Susana and Amrita’s Classroom
Susana Stringer-Velez, who has been teaching in Boston alternative education settings for over 20 years, and Amrita Dani, who is in her fifth year of teaching, both work at Boston Adult Technical Academy, where they co-teach English as a Second Language and Humanities to students ages 19-22 who are seeking to earn a BPS diploma. They strive to teach students standard written English, the language of power in the United States, so they can be successful in college and beyond, while also empowering students to critically question social inequality and build empathy across different cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, and gender identities.
One of the units they submitted is an orientation unit around the film “I Learn America.” “I Learn America” is a documentary about the lives of 5 immigrant students attending high school in New York, learning English, and facing many challenges and struggles at the intersections of their identities. In this co-planned unit, students build community with each other, share their own stories of struggles and challenges, and analyze identity and power in society and the film. “Our goal was to push students to think about the concept of intersectionality, how different oppressions compound each other for students in the film,” said Amrita. “We also wanted students to be able to relate strongly to our first text of the year and to feel comfortable sharing all aspects of their identities.” The film addresses issues of gender identity, Islamophobia, citizenship, nostalgia, cross-cultural friendship, and the many challenges of being an immigrant in the United States. “It complicates the idea of the American Dream for students who are already seeing the cracks in that narrative,” continued Amrita, “because our students often came to the U.S. with that idea in mind, but then they encountered the reality of xenophobia and economic inequality, among other things.”
Another unit they submitted is a unit built around reading Nnedi Okorafor’s young adult novel Akata Witch. The novel is a fantasy story set in contemporary Nigeria, and it allows the class to continue exploring issues of identity and injustice, while also considering the shared African heritage of many students. Susana explains that immigrant students at BATA come from all over the world, but most are from Cape Verde, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Guatemala, all countries where many people can trace at least some of their ancestry to West Africa. Overall, this unit works best when students are able to discuss their ideas with each other regularly in order to break down the challenging text.
Overall, Amrita and Susana credit co-teaching and co-planning with their ability to create units that enable students to both learn the language of power and critically analyze the world around them. Co-teaching also offers opportunities to address heavy, difficult topics, because they are able to offer multiple stories to students, as well as to make sure they are checking in with students who may find these conversations very challenging.