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You probably haven’t heard of Jennifer Morris.
She’s an English Language Learner teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in Philadelphia.
But to her students from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Honduras, and Colombia, she is a hero.
When Morris noticed that some of her immigrant students weren’t as engaged, she felt a need to add more Latino culture to her classroom.
That’s why she helped bring Hispanic Heritage Month to her school.
Becoming an ELL Teacher
Morris has always wanted to make a difference in her classroom. Her aspirations to become a teacher began early.
“From as long as I can remember, I was always playing school at home. I would beg my mom to go out to buy my sister prizes so I could teach her how to do certain math lessons,” Morris said.
Having a teacher as a role model made an important difference.
“I had a really great fifth grade teacher who really paid a lot of attention to me,” Morris said. “She always sent home my mom positive notes. And then at that point, I knew for sure that I wanted to be a teacher.”
Morris got her first experience in the classroom when shadowing her mother.
“My mom was a teacher’s aide. In my senior year of high school, you’re able to do a work study program where you could volunteer in the career path of your choice. I was able to actually work with my mom, when she was a teacher’s aide in kindergarten and get some experience there,” Morris said.
She sought out a degree from Michigan State University, where she completed a five-year teaching program.
After finishing her undergrad, Morris found an interest in teaching English Language Learners (ELL) in Beijing, China.
“When I finished at Michigan State, I actually moved to China for a year, so that was my first experience teaching English language learners,” Morris said. “It was a dual immersion program in Beijing. And basically, the students had a half a day in Chinese and a half a day in English.”
Morris returned from Beijing to the Philadelphia area in 2009 and began teaching kindergarten.
“I taught kindergarten for several years, first grade, third and fourth, and then I moved into the position that I’m in now four years ago. And then in December, I just finished with a master’s in urban education, and urban leadership with a principal certification from Temple University,” Morris said.
Now, Morris is the head of the ELL department and the ELL point person at Bethune Elementary.
Challenges of Teaching ELL
Morris has now taught at Bethune Elementary for several years. But, despite her experience, teaching ELL is not always easy.
One of the main challenges comes from developing relationships with students and families from predominately Latin American countries, as Morris herself does not speak Spanish.
“Sometimes it is really, really hard to develop the relationships with the families right away. For the most part, I keep my students from year to year, so that really helps. But it doesn’t necessarily develop as quickly, just because I don’t speak Spanish. I have to use sometimes a bilingual counselor or an interpretation service to talk to families, and it does hinder the relationship a little bit.”
Her students are predominately Latino and come from several different countries.
“All my students speak Spanish minus one. We have a lot of students from Puerto Rico, Honduras, Mexico, and Colombia,” Morris said.
Morris said building trust with her students’ families helps to make them feel more welcome in the community. Trust is difficult to achieve in a society where Latinos and immigrants often face racism, discrimination, and bias.
“It does just take longer to build trust with families and because they sometimes feel like outsiders coming into the school, you want to make sure that they feel comfortable,” Morris said. “You have to really, really go out of your way to make sure that that comfort level is there, that trust is there, and really build up a strong relationship because the parents are so powerful, can really make a difference with everything.”
Morris wishes that she could spend more time with her students, but like many teachers, she’s spread too thin.
“I’d also say, since I always teach five, six, sometimes more grades, I just think that I’m stretched very thin. And a lot of my students just need more time. It would be great if I could spend the whole day with them in their regular classrooms. But it’s just not the way that the Philadelphia school district has set things up,” Morris said.
Since COVID-19 started in March 2020, Bethune Elementary has been completely online. This has brought a few new hardships.
“Obviously, it’s a huge challenge with English language learners, especially new immigrant students. Some of the students and their families have never used a computer before,” Morris said. “The digital divide has never been so apparent. And the language barrier and to teach students online is very, very, very challenging.”
Morris is seeing her students make progress. She said she is proud of their dedication.
“My students are showing up every day and have good attendance. I’ve seen a ton of progress, even to my students who aren’t new to the country or maybe came in March and were not online as much,” Morris said. “So somehow, we made it through the first few weeks [of online learning], and now we’re in a routine and it is better. But those first few weeks it was it was difficult.”
The Need for Cultural Representation
Morris noticed the need for incorporating more culture into her curriculum after seeing how her students reacted to hearing the morning announcements in Spanish.
“I was talking to my principal, and she was like, ‘Oh, I think we need to start doing the announcements in Spanish.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely, I think that’s a great idea,’” Morris said. “I had one of my middle schoolers begin taking it over. And immediately she was like, ‘Okay, I have the pledge allegiance in Spanish, I have all these different types of facts I’m going to talk about,’ and she just made it into her own lane. She was so passionate about it and excited. I seriously only mentioned it to her for like 30 seconds, and she was ready to go with it.”
When her middle school student began reading the announcements in Spanish, the ELL students were amazed.
