Call Him Ishmael

This article is written by Nancy S. Dunetz, a mentor for Internationals Network for Public Schools and a founding faculty member of the International High School at LaGuardia Community College, about Ishmael Kamara a former student of Bronx International High School and a 2nd year I-START member who is now teaching US History at his alma mater.

az29d59uCall him Ishmael. Ishmael Kamara, exiled from his native Sierra Leone at the age of 11 during the civil war, spent his late childhood in Guinea without attending school. This did not disturb him, as his great-grandmother was his role model. She was a successful businesswoman with no education. Her several businesses included a refrigeration company, a clothing boutique, a gas station and a diamond mine where she employed seventy men. She also drove a car. Although his great grandmother wished for him to be educated, the message of her life was that one did not need to be literate or educated in order to be successful.

This all changed when his great-grandmother was murdered during the civil war. Education became his focus.

Ishmael came to the United States at the age of 14, and spent a half year in middle school. He reports that he didn’t feel safe in that school. There was no sense of community the way we have at Internationals. “Whenever I would open my mouth students would laugh. As a result, I went to school for six hours a day and didn’t say a thing. I was alone in the cafeteria. I didn’t want this experience to repeat in high school.”

gg8k6wzzIshmael was denied admission to his first choice of a high school because he didn’t know enough English. At the IRC (International Rescue Committee) he met two representatives of the soon-to-be-opened Bronx International High School. He chose Bronx International High School because it promised a small, safe environment “with people like me”.

When Ishmael entered Bronx International he had no experience with collaboration and heterogeneity. He remembered education in Sierra Leone as being competitive. He found it frustrating that the collaborative model didn’t allow for competition. He was always made group leader, and resented it. Teachers began taking off points from his grades because he wouldn’t collaborate. Then in 10th grade he started asking, “Why do you always make me group leader? It’s not fair.” One teacher explained that every student in the group is at a different level. Because Ishmael was the most advanced, he was expected to support other students. At the same time, he was expected to learn culturally from the other students. Gradually he came to see that he didn’t really understand the content until he had to explain it to someone else. “By the third student, I understood.” By the time he graduated as part of Bronx International’s first graduating class, he was a big fan of collaboration.

tuvitllqThe collaborative experience led Ishmael to enroll in extra curricular activities at Bronx International. He joined Global Action Project and worked on a video documentary with 12 youths who had experienced war in Europe and Africa. They made videos about their own stories, then presented them at other high schools. In 11th grade he began tutoring after school, and became passionate about it.

He went on to graduate from SUNY College at Oneonta in three years, studying adolescent social studies education. The history courses required coming to class, taking a test and writing a paper. The only collaborative experiences he had were in education classes. There, the teachers put students in groups without considering the makeup of the group. Ishmael found himself in the role of organizer – the one who brought the group together – as the only one experienced in collaborative learning.

Ishmael didn’t always aspire to be a teacher. As a child he expected to follow in his great grandmother’s footsteps and be a business man with no education. As a 9th and 10th grader he fantasized about being a corporate lawyer or, as a result of his participation in Global Action Project, an actor. These he viewed as ways to become rich. As he matured and became more focused and more experienced, he realized that education was his calling. Now, as a teacher at Bronx International, he enjoys collaborating with his colleagues because it broadens his views and enriches his classroom activities.

69hgfa09Ishmael’s life incarnates many of the qualities of both Ishmael of the Bible and the Ishmael of Moby Dick – exiled, alienated, being a leader. It is clear that Internationals has been a huge support in this development, enabling him to explore and achieve, and yes, collaborate.

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