This week Fior D’Aliza Rodriguez Quero, who graduated from The Brooklyn International High School in 2005 and from Brooklyn College in 2009, writes about learning English through content and the effect it has had on her life.
Linda Darling-Hammond once said, “A democratic education means that we educate people in a way that ensures they can think independently, that they can use information, knowledge, and technology, among other things, to draw their own conclusions.” I couldn’t think of a better quote to describe the style of educating and learning of the International high schools in New York City and California. As Ms. Darling-Hammond stated in the quote above, democratic education requires that both teachers and students learn; that is, teachers are not the ones who controls what they are teaching, but rather teachers encourage students to think on their own and to use the information around them to question it and keep searching for more. My experience at The Brooklyn International High School (BIHS) can be described as a never-ending one because, even after graduating from high school and going through Brooklyn College, I am still thirsty for knowledge.
I came to New York City at the age of thirteen and with very limited English skills. I was in a bilingual program in eighth grade (English and Spanish). My English did improve, especially in the reading and writing aspects, but not as much as it did when I participated in a summer intense English program at New York City Technical College where I spoke, wrote and read in English for two months, five days a week for about eight hours each day! As challenging and intimidating as it was, I give credit to this program because I improved my English skills tremendously and it made me more confident and prepared to start high school. The reason I mention this program is not only because it is effective but because it exposed to democratic education. My teachers were like guides and mentors who helped me not only to learn English but they were also there for me when I was confused, needed emotional support and encouragement to continue to learn new things everyday. And I can proudly say that I received the same experience with my teachers and peers at The Brooklyn International High School.
One of the wonderful things about the International high schools is the diversity of their students and staff. While I had the chance to learn about history, English, earth science, math, etc, I was also exposed to different cultures and ideas. And it was through this content integration—that is, a mixture of different ideas and information with different people—that I was able to improve my English skills greatly. Moreover, and surprisingly, I have been able to retain my own language while still learning English. Although I have a good foundation in the Spanish language, it also improved through tutoring other peers, practicing it at home, and translating English words/phrases to Spanish and vice-versa. As a result, this transfusion of knowledge and language between teachers and students resulted in empowering students to make independent, healthy and grounded choices for their wellbeing and those around them.
Maintaining a balance between Spanish and English has not necessarily been a conflict, but more like a challenge to always make it work. I graduated from Brooklyn College in December 2009 with a degree in sociology. My goal is to become a teacher and help as many people as I can, as my teachers helped me. I give a great deal of credit to my teachers and professors in college for inspiring me to become a teacher. But, most importantly, I give thanks to them because they believed me and always reminded me of my roots. I was respected because I am bilingual and not discriminated against as happens with many immigrant students.
One of the ways I have been able to maintain my Spanish is through tutoring and teaching. For instance, BIHS gave me the opportunity to teach for a year a group of ninth grade girls, sponsored by the organization called The Girls and Boys Projects. Their curriculum focuses on empowering boys and girls through knowing how to deal with different issues, including sexual harassment, puberty, sex education, health and nutrition, etc. In addition, I became a catechist for the church and I teach third graders about the Catholic church and its beliefs. Hence, it is possible to retain one’s language even while learning another language.
Overall, at BIHS I found a second family and many opportunities to grow personally and in my education. The friendships I formed with my classmates and teachers are still intact today. Furthermore, the internships I was able to do in my junior year opened doors to other amazing experiences and people who have served as mentors throughout the years, such as but not limited to people at City Hall Academy, the Girls and Boys Projects, Smith Barney, Inc, and Sadie Nash Leadership Project and among others. Therefore, learning English at BIHS was an empowering experience that helped me to grow as a person, as a student, and now as a sociologist.