from the neighborhood

Addressing immigrant parents, Sotomayor channels her mother

Justice Sonia Sotomayor leaves the stage to answer parents' questions.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor left the stage to answer parents’ questions after speaking at the Department of Education’s

To make sure that all attendees of the city’s annual conference for families of English language learners today could go home with an autographed copy of her book, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor signed 3,000 copies of her book in two days.

She was able to write the book, she told parents at the conference, because her mother – who didn’t speak English — taught her to value words. “My mother loved reading. Seeing her read inspired my brother and me to read,” Sotomayor said in her speech.

The Department of Education’s annual conference is designed to help immigrant families navigate the city’s education system and support their children’s learning at home. Sotomayor’s address, as well as the workshops that followed, was translated into nine languages, just a fraction of the 180 languages spoken by students in the city’s public schools.

Mirza Flore, who immigrated to the United States eight months ago and speaks only Spanish, said the hardest part of navigating the city’s schools is helping her son with homework in a language she doesn’t speak. He attends P.S. 104 in Far Rockaway.

Flore said she used to tell her son “not now” when he tried to talk to her as she cooked dinner. But after attending the conference, she said, she would use the time to supervise homework or ask her son to teach her something he learned during the day, one of many specific strategies Sotomayor suggested in her speech.

The Department of Education’s Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners, which runs the conference each year in collaboration with other divisions of the department, invited Sotomayor to give the keynote. “Education is a difficult system to navigate if you don’t speak English,” said David Pena, a department spokesman. “[Sotomayor] has a perfect story for what we’re trying to do today.”

In her speech, Sotomayor went beyond platitudes about reading and writing. Parents who immigrate to the United States sometimes don’t know what their children should read, Sotomayor said, recalling what it felt like in college not to have read the books her peers grew up with.

As an undergraduate, she said, she once tried to explain to a friend how out of place she sometimes felt at Princeton. The friend said “You must feel like Alice in Wonderland,” and Sotomayor responded, “Alice who?”

“I bet half the audience probably hasn’t read Alice in Wonderland,” she said today. She suggested that parents ask librarians what their children should read, or schedule a meeting with their children’s’ teachers to discuss reading choices. “Like my mother, you may not know what kids your books should be reading. But you can help them find out,” Sotomayor said.

To get kids writing, she said, “Write notes to your children. Ask them to leave you notes about what they plan to do.”

Flora Yala, a parent at P.S./M.S. 218, said she came to the conference to learn more about resources available for her children and others at their school. “Sometimes things get lost through word-of-mouth,” she said in Spanish. “We want to hear it directly.”

Many parents said they heard about the event, which took place at the Javits Center in Manhattan, from the parent coordinators or social workers at their children’s schools. Some came in groups after dropping their children off at school, then left the conference in time for dismissal.

“Many times you listen, listen, and you end up wanting to know more,” said Nadia Reyes, another parent at P.S./M.S. 218. Yala and Reyes are part of a group of parents from District 9 in the Bronx who made t-shirts especially for the event. They gave one to Sotomayor when she stepped off the stage and, trailed by Secret Service agents, answered questions directly from parents.

When a parent asked why there weren’t more educational resources available for the Haitian community, Sotomayor emphasized the role parents can play in shaping education policy. “Organize your community. … Go beat down the door of that lovely chancellor,” she said, “The success of your community is how loud its voice can be.”

Sotomayor tied the practical advice in her talk back to her experience in the Bronx — an experience many parents said sounded very familiar — to her experience as a Supreme Court justice, which by definition isn’t one to which may people can relate.

“Nobody actually teaches you how to be a parent,” she said. “Justice [John Paul] Stevens once said to me when I was insecure about being a justice, ‘Sonia, nobody’s born a justice.’ Well, no one is born a mother or father.”

Parents said Sotomayor’s story about the impact her mother made on her life’s trajectory would stick with them.

“She was poor,” said Rosalie Mendez, the PTA president at P.S. 253 in Queens. “It surprised me all her mother was able to do for her.”


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”