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

Taking care among glow sticks

Glow stick photoA school is a place where people interact.  It’s easy to rush ahead and think these interactions don’t matter.  After reading about the staff and students in Parkland, Florida, I was reminded of how much of an impact people can make in each other’s lives.  I experienced this impact as I supervised a school dance yesterday.

The student government had planned the dance with a “Glow in the Dark” theme and bought hundreds of plastic glow sticks that students could wear like necklaces or bracelets.  However, nothing was glowing, and not many kids were dancing.  It was still daylight and sunlight was streaming through the large gym windows.  My assistant principal gave a pep talk to the demoralized student government so they could get past their disappointment.  It worked.   Continue reading

Permission to be excited

Education NYC - Julie NarimanI walked into a 9th grade art class the other day simply because it looked beautiful.  Little tangles of red, teal, yellow, orange, and blue fibers covered each table and the students were gluing the fibers to paper to create a design.  I asked one group of students who looked particularly engaged, “Are you enjoying this project?”

The students looked at each other, and seemed about to express enthusiasm—and then one girl shrugged.  Following her, the others shrugged as well.  They went back to work, fully engrossed—but not able to admit it.  The girl who first shrugged seemed mesmerized by a teal fiber, pulling it out as if she had big plans for it.
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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

That’s my butterfly

20170110_201435.jpg“That’s my butterfly!”  

Marcus pointed to a butterfly drawing, part of an elaborate book project displayed in the 9th grade hallway.

Marcus is a 9th grader with a semi-permanent frown who had recently been suspended for fighting.  He’s originally from Honduras, has lived in New York for two years, and is self-conscious about his English– too self-conscious to notice that his English is far better than most of his classmates.*  He gives the impression, “I’m a loner– don’t mess with me.”     Continue reading

Can’t you just let him stay?

185203592_32bb941599_zUsman is an adorable 10th grader originally from Pakistan, smaller than the other kids.  He has huge eyes, straight bangs, and a lopsided smile, and whenever he sees me, he waves and says, “Hi Principal!”  He also has an older brother, Saad, in 11th grade who now barely attends school, and is inches away from becoming a Code 39.

A “Code 39” is the code schools use for a dropout.  Back in the first two years of our school’s existence, I remember when Code 39 wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.  Now, we have more Code 39s than we’d like.  We’ve started to watch for early signs of Code 39s, as in the case of Usman at our after-school Thanksgiving Potluck.   Continue reading