Ángelo's Fierce Determination
About the Author
Sarah Digby has devoted her career to developing foundational Spanish literacy resources and highly specialized curricula for students with limited/interrupted formal education (SLIFE). She has worked as both a teacher and trainer at a community-based bilingual school in Honduras, served as the Foundational Spanish Literacy Developer and Instructor at a shelter for unaccompanied minors in San Antonio, Texas, developed and taught SLIFE programming at the English Language Learners International Support Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, and most recently worked as the Content Developer at Bridges to Academic Success and the Curriculum Designer and Coordinator for i2 Learning. In the summer of 2019, she will become the Senior Learning Architect for ELLs at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, developing newcomer programs at the national level.
Sarah also holds a master’s degree from Columbia University in International Education Development, where she conducted a 4.5-year longitudinal study on the native-language needs of overaged Latino SLIFE. Her research included a study of the foundational Spanish literacy growth new-to-print SLIFE could achieve within certain timeframes when provided with responsive resources and instruction.
I first met Ángelo* in January 2016 at a public high school in the Bronx exclusively designed for newcomer immigrants. At the time, I was the Spanish foundational literacy specialist and worked with a wide range of students in a variety of settings—from small-group pull-outs to whole-class push-ins.
But my passion, my raison d’être, was working in individual intervention settings with older students with limited/interrupted formal education (SLIFE) who still needed to learn to read and write in Spanish. Ángelo was my third student in two years who fit this profile.
Ángelo began school in the United States in September 2015. Unfortunately, however, I did not have the ability to work with him for his first four months of schooling on this side of the border. During this time period, Ángelo had no choice but to sit in the back of classrooms, tracing letters in alphabet notebooks or lying with his head down at his desk. His teachers, talented beyond measure when working with emergent multilinguals, did not have the resources to provide new-to-print (NTP) SLIFE like Ángelo with what he needed: individual, native-language reading and writing lessons.
Originally from Honduras, Ángelo arrived to the United States as an unaccompanied minor. He spent some time in a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, and was reunited with a familial sponsor in the Bronx shortly before the 2015 school year. Ángelo attended school until he was eight years old in Honduras, but now—at age 18—he hardly remembered how to write his name.
I will never forget my initial assessment of Ángelo—particularly the written portion, which I’d designed to involve five dictations and two open-ended questions. It was clear from the reading portion of the assessment that he could barely read or recognize two-letter words, nor could he recall a majority of Spanish letter sounds. Despite his extreme difficulties with letter-sound correspondence, he remained steadfastly determined to write all five dictation sentences and answer both open-ended writing questions in Spanish.
It took him nearly an hour to complete the written portion. Despite my reassurance that he did not need to write every sentence, he insisted on finishing everything.
I was not about to disrupt this child’s fierce and admirable determination, so I sat there, watching, as he became increasingly and clearly exhausted: his hands, unaccustomed to holding a pencil for so long, trembled as he struggled to remember letter formations; his mind, scanning the depths of his memory from his early schooling in Honduras, searched tirelessly for remnants of letter sounds from nearly 10 years ago; and his eyes, showing signs of undeniable fatigue, held indelible markers of determination that only reaffirmed the visceral truth I knew about these students, about their true strength, and about their unfailing desire to learn.
I will never forget his answer to the first open-ended question, which in Spanish read, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Ángelo wrote “kimelo se a bo”. I kindly asked him if he could read me his answer.
“Quiero ser graudado,” he said.
I want to graduate.
Over the next few months, Ángelo’s progress in Spanish foundational literacy skyrocketed, surpassing the progress made by many other SLIFE and NTP SLIFE with whom I had worked in this same initial time frame.
Ángelo’s unwavering commitment to learning—while not unusual for my NTP SLIFE—never failed to inspired me. He spent every day of his mid-February break with me in the back of an Inwood McDonald’s, reading early literacy books I’d created, practicing high-frequency word flashcards, and continuing to add to his repertoire of letter-sound correspondence.
In less than three months, he was able to write full Spanish sentences, including a short book about his home country for his Global Studies content class—a project that allowed him to participate in school in a similar manner as the rest of his peers.
Perhaps most remarkable to me was that Ángelo seemed to be picking up something that none of my previous NTP SLIFE had acquired: oral English. His four months in school prior to our work together—combined with his continued presence in his content classes—had gradually bestowed him with the receptive input and productive output needed to understand and speak English.
As the summer of 2016 approached and Ángelo’s Spanish reading and writing levels soared to early elementary levels, new questions entered my mind: Will the fact that he has acquired some oral English mean he might soon be ready to try reading and writing in English?
I was not about to force a child to learn to read and write words he did not understand when he was still learning to read and write in language he did understand; at the same time, however, if he understood conversational and high-frequency English words, maybe he would be ready to delve into the complicated and complex word of foundational English literacy.
So, with the help of Orly Klapholz, a brilliant and gifted SLIFE educator, we decided to take the summer of 2016 to begin to answer this larger question. She adapted and developed an English phonics class for SLIFE, and we put Ángelo in the class. She led the class, heavily pre-teaching vocabulary to support comprehension and modifying phonics instruction to meet the needs of the students she knew so well.
