This profile is part of a series highlighting participants of the Urban Education Initiative, the umbrella program for Project Coach at Smith College.
Janeth Mora ‘21 went back to her home community in East Los Angeles for her fellowship. She was able to use her Spanish language skills to make positive change in students’ academic performance, and was proud to build strong connections with her students, even in the short time of her fellowship.
Smith College (SC): Why did you apply for the Urban Ed Scholars program?
I applied to the Urban Ed Scholars program because I wanted to know what it was to be immersed in a classroom. I joined the program because I am especially interested in learning to make connections with children in a way that benefits their learning.
SC: Tell us about the school, your teacher, and what you did in the internship.
The school I was in was in East LA in California, the community that I grew up in. It was a charter high school within a public middle school. The teacher I was working with had received her teaching credentials in UCLA so her teaching style was based on what she had learned in her time there. The first couple of days that I was there I served as a teaching assistant until a new student came into the classroom. This new student had just arrived from Mexico and had very little understanding of the English language. Upon her arrival, I became a full-time translator and tutor for her because no one else in the school felt comfortable in their ability to translate or speak Spanish.
SC: Tell us a highlight memory from your time in the classroom this January?
My highlight was working with a student on calculus homework. I had been working with this student for two days and realized that despite his strong work ethic he continued to struggle with the material. Eventually, he became comfortable enough to tell me that he was struggling because he had been out sick ... Additionally, he had just moved to the United States with his family so he was having a hard time adapting to the school system. This was a very special moment because I felt like I had gained his trust and, therefore, I felt like he could trust that I was there to ensure that he did well academically. I was content when he later approached me and thanked me because he was able to pass the course that he was previously failing.
SC: What surprised you the most?
During my time at Collegiate I was struck by the work being done by the administrators and the faculty to try and connect with students. Like many charter schools in cities across the country, Collegiate has a very high percentage of children of color, nearly 90%. At the same time – again, like most urban schools – the teaching staff and administrators are predominantly white. Nationally 80% of teachers are white, only nine percent of teachers are Hispanic, and about seven percent are black and two percent Asian. America’s demographics are changing – the country has seen a dramatic rise in the Hispanic population – even so, the teaching force hasn’t kept pace. In this environment, administrators and teachers struggle to truly connect with students, language being the most obvious barrier. I truly believe that the school wants to help the children be successful academically, but the barriers make the learning environment more challenging for both teachers and students.
SC: And where did that realization lead you?
When I returned to campus I decided to dive into research about the topic with Professor Intrator as my advisor. I decide to begin by talking about my teaching fellowship experience at Collegiate and then I reflect upon the struggle from my own perspective as a Latinx student who attended elementary, middle, high school here in that very community. I know first-hand how much parents and the community is willing to engage if the school knew how to make the space for that. And that led to research on the impact of the demographics of the students compared to the staff and how that impacts student learning. What I discovered is how dangerous this disconnect can be. There’s a generational effect. If there’s a student who isn’t understood and isn’t getting help, and if that student drops out that has an impact that may very well be carried on to the next generation. Most parents want their children to succeed but because so many are first generation they don’t know how to see their children succeed. I end the paper with solutions, ways to get parents engaged and make sure they have access to resources.
SC: How do you think the experience will impact your future thinking and plans?
I think that this experience has reinforced my belief that connections are essential to student learning. After my experience, I think that I now have a better understanding of how to make connections with students and also the importance of understanding the community that I serve. It has given me the opportunity to observe exceptional teachers while also gaining awareness of strategies that do not nurture student learning. Because of it, I will be better prepared to incorporate effective learning strategies as a mentor.
SC: What big idea, project, adventure has your attention? What’s your next play going forward here at Smith?
I am convinced that I want to continue mentoring and explore more avenues within education. An adventure that has really grasped my attention is the idea of volunteering at this school over the summer. Returning to Collegiate Charter school over the summer would give me the chance to work with the students I’ve already established connections with and help support their interest in advancing their education. In my time at Collegiate, I noticed that when I shared that I was born and raised in their community – and was able to go to college even when college is not an expectation in our community – my students were suddenly much more interested in my education and their own ideas about education and careers.