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Lessons of a Lifelong Learner

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    EL Education

Traditionally, Black History Month is a time to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor Black leaders who significantly changed and influenced America’s history. Just as it is important to honor those who came before us, it is just as necessary to acknowledge and spotlight those who are leaders today. During Black History Month, and throughout the year, we will profile a few of the many Black leaders and EL Education partners who are making waves in education. This blog post is a part of a series and you can read part one here.

"I felt like I was living two lives. There was José who was raised within a traditional Dominican family, deeply rooted in cultural values and Jose who lost the accent over his name, whose name pronunciation had changed and whom I did not recognize."

Jose Rivera , Restorative Practice Coordinator and a PE Teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative

Born in 1984 in New York City at Metropolitan Hospital, my earliest childhood memories were not from New York City, but from the Dominican Republic, where my family is from. My mother was a school teacher and going to school was joyful as a child, my days full of excitement. Classes were interactive and incorporated community values. During group activities we worked in teams, never in competition with each other, but with each other towards a common goal, celebrating each other’s successes.

We moved back to New York City when I was five years old. Immediately, I was shocked at how different my school experience was. My grandmother was living on the Upper West Side and we stayed with her until we were able to get an apartment of our own. My elementary and middle school were also on the Upper West Side, a predominantly white neighborhood. While my mother spoke to me only in Spanish, I learned to speak English in the Dominican Republic and when I began school in New York City I was already bilingual. I tested and was accepted into the Gifted and Talented program and remember starting school late, a quarter into the school year.

I walked into the classroom on my first day and immediately felt lost. No one looked like me. I was one of three minority students in the class and when I spoke, it felt like I was being judged and dissected as opposed to being understood and accepted. I no longer felt seen or heard. ‘Who am I?’ took up more mental space than any other lessons, as I questioned my identity. From an early age and through my academic career, I learned to adapt and conform to my peers, to classroom texts, and to teacher personality and style. Every grade level brought on different challenges as I navigated physiological and psychological changes, however, the question of ‘who am I?’ remained.

I felt like I was living two lives. There was José who was raised within a traditional Dominican family, deeply rooted in cultural values and Jose who lost the accent over his name, whose name pronunciation had changed and whom I did not recognize. That unidentifiable Jose was malleable and eagerly searching for a purpose. As I got older, that purpose took on an identity of competition. I was determined to show my worth despite the ridicule from my peers because of my skin tone, appearance, and ethnicity. My experiences as a child are why I became an educator. As an adult, I channel those memories and lessons into my practice as a Restorative Practice Coordinator and a PE Teacher.

Culturally Responsive Teaching is a Mindset That Matters

Culturally responsive teaching is a mindset; a way of looking at the world. Similar to Restorative Practices, it invokes a level of reflection from all parties: faculty, student body, and the larger community. Educators, practitioners, administrators, and students are not mutually exclusive when it comes to the learning process. We must all be students and teachers within our education ecosystem. It’s this shared experience which impacts the effectiveness of a culturally responsive curriculum in transitioning from “dependent” to “independent” learners.

As we reflect, we must be fully aware of our presentation. Our classroom community is just as important as building strong relationships with our students and families. Teachers are the emotional thermostat and can influence students’ moods and productivity. How we co-regulate with students matters in building trust.

1996 was a big year, my teacher was a huge New York Yankees fan and so was most of the class but this was also the first time the Yankees won the World Series since 1978. Whether it was after a win or a loss, everyday, my grade looked forward to her class because she engaged us with so much energy and connected her ELA curriculum to Yankee history and their current success. Beyond the Yankee connection, her charisma and warmth cultivated a culture of care and compassion. It was one of the first times I felt welcomed and accepted in school after moving from the Dominican Republic.

More often than not, it’s the delivery of a message, not the message itself that has the greatest impact. When students feel safe and connected with their environment, they will be more willing to take on new challenges, be more reflective through their educational journey, and be more accepting of support and feedback. In building a safe and inviting culture, we have to be intentional about our teaching practices and the support given to close the achievement gap.