I was in the classroom too—not only because I wanted to absorb Orly’s brilliance and collaborate with her on innovative SLIFE literacy practices, but also because I believed it was important to continue to provide Ángelo with Spanish literacy support during and after his English classes.
Within the first few days of the class, the verdict with Ángelo was clear: To our surprise (or maybe not to our surprise at all), he thrived.
Ángelo spent every day that July and August learning English phonics with Orly and me, even after the larger class had disbanded for the remainder of the summer. His commitment and dedication continued to define him as a learner.
When the 2016 school year began that September, Ángelo was living in a world completely removed from the one in which he had entered school a year prior: No longer was he sitting in the back of class with his head down or tracing letters in a book made for pre-schoolers. Instead, Ángelo was an active participant in his classes, reading and writing in his home language, and even regularly drawing on his knowledge of both English and Spanish to complete writing assignments for his content classes.
Despite Ángelo’s progress, his situation was still precarious. It was important that he continue to receive individual Spanish literacy interventions with me throughout the week, as well as small-group pull-outs whenever possible. In our individual settings, I did my best to continue to carry on the knowledge and techniques I had learned from Orly in order to spur Ángelo’s English foundational literacy forward.
The result? By the fall of 2016, Ángelo was reading and writing in both Spanish and English to the extent expected of first-year newcomer students who had received continuous education in their home countries. On paper, Ángelo appeared “only one year behind” his first-year peers—a fascinating concept considering that, in reality, he was at least a decade behind in formal schooling.
Throughout the 2016-2017 school year, Ángelo continued to progress in Spanish, reaching a fourth-grade reading level in Spanish in a little over a year’s time. With the help of intense scaffolding and intervention support in Orly’s English content class, he also began writing full essays in a mix of English and Spanish—merely a year after he had learned the full Spanish alphabet.
Ángelo is proof that these students not only harbor an intense desire to learn, but that they are also willing to fully commit themselves to the learning process—whether meeting their teachers on holiday breaks in the backs of diners or fast-food restaurants, showing up early every Saturday morning during Saturday school, or taking long busses in the New York City heat every day in the summer to receive extra literacy classes for which no academic credit is rewarded.
Ángelo is also proof of something greater: He is proof of what NTP SLIFE can achieve when the proper supports, resources, curricula, and teachers are in place to help. He is proof of what can happen when a school community rallies around a student and devotes themselves to the student’s success.
Unfortunately, however, reality had to eventually set in.
As the years progressed, Ángelo grew older. It is now 2019, and Ángelo is 22 years old. He is an adult needing to work to support himself; he is too old to be in high school with his economic reality; and his legal status only further complicates his precarious circumstances.
In September 2017, after 4.5 years of working with students like Ángelo at the school, my own reality also set in. My work at the school was not sustainable on a number of levels. I now work at the macro level serving newcomer students, with an ultimate goal of helping more NTP SIFE like Ángelo.
It was a difficult choice to leave students like Ángelo, and it was a choice I made knowing I had done everything within my power to support these students. The other supports Ángelo needed—the science, foundational numeracy, academic English, social studies knowledge, etc.—were all still lacking. The system, while jimmy-rigged for the first couple of years with the help of passionate teachers and staff members, was ultimately not designed for long-term success for students like Ángelo.
Eventually, like all other NTP SLIFE at the school whom I taught to read and write in Spanish, Ángelo signed himself out—only one year after I left the school.
Do I wish he would have graduated? Absolutely.
Do I believe that with the right supports he had the potential to graduate? Absolutely.
Do I feel guilty for leaving the school? Absolutely.
But at the same time, I know that the change Ángelo and all the other NTP SLIFE need extends far beyond what a few individuals can provide. Schools can do their best: they can hire intervention staff; they can create makeshift classrooms; they can provide teachers with freedom to create innovative resources and curriculum for these students in their native language.
At the end of the day, however, students like Ángelo need change at the policy level.
Students like Ángelo need different graduation metrics, ones that account for the fact that they have spent over a decade out of school—and in some cases never been to school—and yet are somehow still expected to pass the Regents exam in New York State in four years.
Students like Ángelo need the equivalent of IEPs for SLIFE; and sure, some NTP SLIFE with whom I worked certainly qualified for IEPs, but many—like Ángelo—did not. He was not eligible for the assistance to which others with special learning needs are legally entitled. I would argue that Ángelo, despite displaying no signs of cognitive or behavioral challenges, without a doubt possessed special learning needs.
And most of all, students like Ángelo need teachers who believe in him, who see his strengths, who see his strong character, who see his motivation, and who honor all that he brings with him into the classroom.
Ángelo did not arrive to me believing he was smart. He did not arrive to me believing he was capable. He did not arrive to me hopeful about his future in school.
But when a nexus of educators uplifted him with support, he learned he was, indeed, capable.
We may not be legislators possessing the power to enact the particular policy changes the Ángelos of the world need, but in the meantime, we are the educators on the front lines who possess the power to teach the Ángelos of the world how to believe in themselves.
*Student's name has been changed to protect the student's identity.