A Hidden Gem

Today I subbed for a 5th grade class at a small school nestled in a low-income neighborhood on the south east part of town. Stray dogs wandered the streets as I pulled into the parking lot. There were no painted murals of mascots on the gray, cement walls. The wood frames around the doors were covered with many layers of dark red industrial paint. Faded yellow lines marked where students were supposed to walk down the dark halls. Not a very inspiring atmosphere.

I have subbed for this school many times before. The students are 90% Hispanic. Many of their parents only speak Spanish. Students from these families must learn to communicate with their parents in Spanish and master English at school. Fortunately, many, but not all, of the teachers are bilingual. It is a small school with an average of three classes per grade. I have found that there are many dedicated, resourceful educators here. Today I got to sub for one of them.

Her name is Ms. Sanchez. (name changed) She was still in the classroom when I walked in. She was a spry woman in her forties, dressed in a crisp white shirt, slacks and heeled espadrilles. She exuded a no-nonsense, yet enthusiastic, air. She quickly went over the day’s program with me. Then she was off to chaperone a field trip with the gifted students to the Bakersfield Museum of Art. She told me she would be back by 1:00 pm—in time to pass out awards to her students at an assembly for parents in the school cafeteria.

Our first assignment was for the students to get on their computers (known as “chrome books”) and research the cuisine and etiquette of people in Uganda and Zambia. The students each had a graphic organizer which consisted of circles arranged in rows, in which they wrote the manners of people in both countries, drawing lines to connect manners that were the same. Students also filled out circles with the different foods the people ate, and connected circles in which the foods were the same. As I walked around the room, silent except for the clicking sound of fingers tapping on computer keys, I saw that students were reading various sites on their chrome books about the countries and filling out their graphic organizers with various answers.

No two papers were alike. Some organizers read “Uganda and Zambia: Men call the shots, eat healthy, vegetables, don’t talk a lot, mother cooks, father works, boys become men at age 7 and live with fathers.” Fascinating stuff.

The students were engrossed for 50 whole minutes. I realized that Ms. Sanchez had to teach them beforehand how to find the best sites about the countries, how to glean pertinent information from them, and how to write in an organized fashion. I realized that Ms. Sanchez was going to have to read and grade all these papers. A time-consuming task.

First, I was struck with how unique this assignment was. Had these students ever heard of these countries before? How much do any average Americans know about these countries? I sure didn’t know much about them! And I have a college education. Then the students were supposed to learn about the peoples’ cuisine and etiquette. Why these aspects? I thought. Perhaps Ms. Sanchez chose these subjects as things her students could most relate to. Food is a familiar subject—many of these students eagerly await their daily snacks of vegetables and fruits provided by the school, such as carrots sprinkled with “Tahini”–a mixture of chile and paprika and lime that adds a piquant flavor to the crunchy vegetable. For many, they get most of their daily nutrition at school: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch and after-school snack. Food is often on their minds. Learning what people in Uganda and Zambia ate was something important. They, too, also wished to have full stomachs. As for etiquette, it is very interesting to learn how different peoples treat each other in day-to-day activities. Her students could compare how boys are treated in their Hispanic families with the way boys are raised by the fathers in Zambia after they reach the age of seven. Similar, or different? Much more vital to these students than, say, the gross national product.

After lunch was another assignment in which the students wrote about a Civil War battle. “When we started the year, I asked my students what the Civil War was–and none of them knew,” Ms. Sanchez shared with me. These are students in fifth grade! She had assigned each students a different battle to research and write about and make a slide presentation to share with the class. They had to tell the dates of the battle, the generals from both sides, what the number of casualties were, and why the battle was important to the outcome of the war.

As I circulated around the room, once again silent except for the tapping of fingers on computer keys, I saw students deep in thought, trying to get the information written, and also finding marvelous images for their slides of Confederate and American flags, battle photos and paintings, pictures of the types of guns used, and images of the generals. I could tell the students were especially invested in their end product, as they would be presenting their slides to the rest of the class.

Once again, no two slide shows were alike. The assignments allowed for a lot of personal discretion, yet also had very specific requirements that were not too difficult to meet. It dawned on me that once the students shared their slide shows, they would learn from each other the vital aspects of all the Civil War battles in a very engaging way. Wow. I wish I had had that kind of exposure to the history of that war that is such an important, vital part of our country’s history!

When Ms. Sanchez came back from her field trip, we sat next to each other at the awards assembly, I had a chance to tell her how wonderful I thought it was that she was teaching her students about the Civil War.

“They have stopped teaching history,” lamented Ms. Sanchez to me. “We have to spend two hours a day on language arts, and two hours a day on math. But I have always loved history and I love writing. So I combine the two. When we started the year, I asked my students who were our presidents. The only ones they could tell me were Obama and Trump,” Ms. Sanchez confided.

I remembered seeing that arranged around the top of her classroom walls were color posters of all the presidents. I noticed under each portrait was a stapled typed essay about that president. “I have each student research and write about a different president and share their findings,” she said.

What an inspiring gem of a teacher! At this tiny, impoverished school, armed with nothing more than paper and pencils and the modern god-send of the personal computer, this teacher is filling her students with historical knowledge—not to mention the ability to organize and express their thoughts. This teacher gets no recognition for the work she does, other than a note of gratitude from me, and the gratitude—much of it probably unexpressed—from her students and parents. And the personal knowledge that she is enriching her students’ lives.

“I often call my daughter, who is in college, and share with her different essays my students have written over the phone, ” Ms. Sanchez told me in parting, her dark brown eyes glowing with excitement and pleasure. “They are constantly amazing me. I don’t expect them to be perfect writers—spelling, punctuation and grammar come with practice. But they are always coming up with such profound observations.”

Then Ms. Sanchez went up to the microphone to recognize her students who had excelled this trimester. She made the announcements, first in English, then in Spanish. Parents—many of them with tired faces, dark from hours spent in the sun picking produce in the fields, pushing baby buggies with younger siblings– clapped and took photos of their students, who were holding up their hard-won certificates for “Most improved in reading,”  Most improved in math,” or “Most improved in behavior.” There was a feeling of pride and accomplishment that swelled in that small cafeteria that day. And I was privileged to witness it.

Thank you, Ms. Sanchez!