because my teacher invested in me personally. When I won the contest, receiving the recognition left me with a good feeling.
DaretheSchool: Did you ever receive positive reinforcement outside of school?
Marquett: I received a lot of reinforcement….but it wasn’t positive. There was certainly no reinforcement of academics.
DaretheSchool: Since we’re on this topic….a lot of people criticize charter schools because they advocate for longer school days in urban communities in order to keep children away from their home environments for this same reason. What do you think about this?
Marquett: First let’s be clear. Many people are under the assumption that charter schools and traditional public schools are serving the same populations. They are not because charter school parents are self-selective. They are engaged in their child’s education enough to actively seek another educational option for them. Charter school parents have a positive and proactive mentality that reinforces itself and breeds success. With that being said, I feel that the longer school day is overkill. I don’t advocate for increasing schooling and isolating children from their home environments. People think that if you put a kid in school for a million hours , you increase their likelihood to succeed but it’s overkill. Instead, let’s turn school into the center of the community rather than keeping the kids in school and pushing the community out. The kids are apart of it and you cannot erase their culture.
DaretheSchool: What about the parents that simply “don’t care?”
Marquett: My mother was scared to go to my school. She was intimidated to be in a predominantly white population that was more educated than her. She viewed teachers and administrators at my school as foreign and different. This is the mentality that I think many other parents have. I worked at a highly segregated school where literally 99 percent of the population was black. If you match that with a teacher population comprised with 85 percent white females, it creates a very interesting dynamic. You have a teacher force that is a foreign element in the community. This means something. We need to think about how this affects parental involvement. People want their political representatives to reflect the body of the community and the same is true at a school.
What we as educators have to understand is that parents are key and we cannot stop the power of parents on the child. Thus, we must find new ways via policy or sheer persistence to reach the parents. We must bring parents in by making things relevant to them. In order to do this, you must engage the student. Once you engage the student, you engage the parent.
DaretheSchool: What inspired you to create 5F? Marquett: Well I never thought I would end up in education but in retrospect, I see it was a clear path. When I was 13 years old I worked at the Boys and Girls Club on a summer youth grant. A few years later I was an afterschool worker at Pasadena’s Parks and Rec. program. It was something that made me happy. While attending Berkeley I obtained an internship at the Oakland Courthouse. . Most of the clients I saw were black, guilty, and younger than me…around the age of 18 or 19. It was really weird to see my peers behind bars. Initially I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I realized that by then it was too late. They were already in the system. I saw myself reflected in these young men and I wanted to make sure they never got behind bars. This is why I joined Teach for America in Baltimore. I worked in a very poor and run down school. I saw similarities with the work I did in both Los Angeles and Oakland. Males in particular were doing very poorly. They were so hard to reach…something was missing for them.
I realized early on on that mentoring programs would not work. Most mentoring programs paired a young man up with an older adult whose role was to say, “Do this, do that” or “Hey let’s hang out one-on-one.” But you cannot replace their father and shouldn’t try to. More than anything, the boys influence each other. 5F provides young males with a positive structure for them to help support one another. The older role model sets the parameters for boys to influence each other but does not dictate this interaction.
DaretheSchool: What about people who would say that 5th and 6th grade boys are not old or mature enough to mentor each other?
Marquett: Some of the most dimwitted people I met were at UC Berkeley…some of the smartest people I met were the 11 year olds I taught in class. School can be a process of robbing kids of their natural creativity and intelligence. We think of school as a factory and at the end they should be this particular product. However, if you give a good, enjoyable, and interesting education that is relevant to kids, they will succeed. We assume kids should automatically respect our authority because we are adults, but you have to prove something to them to earn their respect.
DaretheSchool: What do you think of standardized testing and how did it affect your teaching experience?
Marquett: I had kids who could not spell. I wanted to teach them how to spell because this is a basic necessity. Even if you go into McDonalds to fill out an application, you need to know how to spell. But the 6th grade standardized test does not test for spelling. The exam already assumes you can spell. Instead they test you on making predictions and cause and effect. We get away with all of these lies and claim that students are able to jump grade levels if we simply teach to the test. As educators and administrators we need to be honest with ourselves and our students.
We need to stop grouping kids based on their ages, that’s like grouping kids based on their height. It’s just nonsense. Some people argue that ability grouping ruins a child’s self esteem but this is something I did with my students all of the time. I grouped them based on where they ranked in the class. But I let them know: “This is not your fate, this is your current state.” If you lift weights and exercise, you run faster. If you read and study, you get smarter. However, we cannot move you forward until we know where you are. If we’re lying, our children will never have a clue where they are and will remain lost, never finding their way. That is the problem.
To learn more about Marquett Burton and his work with 5F, please visit http://www.mrburton.org