PLACE Corps Teacher’s Middle School Students “Can’t Put Their Book Down”


In Ariel Hackney’s English language arts classroom at Nativity School in South Los Angeles, students have fallen in love with books.

John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, part of a unit on the Holocaust, is a favorite of Hackney’s seventh graders. In eighth grade the curriculum includes The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “At first the students say, ‘We can’t read Shakespeare!’ and by the end I can give them a passage and they understand it,” Hackney says.

Hackney is in her second year of LMU’s Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education (PLACE) Corps. Members of the program, which is housed in SOE’s Center for Catholic Education, earn a master’s degree and teaching credential while serving as full-time teachers in primarily under-resourced Catholic schools in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino. During their two-year commitment, PLACE Corps members live with one another while exploring and strengthening shared values and spirituality, including their commitment to social justice.

Growing up, Hackney loved nothing more than to read. After starting as a pre-med student at California State University, Long Beach, she switched her major to literature and was beginning to apply to graduate schools when a friend who had gone through PLACE urged her to consider the program. Though she hadn’t realized it at the time, Hackney was herself taught by PLACE Corps teachers at St. Monica Catholic High School in Santa Monica, California. Then as an undergraduate, she worked as an aide to a PLACE Corps teacher at St. Monica Catholic Elementary School.

Today, Hackney is living with five other PLACE Corps teachers in a large converted convent in Compton, California. “It’s interesting to be put in a community with people you don’t know who come from different backgrounds,” Hackney says. “It’s a lesson in patience, communication and problem-solving.”

At the same time that Hackney was learning the ropes as a teacher at Nativity School, she was getting to know her housemates. “The first year of teaching is very challenging,” she says. “It is so beneficial to have the support of people who understand what you’re going through.”

Now, as a second-year PLACE Corps teacher, Hackney offers advice to first-year members, from how to find grant funding to assurances that an uncomfortable encounter they had with a parent happens to every teacher and is nothing to fret about. She and her housemates schedule community time — evenings of eating dinner together, bonding over a game of Scrabble or a movie, and discussing everything from their experiences in the classroom to their spiritual journey.

“I don’t know anyone who says PLACE Corps is easy,” Hackney says. “You’re responsible for all of these little bodies in your classroom, for your academics, for your community, and for your spirituality. It’s rigorous and it tries you in many ways, but I am very grateful to have had this experience.”

At Nativity School, 92 percent of the students live at or below poverty level and the majority are English Language Learners. “I transitioned to an entirely novel-based curriculum this year, because I just wanted them to read books,” Hackney says. “Most had never seen the value of reading, and now I have parents coming up and telling me their kid can’t put their book down. Getting these kids excited about reading has been extremely rewarding.”