45 minutes of home



Self-portrait created by a student at the High School of Language and Innovation.

“I don’t like social studies class,” Michael told me.  Michael is a 9th-grade student from the Dominican Republic.  “The kids at my table speak Arabic too much.”

Looking in on a class in my school, you’ll see groups of students composed of different cultures sitting together.  Our school is for English Language Learners from all over the world. Complaints and situations like Michael’s are common, especially in 9th grade when many of the students are recent arrivals to the country meeting different cultures for the first time.  We purposefully group students of different cultures together to promote the use of English, which can be tough at first as students are learning the language.

The cafeteria is a different story from the classroom.  Kids choose where they sit and they are drawn magnetically to their own cultures.  As I walk around, I see the Bangladeshi boy table, the Bangladeshi girl table, the 9th-grade Dominican table, the 10th-grade Dominican table, the Albanian table, the Yemeni boy table, the Yemeni girl table, the African table, the Central American table, etc.

Two Cultures

Our students live in two cultures, and neither culture is mainstream American: there’s the culture of their family and most of their friends, and then there’s the culture of our school, comprised of students from all over the world.

I recently read the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  Author Beverly Daniel Tatum explained that teenagers are not only learning how to be adults but are also learning how to be adults within their own cultures.  How does a 15-year old Dominican boy learn how to be a Dominican man?  From his perspective, he learns from other Dominican kids—not from Bangladeshi or Chinese kids.   

Last year, we started doing cultural celebrations in which students produced a schoolwide assembly around the history, music, dress, and values of their own cultures.  We had Latin America, Africa United (our students come from many countries in Africa), Bangladesh, Yemen, and Albania, among others.  The assemblies did a lot to create community and respect among the cultures.  And over time, we do see students bonding more within classrooms across cultures.  But the cafeteria still remains the same: students love to sit with friends from their own cultures.

White Noise of American Culture

This past week, there was a nationwide student walkout around the Parkland, Florida school shooting.  The walkout highlighted to me how immersed my students are in their own cultures as recent newcomers to the country.   I work on a campus of five schools, and my school is the only school especially for newcomer English Language Learners.  Hundreds of students from the four other campus schools mobilized for the walkout in an organized fashion.  In contrast, about 50 of my school’s 375 students participated.  Most of our students appeared to be only vaguely aware of it.

The walkout began at 10:00 a.m. when my students eat lunch (we call it “brunch”).  Near the end of the walkout, a student ran up to me to ask about joining “the protest.”   He is an outgoing student who arrived about two years ago from Yemen.

“Well,” I said, “The walkout began at 10:00 and it’s almost over now.”

“Oh,” he said.  I sensed his disappointment, but only for a moment.

“Did you want to walkout?” I asked.

He considered my question.

“No,” he replied, suddenly cheerful, and ran back to his friends and his tray of chicken nuggets.

He heard about the walkout and had a vague idea of what it was about, but neither he nor his friends had fully absorbed it enough to participate.  It’s not that he or the other students didn’t care. It’s that he is still surrounded by his own culture and much of mainstream American news and social media is “white noise” to him.

And—in my school, students like lunch.  To our students, lunch is more than chicken nuggets and apples.  It’s friends.  It’s home.  The students who participated in the walkout got to eat a quick lunch afterwards, but it wasn’t the full 45 minutes of socialization that is so precious to them.

A taste of home

A friend who works at a large bank told me a story.  He has a colleague who is Taiwanese and they always exchange friendly conversation.  One day, my friend saw his Taiwanese colleague in the staff cafeteria eating with a group of Taiwanese people from different departments.  My friend had never guessed that when his colleague left for lunch, he was eating with people from his own culture, experiencing an hour of “home.”

From that story, I saw that yet again that our students are not unique in wanting to eat together.  Many of our students are homesick.  They miss family members, not to mention the foods, smells, music, jokes, news from their home country.   On the surface, our cafeteria is a loud, typical high school cafeteria full of energetic teenagers, but below the surface, it’s 45 minutes of home.

The names and identifying features of students have been changed.  





Being the “right” school

Subway imge

In 2005, I started working at a transfer high school for students ages 17-21 who needed to catch up academically. All of the students who attended the school came from regular New York City High Schools and had transferred to the school looking for another opportunity. I fell in love with the population and was inspired by how a new setting could create a second chance at success.

Five years later, I decided to submit a proposal for a transfer school through New York City’s Office of New Schools.

“Actually,” I was told by the office, “We don’t need any more transfer schools. We need regular schools. Why don’t you just open a regular high school that does such a good job, kids don’t need to go to transfer schools?”

Continue reading

Stiven’s precious point


Our school is a school for newcomer immigrant students who are learning English for the first time. Lots of students struggle at the beginning, and passing state exams can be daunting. Despite hard work, many students fail exams the first time.

On top of all of that, they are teenagers, and sometimes they fail because they’re distracted and despite our best efforts, take longer to be fully engaged in school. This was the case for one of our students, Stiven.

Continue reading

Silence through cell phones

cell-phone-hand.jpgI cannot imagine a quiet high school cafeteria. Our cafeteria is noisy and chatty. We’ve managed to (generally) keep kids in their cafeteria seats, but we do not even attempt to contain their enthusiasm, their loud conversations, laughter, exuberant calls to each other, the release of seeing each other socially for 45 minutes a day.

Yet a teacher at another NYC public high school told me that a couple of years ago, their cafeteria became quiet. Suddenly. Why? Continue reading

The hunger to serve

Martin Luther King Jr. QuotesKids—and people in general—have a hunger to be of service.  I’m reminded of this hunger on Martin Luther King, Jr Day.

I saw this hunger recently when I peered into a classroom at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. It was almost an hour after school had ended when I would expect kids to be out eating pizza, or on their way home to play video games, or buried in SnapChat.

And yet, fifteen of our 12th graders were clustered around tables discussing a piece of text. Continue reading

I’ll give you my right arm

wp-1486921143207.jpgAwa sobbed in our office.  “Can’t you just let me try?” she pleaded.

Awa, an 11th grader who came from Senegal in 9th grade, was begging to take the New York State English Regents exam in January.  We told her she’d take it in June when she had completed the coursework for the exam.  She left in tears.  

When I started our school in 2011,* I thought that the experience of taking a state exam was so valuable that it was worth letting a student try, even if they weren’t 100% prepared.   Continue reading