Gena Merliss was studying abroad in Kenya in 1996 when a package arrived. In it was a hand decorated acceptance letter to become a Teaching Fellow at Summerbridge Germantown. Summerbridge had only been founded one year earlier, and it would be a number of years before it was rebranded as Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia. Gena did not really know that, but one thing she did know: “It was going to be a bunch of people who are really fun and really excited to be there.”
Summerbridge wasn’t the first experience Gena had of teaching. She first decided on the education path after volunteering in an afterschool program in Chester County. But Summerbridge made her believe in the power of education. At Chester County, she worked with a kid who brought his homework. “It was rote memorization. He had zero interest in it. He was so fast at it and it was a complete waste of his time. I just sat and watched him.”
Summerbridge was different. “The experiences that the kids had were so different from what that kid was having in his school experience. But I felt like this is totally doable. So why are people doing this worksheet based garbage that isn’t engaging kids?” Even more importantly, Summerbridge gave Gena some tools to engage them. Gena learned about the amount of planning that goes into teaching, spending hours every night with the other Teaching Fellows, planning classes, throwing out her expectations of teaching all of evolution over one summer.
One project still stands out to Gena today, when she was teaching the students how animals adapt to their environment. “I had them create their own animal, and they had to choose what environment it lived in, and build paper mache animals, and then they had to describe why they were adapted to that environment: what their legs were like, what their eyes were like, what their skin was like and more.” As the kids were working, building and talking about their animals, Gena’s mentor walked in. The mentor was at first taken aback, Gena remembers that he at first thought everything was out of control, but then he realized it was controlled chaos.
And of course, there are some kids that you just can’t forget: “Kevin rarely sat down. He was one of those kids who had so much energy and was very lovely, but it was often expressed in a way that was distracting to others, so I needed to manage him. One day he escaped during lunch time. I suddenly walked into my classroom and there he was sitting in front of the fan, singing to himself with the fan distorting his voice. I think it was like the most adorable, funny thing. He was fully entertained and he was fully naughty. I hadn't even know he was missing!”
When Gena left Summerbridge, she felt like she had some skills as a teacher, but it was still mostly improvisation. So right after graduating college she entered the University of Pennsylvania’s Master’s of Education program, which also allowed her more experience inside a real school.
In the twenty-five years since she left Summerbridge, she has been a founding science teacher at the Boston Evening Academy and a teacher at the Parker Charter School in Massachusetts. She felt drawn to the school reform of the late 1990s, focusing on having students think deeply and interdisciplinary work. Places where teachers reflected about their work. Places like Summerbridge. She then moved to teaching teachers. Today, Gena is a PhD candidate and Adjunct faculty in Education at the University of Rochester.