Caring for Students—and Helping Them Close a Chapter—When So Much Has Been Lost
AP English Literature teacher Carlos Escobar shares his experience of building a community for his students—and keeping it going during a pandemic
Carlos Escobar is the AP® program director at Felix Varela Senior High School, in Miami, Florida, where he also teaches AP English Literature. Like so many teachers across the country this year, Escobar found his classroom replaced by Zoom meetings with his students when the coronavirus pandemic closed Felix Varela. (In March, Escobar also began teaching the course—along with Susan Barber—as part of the Online AP Classes and Review Sessions on YouTube.) But it wasn’t just learning that was disrupted—traditions were also threatened.
Since 2003, Escobar and his wife, Diane, an AP Biology teacher at Felix Varela, have thrown exam-day pep rallies for their students. Not only do they ensure their kids eat a good breakfast, they provide them with energy boosts during break periods and throw a party when the test is complete. It’s all part of a larger effort Escobar has undertaken at his school to help AP students build a community and be recognized on campus as achievers on par with athletes and drama students. It’s work that’s as important as anything that happens in his classroom—and there was no way Escobar or his wife would allow a pandemic to keep them from pumping up and celebrating their students.
Escobar recently spoke with The Elective about building his school’s AP community, the pep rallies that have become an expected part of his student’s AP experience, and how he and his wife kept that tradition alive this year.
Felix Varela Senior High School AP students show off their custom AP swag.
When you work with students as long as my wife, Diane, and I have, you notice things. For instance, on campus, we have pep rallies for the football players and the drama kids get to put on their play and people come—there’s this hype for what other kids do. But who can get excited about a test? It just doesn’t happen. There’s a sense of community with teams or troupes, and that’s not always the case when it comes to academic life.
But why not? At Felix Varela, I saw that students who were already taking four or five and six AP classes were traveling in packs. Their schedules aligned. But students who took a single AP class never felt like they were part of a program, and I felt like that was a missed opportunity. We hear a lot about tribal mentality, and it can be a very detrimental thing. But there can also be great advantages: I feel like I’m connected, I feel like I’m a part of something, and therefore I’m not going to drop the class, and I’m not going to opt out of taking the exam. I’m not going to give up once the going gets tough.
One of the first things we did was work with the computer graphics designer at our school who, with the help of an AP student, designed an AP logo, using the head of a viper, which is our school mascot. We have this on everything: pens, mugs—this is our swag. We give every single AP student T-shirts, as well as a gift based on their grade level. Ninth graders get binders with our AP logo, 10th graders get water bottles, 11th graders get infusers for their bottles, and seniors will get coffee mugs. We’re all used to seeing the football player walking down the hall in his letter jacket. At Felix Varela, we have the AP kids all blinged out with this custom swag. And that creates a sense of community and a sense of pride.
Five Felix Varela Senior High School students show off the wristbands they earned for posting As and Bs in their classes.
It also can create a sense of status. We have colored wristbands with our AP logo and the subject area. I look at students’ grades to see who earned an A or B over the first two nine-week periods, and whoever has the grades earns a wristband for that course. It’s a really big deal when I walk into the classroom to hand them out. There are some courses where I’m throwing handfuls of wristbands, and there are others where I take out one and look at the student: You’re the one who got it.
Our school’s principal, Nery Fins, has been instrumental in ensuring we’re able to present these gifts and prizes. She sets money aside for them and ensures that they can all have the best classroom resources at their disposal. Nery has been an educator for 38 years, teaching English for 20 of them. In fact, she taught at Felix Varela before becoming Assistant Principal and then Principal, and her three children attended the school. That experience speaks to her commitment to the school and the academic rigor afforded its student-body.
AP students at Felix Varela Senior High School dig into their pre-exam breakfast in a year when they could take their exams at school.
But there’s more to this sense of community than the swag. Teachers will tell students, “Make sure you get a good breakfast before taking a test,” but a lot of our kids just can’t get a good breakfast. We’ve all sat for a long examination, and all of a sudden your stomach rumbles and you’re more concerned about that than the question in front of you. So something Diane and I started doing, from the first year I taught AP in 2003, was to have this breakfast of champions.