“They said this was the best school they’ve ever been to. They said that they were going to transfer out of the school until they heard this, and their faces are all just this look of surprise. I realized that we really needed to do more than what we were doing,” Morris said.
Morris felt that her school could focus more on cultural representation for Latino students.
“Look at all the research that’s recently come out just about how representation really matters. Our student population is about 20% Hispanic, and 80% African American. And we’ve done a lot of work on recruiting African American teachers. However, we hadn’t done as much work with our Hispanic students,” Morris said.
Students who had immigrated often struggled the most, Morris noticed.
“I realized that when we had our new immigrant students, there were sometimes days when they would sit in a full class for two hours and sit in silence and never talk to anyone,” Morris said. “I knew that we needed to do more work, so the students felt valued and that the teachers would start to value those students more and pay attention to them more.”
That’s why last year, Morris crafted a plan for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Planning Bethune’s Hispanic Heritage Month
Planning for Hispanic Heritage Month was difficult because of how the timing aligned with the school year.
“Hispanic Heritage Month is from September 15th to October 15th, and our school year normally starts after Labor Day, sometimes the week before, so it’s right at the beginning of the school year,” Morris said. “At that time, it’s hard to get a full staff of teachers — who are setting up their classrooms and overwhelmed —to sit here and pay attention to a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.”
Morris got started by building support among teachers.
“It took a little time to really get all the teachers on board to want to do it and see why it was important. But after they did that, it ended up being such a beautiful day,” Morris said. “We started June prior just having a meeting and brainstorming. And then we started about two weeks before school started by meeting with each other and brainstorming. Then we started to reach out to community organizations to try to see which of them can support.”
Morris, along with the head of the social studies department at Bethune Elementary and a teacher’s coach, discussed the need to center the celebration around their students.
“The three of us really came together to develop this Hispanic Heritage Month celebration,” Morris said. “What we talked about is that a lot of the Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations always focus on historic people, and what we really, really wanted to focus on was our students, our parents, and then also members of our community.”
Hispanic Heritage Month Curriculum
Morris and the other organizers named their Hispanic Heritage curriculum the “Carnival de Bethune.”
The main portion of the carnival became a “museum” for students, families, and community members.
It featured students’ written essays about a family tradition, a report on a famous Latino from their community, and a project developed from that person.
“The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Philadelphia was able to provide us with a whole list of speakers with famous people from our community. The students were to study that person and then also study their career and their country of origin,” Morris said. “Then from that person, they develop some sort of project. Some groups did posters, some groups did a PowerPoint presentation, some groups did an interview. And basically, this turned into our museum that we had.”
In addition to the museum, the Carnival de Bethune had traditional food and games for students.
“We worked with our community partner, which is Vetri, and they brought a food truck. The community was able to taste rice beans and learn a little bit about the history of rice and beans. Then our third part was games and crafts. So basically, we had a variety of crafts and games that they could participate in, and they just move from each section,” Morris said.
The whole school could attend the Carnival de Bethune. The older children from third to eighth grades were required to create the projects for the museum, and they also helped organize the event.
“I wanted to involve my students as much as possible, just to make it more authentic,” Morris said. “I had most of my middle school students leading the arts, leading the games, just because obviously my Spanish is not fabulous, and I would rather be more authentic from them.”
The first Carnival de Bethune of 2019 was a great success. Morris wishes the pandemic hadn’t prevented them from fully celebrating again in 2020.
“Everyone loved it. It was disappointing that we couldn’t really do something as big this year just because of being digital, but we plan to do it again next year, especially the students who got to lead things,” Morris said. “We had fourth graders who were better than some of the substitute teachers that we have that were leading the kindergarteners and the games on the PowerPoint and on the smartboard leading their presentations. So that was really great to see the kids themselves really take on these leadership positions.”
Winning the ‘Teacher as a Hero Award’
After the Hispanic Heritage Month and Carnival de Bethune received such positive feedback, Morris was received a 2020 Teacher as a Hero Award from the National Liberty Museum.
The criteria for the award include fostering an appreciation for diversity in the classroom, honoring student voice in the classroom and in public spaces, among others.
Morris wasn’t expecting to receive the award but was honored.
“I was very, very surprised. There are so many teachers out there that are deserving of this award as well, just because teaching is such a behind-the-scenes type of thing and many times a lot of these activities are never seen. I was very, very honored and shocked,” Morris said.
Bringing More Culture to the Classroom
What’s the best way for teachers to incorporate more culture into their classrooms?
Talk to your students, Morris said.
“You have this amazing asset at your fingertips. Talk to your students and let them lead you through some of their cultural activities,” Morris said.
Embracing students from different cultures with different language skills is important too.
“It’s really, really important to treat bilingualism as an asset. We really encourage our students to become literate in Spanish and English.”
The learning should go both ways: from teacher to student, but also from student to teacher.
“Let them tell their stories and make it about them,” Morris said. “Because those relationships are so powerful. Let them share with you some of their traditions and some of their culture.”
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By The Numbers
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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