First Person

Voices: What you learn from sixth-graders

Just in time for this week’s final Rockies game, literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson learns a valuable lesson from her students about something not tested on the state’s annual exams.

On the third Friday of this school year, I learned more than I taught.

Greeting my students at the door of Room 214 that morning, I took a deep breath and mentally whispered my daily affirmation: “Help me create and support lifelong readers, writers and thinkers.”

Then I launched into the day’s lesson.

A colleague had emailed our staff earlier in the week, offering a free batch of Colorado Rockies tickets for the Saturday night game. I snagged a handful, thinking my students could vote on the best reading response of the week and award the author with a pair of tickets.

I had already talked about the joys and rewards of learning. My students didn’t expect external rewards for doing their job as sixth-grade scholars, but the tickets did create an added element of enthusiasm and motivation.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking of Evan. Soft-spoken, attentive and compassionate, he is able to maintain both popularity and kindness in sixth-grade social circles. No easy task.

Motivating a young Rockies fan

Within minutes of meeting Evan, any stranger can identify his passion. Evan is a die-hard Colorado Rockies fan. He knows the players, he knows the game, he’s already carrying the 2013 schedule in his pocket, and on most days he can be seen wearing purple and black. He talks about the disappointing losses and the amazing catches and pitches with a light in his eyes that’s contagious.

Baseball is not something I care or think much about. But I can’t help but “talk baseball” with Evan, because I know that if I let him talk about the Rockies, he will happily engage in any literacy learning or curveball questions I throw at him.

So secretly, I was hoping Evan’s response would win. When the timer sounded and the work was reviewed, a pile of six remained for the class vote. Evan’s was not in the stack.

During the reading and vetting of the six contending responses, Evan sat on the edge of his seat. I think he knew he wasn’t going to win the tickets, but he was desperate to provide pointers about everything related to Coors Field and the team to the lucky recipient.

After calculating votes, I noted proudly that my students had selected the strongest response in the stack. Filled with textual evidence and grounded interpretations, the author had painstakingly and thoroughly answered the question. It was a worthy winner.

When goodness prevails

I brandished the pair of tickets and exclaimed, “Congratulations Josh, you’re going to the Rockies game!”

Josh grinned mischievously. Snatching the tickets from my hand, he held them high, crossed the length of the classroom, and announced proudly, “No … Evan’s going to the Rockies game!”

The room gasped and burst into applause. Shocked and speechless, Evan fought back tears of joy, confusion and gratitude. Josh returned to his seat, looking like he had just hit a home run. Which of course, he had.

For the rest of the school year and years to come, I will remember this moment – a spontaneous lesson of unbridled generosity. It isn’t standards-based and it won’t help students on the state assessment. But it is a lesson worth remembering and sharing. A lesson I hope they never forget.

Since that Friday, I’ve changed my daily affirmation. I still want my students to be lifelong readers, writers and thinkers. But more importantly, I want them to be better human beings as a result of the time they spend in Room 214.

Students’ names have been changed.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.