No Longer the 'Strange Girl'
This post is by Ashley N. Morales-Garcia, a 2015 graduate of Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts
As a fifth grader brand new to the United States, I felt...lost. But mostly scared. I hardly knew the basics of the English language. I couldn't understand all the words at school. If I spoke, other students would instantly be able to detect my Puerto Rican accent. I decided to move to the back of the classroom; that way no one would pay attention to the "strange girl." That's how the kids in my fifth grade class referred to me. It was time I sat back and listened. In my opinion, it was the best choice, both for me and for those around me. But eventually things had to change. I couldn't be the "strange girl" in the back of the classroom forever.
I am thankful that for sixth grade I was able to attend a public school that was focused on more than just test scores. I was certainly not going to help any school's test scores. At least not right away. This school, the Springfield Renaissance School, was an Expeditionary Learning school, and it focused on Deeper Learning. That meant that we worked on more skills than a usual school: things like courage, respect, self-discipline, perseverance, and cultural sensitivity. It meant that I had a real place in this school. But that doesn't mean it was easy. The academic work at Renaissance was much harder than other schools in the city, and I was still a girl who didn't speak English.
It was a good thing for me that my school focused together on courage and perseverance. Every day. I had to try ten times harder than those around me because I had a big obstacle in front of me. I used to carry around a notebook where I jotted down every new word I learned throughout the day. I would go home and research what part of speech it was, its definition, its synonyms, and its translation, and re-read it and re-read it until it was engraved in my brain. I expanded my vocabulary little by little. If I had an essay I had to turn in for English class I would write five and six drafts of it. Why? Because I wasn't going to be satisfied with the minimum or the passing grade; I was striving for the best grade. I knew I had to communicate with those around me and ask for help. I had to think critically about what I had done or written and how I could improve it.
The EL model means supporting each other to do more than we think we can. This was very clear to me when my classmates and I went together, as a team, on a school-sponsored Outward Bound trip. For a week, we carried heavy packs in the wilderness. I remember that at the beginning of that week the instructors said that after Wednesday the hike was going to be led by the students. By us. Students who had absolutely no knowledge of the forest or any previous experience hiking. To my surprise the first student leader chosen was... me.
I was so nervous. The entire group was relying on me to lead them to our destination and I had never even hiked a mountain before. That day, as I was leading the group, I got stuck hip-deep in the mud. For 20 minutes. I couldn't move either of my legs and as my teammates were attempting to pull me out, I wanted to give up. I was tired, embarrassed, and felt like I had let down the group. But I couldn't give up. Not when my peers needed me to be strong.
Looking back at the Outward Bound trip now, we laugh at the incident and reflect about the phenomenal experience. We learned to communicate with others, to listen and understand different points of view, to expand our problem solving skills, and to persevere, even when it wasn't pleasant. It was an experience that helped me become the person that I am.
I am thankful that my school was devoted to focusing on things beyond the academic content because it made me who I am today: a successful, deep learner and a student with confidence. By high school, my grades grew to be excellent. Last month, I was honored to be the student speaker at my high school graduation. And, most important, this is not a story of one student's success. Every single student in my senior class graduated on time. Every single student was accepted to college. We did this together. Thanks to the power of teamwork and community, I am no longer the strange girl in the back of the class. I am a young woman with a promising future: ready to continue her journey at The College of Holy Cross this fall.
Photo by Ron Berger