Palo Alto High School's Social Activism Publication

Lara Dumanli

Dear Ms. Cohen

New English teacher Lindsay Cohen hopes to push you outside your bubble

April 18, 2023

Every morning, English teacher Lindsay Cohen opens up her sticker-adorned laptop to the phrase: “Remember your why,” Her “why” is a piece of binder paper, crumpled from being read over and over, stored carefully in her glove compartment for three years.

It’s a heartfelt note from a student at Cohen’s last school, Downtown College Prep.

“This girl had recently called me a not-so-lovely name and was very frustrated by my class and life,” Cohen said.

Soon after, the student wrote Cohen a note apologizing. Cohen said that this note is one of the best things she’s ever received from a student. 

Cohen joined Palo Alto High School’s English department this year, and her under-a-decade career has included teaching in juvenile detention centers and low-income schools. She hopes to bring this array of knowledge, as well as student-teacher connection, to Paly.

Though Cohen has worked with predominantly low-income students, she grew up in an affluent neighborhood. She said that she aims to push Paly students outside of their bubble, something she didn’t experience much growing up.

Cohen’s first experience working with people outside her own “bubble” was in college. She majored in sociology at Notre Dame de Namur University for her undergraduate degree. Throughout college, she worked with imprisoned and recently released teenagers as part of her English class. She interned helping children in a juvenile detention center write personal statements at Hillcrest Juvenile Hall, after which she mentored recently incarcerated teenagers and young adults.

“I don’t think I did anything impactful or different,” Cohen said. “I’m sure most of them don’t even remember me, but I really remember all of the stories that they told me.”

I really enjoy Ms. Cohen’s class because she creates a warm and inclusive environment where everyone can share their ideas

— Abby Wolf

One memory that she said stuck out to her was learning about the precarious situation people on house arrest or parole are in.

“They actually have to pay for supplies for house arrest,” Cohen said. “If it breaks, or something doesn’t work, or your Wi-Fi goes down, that’s on you — you’re going back [to prison].”

Cohen said she and her mentees were roughly the same age — late teens to early 20s. 

“I just remember sitting there and feeling really confused why I was supposed to be mentoring them,” Cohen said.

Though Cohen said she originally planned to pursue a criminology degree, she said working with incarcerated youth made her too sad, so she decided to become a teacher instead.

The first school Cohen worked at was Downtown College Preparatory, a charter high school in San Jose that is predominantly Latino, low-income and first-generation college-student school.

“It was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself,” Cohen said. “I learned about a culture that I never learned [about]. I never knew what quinceañera was.”

Cohen said DCP felt like a family. She said one of her takeaways from DCP was the individualized attention and connection between teachers and students.

She said every junior class at DCP would go on a “junior trip,” where they would visit colleges together. The goal was to increase college matriculation rates, as the college application process is more difficult for first-generation students due to a lack of guidance from parents, according to Cohen. 

At the end of the trip, DCP faculty would write each student a note.

When you grow up in suburbia, in a small neighborhood where everybody looks like you, which is where I grew up, you don’t really realize that there’s things beyond your little bubble that you existed within,

— Lindsay Cohen

“[Students] each get a handwritten letter by a teacher saying, ‘Hey, I know that you are gonna go to college and you’re gonna do great things,’ or ‘I know you’re going to go into trade school and it’s going to be awesome,’” Cohen said. “To have that personalization and that connection between teachers and students, I think, was probably one of the most meaningful things.”

Cohen said she aims to bring that personal teaching style to Paly. Her class engages in project-based learning and peer learning, with minimal lecture time. 

Cohen was nervous to teach at Paly at first, not knowing if she’d be the right fit for Paly students.

“I was really scared to teach here because I’d never worked with students outside of the demographic that I always worked with, which was students who otherwise don’t have the opportunities that I think people in Paly do,” Cohen said.

However, she said she quickly realized she could apply what she’s learned from helping DCP students deal with poverty in order to help Paly students with the, albeit very different, things they struggle with.

“They are struggling with mental health issues [and] pressure from their parents, and so it’s just a different array of issues,” Cohen said.

According to sophomore Abby Wolf, Cohen creates a safe and supportive environment where differences are encouraged, instead of discouraged. 

“I really enjoy Ms. Cohen’s class because she creates a warm and inclusive environment where everyone can share their ideas,” Wolf said. 

Cohen said that, growing up, she didn’t have the same community or the same celebration of differences, like being neurodivergent. She said that, at DCP, she felt like her neurodivergence was embraced and hopes to recreate that accepting environment at Paly. 

“I was a kid who was encompassed in that umbrella [neurodiversity], and I never felt comfortable with the fact that I didn’t learn like an average student,” Cohen said. “And because I was so ashamed of that, I felt like I couldn’t ask for help.”

Cohen intends on teaching a curriculum that depicts an unfamiliar world to Paly students. Her current 10A classes are reading a range of genres and experiences  such as poetry from “Poet X” to historical fiction from “Night.” 

“I tried to pick books —  well, some are of course required — but books that have experiences unlike what we’re living,” Cohen said.  

 She mentioned how she wants to broaden the perspective of her students, to see the world from different perspectives. 

“[It] goes beyond books,” Cohen said. “It’s also through our interactions as people.”

Cohen said she hopes to bring her English students on the same journey she went on.

“When you grow up in suburbia, in a small neighborhood where everybody looks like you, which is where I grew up, you don’t really realize that there’s things beyond your little bubble that you existed within,” Cohen said.

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