We pay for it ourselves and bring them a full spread: bagels, cereal, yogurt, milk, orange juice. We decorate the classroom—it’s a party. There are streamers and balloons and music and all kinds of things. We give each student a personalized note. We give them a baggie with pencils and mints. There are hugs and speeches. This is our Rudy moment; this is our locker-room moment with these kids. And we absolutely mean it. We know that they have taken the harder path when it comes to high school classes. And then there are midtest celebrations during their 10-minute break—we set up a table and have cold water and peanuts so they have an energy boost between the two different parts of the exam—as well as posttest celebrations.
Medals awarded to Felix Varela Senior High School students that feature the logo of the school's AP program.
Whether it’s because we did it or because it comes naturally to so many of the teachers, these kinds of celebrations happen all the time now. The AP Spanish teachers feed the kids. The AP Art History teacher gives them goodie bags before the test. The AP Seminar teacher feeds them and gives them goodie bags. At Felix Varela, celebrating our AP students has become a mission for many of our AP teachers.
Well, what do we do this year? It’s gone. And so many of these kids are lamenting very real things. On my first Zoom call with my students, three of them said their parents were laid off. That was a month and a half ago—I don’t dare ask them that question now. So we were thinking about what we can do for them from afar. And we decided to try and replicate, as best we can, the pre-exam party using what we had at home. We set up balloons and decorations and streamers around our house. We had confetti—there’s still tons of little pieces of confetti all over the place. For my students, we played “Eye of the Tiger.” And it was a family event. My 7-year-old daughter came in and threw the confetti. My 13-year-old son told Alexa to play music. We all wore black T-shirts we made with our AP logo. All of us were with them. We were screaming and jumping, and it became a party.
Diane grows sunflowers with the students, and two hours before the exam she sent them each a little message playing off of a sunflower metaphor. She said something along the lines of: Even if the sunflower is buried underneath that soil, it’ll find the sun, it’ll stretch itself out, and it knows which way is right. Regardless of how you feel today, be like that strong plant that always knows the way up. This is a moment for you to do what’s right—and you’re going to reap the benefits afterward. You are that sunflower.
Maybe it was a little sappy, but it got to me. We don’t teach English and biology—we teach students. And I think that’s the key. When teachers realize that they have to teach the kid first and that the content is just the vehicle through which we do that, then you understand that sometimes you’ve got to put content aside. Diane could have given them last-minute tips, but what could that have done? Instead, she gave them a little bit of love. And we gave them a pep rally. And I think that they’re better for that.
Carlos Escobar (front) with his wife, Diane (back left), and their children throw a pep rally for Carlos' AP English Literature students. Confetti from the party can be seen on the laptop keyboard.
There’s this notion that if you’re an AP student, you don’t have problems, that you’re OK. But it just takes a conversation with an AP kid to know they’re facing the same struggles as any other student. They’ve lost a parent. They’re having health issues. They need to work to support their families. Their parents sometimes don’t want them to take AP because they’d rather they take an easier course so then they can help out at home. It’s a misguided notion that AP students are perfect, that they don’t need any sort of recognition or motivation, the same way any other subgroup within high school requires or deserves it. The breakfasts, the pep rallies, the swag—all these little things have given us a sense of recognition on campus, which is great at this time of year, because we’re in it together.
When you’re a teacher and you do things for your students, you don’t always expect thank-yous —and you don’t always get them. But they’ve never needed this support like they needed it this year. You could see they were anxious to begin their exams, but it’s important to focus on something important: We’re giving these kids a chance to finish something. They won’t be able to walk across the stage at graduation. They won’t be able to ask someone to go to prom. So many things have been denied to these students. The fact that we can provide them an opportunity to succeed, that’s what kids need right now. They’re going to enter college, and what they are leaving is a list of unfulfilled promises and open chapters to their lives.
This opportunity could not be taken away from them. So the way we saw it was, let’s close this chapter—and let’s close it damn well.