Bronx International High School

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jul 2 14:03:16 UTC 2003

>>From New York Times, July 2, 2003

A Teacher Who Helps the Many Become One


    Suzanna McNamara has backpacked in Patagonia and worked at a Wyoming
hunting camp and aboard a trawler in the Bering Sea. But she has found the
ultimate challenge at a new alternative high school in the Bronx, where
she is teaching English to teenage immigrants. Ms. McNamara is a literacy
teacher at Bronx International High School, a public school for newcomers
to the United States who are learning English for the first time. The
school's 144 ninth- and 10th-grade students come from 30 countries in
Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe and speak 22 different
languages. Most are refugees whose education has been upset by wars,
family upheaval or economic turmoil.

Ms. McNamara, 29, said that a stint tutoring Spanish-speaking inmates in a
New Mexico prison opened her eyes "to the plight of people who are
marginalized by language problems"  and inspired her to pursue her current
career. She joined Bronx International's faculty early last year,
attracted by "the newness and smallness" of the school and by the
challenge of teaching teenagers who are often illiterate in their native
language. "You don't take a job like this knowing it's a piece of cake,"
she said.  "I could have taught on Long Island for a lot more money where
things would be easier. Everybody here has a mountain to climb."

Bronx International is one of four high schools created within Morris High
School, a Gothic revival landmark in the borough's Morrisania section. The
new school opened in 2001 with 75 ninth graders and is adding a grade each
year; it will become a four-year high school with 300 students in 2004.
Morris will be phased out as part of a citywide initiative to transform
large comprehensive high schools into smaller schools intended to raise
academic achievement. Bronx International receives more than $200,000 in
annual grants from private foundations and nonprofit school reform
organizations, and maintains partnerships with the International Rescue
Committee, a New York-based refugee relief organization, and the Bronx
Museum of the Arts. Since there is no template for teaching English to
older students who lack native-language literacy, Ms. McNamara is creating
her own curriculum.

"Students acquire English when they are forced to use it in an authentic
way to fill some kind of information gap," she said. "I start by asking
them to interview their classmates.  Then they write out their replies and
read them to the class: `You're from this country, you're from that
country;  you're this religion, you're that religion.' It's a way to
discover the differences and the connections they share." "Connections,"
in fact, is the unifying theme of her evolving curriculum.  Her classroom,
which doubles as a computer lab, includes brightly colored posters asking:
"Who are the people connected to you?" and "How do connections change us?"
Showing how strangers become friends, she offered her students a true
story from O, Oprah Winfrey's magazine, about Beverly, a white woman from
New Mexico, who was moved to correspond by e-mail with Adelina, a black
woman from South Africa, after reading that Adelina's husband had been
dragged behind a pickup truck and murdered by his white boss. Ms. McNamara
also showed a television segment from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in which
the two women meet.

"What followed," she said, "was rich journal writing and a discussion
about racism, culminating in the students' writing letters to the two
women. Some had never written a letter before." Ms. McNamara knew she had
succeeded when Haja Sidibey, a ninth grader from Sierra Leone who had
often resisted writing, worked before and after school on a letter to
Adelina, which revealed her own father's murder by rebel forces during
Sierra Leone's civil war. "Now we are fine," Haja wrote. "But we always
think of him." Ms. McNamara was raised in suburban Middletown, N.J., by
middle-class parents: her father worked for J. P. Morgan Chase; her mother
is a nurse. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the
University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree from Queens College in
applied linguistics and teaching English as a second language.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, 31, Bronx International's founding principal,
hopes the school's approach to language development will become a national
model. "Our kids come to us with dramatically different levels of English
literacy and academic achievement," he said. The school's goal, he said,
is to prepare all the students "to be independent learners who will
succeed in college." Ms. McNamara teaches three 70-minute classes a day:
two intensive English literacy classes with eight students each and,
paired with another teacher, a math class of 24 students. She tutors
students in phonics three times a week before school and works one-on-one
with students after school. She is part of a team that teaches English,
global studies, science and math courses in which English is spoken,
written and read. She often shadows their classes to identify strategies
that will strengthen her students' achievement in those subjects. Some
days she eats lunch as late as 3 p.m.

Ms. McNamara, who once sold her own ink-and-watercolor sketches as a
street vendor in Brooklyn, helped students create a mural for the school's
fourth-floor corridor with ceramic tiles depicting such themes as
community, family and peace. "It's an opportunity to define our space as a
new school in a building shared by others," she said. Ms. McNamara admits
that creating a new curriculum for her students is "a work in progress."
But she leaves no doubt about her commitment. She is constantly studying
the latest research, taking after-school and weekend courses, and visiting
other schools to gain new insights. "I'm obsessed," she says with a laugh.
"I'm always thinking about school. Everything I watch, everything I read,
I'm, like, wow, I can use that."

Her students are also her teachers, she says. "They've taught me about
their lives, their countries and their dreams. I feel a special connection
to them."

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