Teaching to the Whole Child Means You Know Your Students

As educators, in order for us to assess the effectiveness of our curriculum, we must know our students. The settings in which we observe our students matter. Not all strengths and weaknesses will show in the classroom environment. Making a point to also observe students in social settings like recess, the cafeteria, and the hallway. We want to learn about the whole child, not just what they’re capable of in a traditional academic setting. This “external” knowledge supports teachers with reflection for how to connect with students.

When I started coaching basketball, I would observe my players both in their classes and in practice. I started to notice a pattern. When they became frustrated, they would shut down and their ability to retain and absorb information was minimal. I am a firm believer that how you do anything is you do everything. I reflected about how I was running practices and decided to try a new approach. I taught the concept of slowing life down and mastering one skill before moving on to the next. More importantly, I coached and modeled living and accepting the emotional moment of not yet achieving mastery which we defined as emotional intelligence. As the players became more aware of their emotional intelligence, through persistence, intentional thought and action, they achieved mastery through the progression of skills. To end every practice, we would discuss as a team our individual “grows and glows” and the strategies applied to overcome the day.

As the players applied the strategies that worked for them in practice into their studies and classroom setting, the ability to assess their emotional intelligence empowered them to become more reflective and intentional about the type of learner they were. This knowledge and awareness resulted in a greater self-perception and strengthened their intrinsic motivation, resulting in higher grades and a deeper sense of worth and appreciation.

"In the pursuit of building a more culturally responsive curriculum, we must break the wheel of an education system that tends to work in silos."

Jose Rivera , Restorative Practice Coordinator and a PE Teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative

Shifting to a Growth Mindset

Life is not what happens to us but how we respond to it. This is a belief my players bought into and it shifted their learning from having a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. As educators, we should have an idea about which of our students have a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset. A student with a fixed mindset may be less inclined to challenge themselves and collaborate with others than someone with a growth mindset. This is important to note and be mindful of especially when creating pairs or groups for projects because it can be a determining factor in how a student responds to the group and the success of the group overall.

In the pursuit of building a more culturally responsive curriculum, we must break the wheel of an education system that tends to work in silos. Within districts, cities, and states, we must work together on solutions believing that “everyone achieves more” when we work together with a purpose of creating a better education ecosystem. Working collaboratively with non-profit organizations and community based organizations will serve to elevate and supplement school-based curriculum. At Brooklyn Collaborative, our staff works collaboratively with the CBOs our students and families belong to. Often having meetings with their staff members to learn about the students in settings outside of school in strengthening relational trust. As we navigate remote education in 2020-21, applying student interests and likes with tech companies to make connections to content in supporting all learning styles is another collaborative way to collectively achieve more.

Students currently in K-12 are known as Generation Z. They, out of all other generations, have the most exposure to global access through social platforms and the internet. As educators, we must learn to tap into those resources to connect and adapt our curriculum to the ever changing global world and the processing of information. On a micro level, it impacts our students and our immediate communities. As we network and engage with the educational ecosystem of others in different cities, states, countries—learning and growing with one another—we are then achieving global awareness; the optimal form of education. By doing so, we are collectively raising a generation who are critical thinkers, empathetic, and pioneers of the new age.

Jose Rivera is a Restorative Practice Coordinator and a PE Teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative, an NYC Outward Bound School within the EL Education network, since 2007. A graduate of Brooklyn College and co-captain of the basketball team my junior and senior years, Jose is the middle child of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Lebanese descent currently residing in Brooklyn. Jose’s goals are to live in the present moment—mindfully and spiritually and to strive to be a life-long learner reflecting on the teachable moments and intentionally applying those lessons through his journey.

*EL Education is proud to host diverse voices and offer a platform for dialogue on topics impacting educators and students. Views of guest bloggers are their own and may differ from the views of EL Education.