Ring, ring. Ramona Brito lightly tapped the bell on top of her desk last Monday morning. With that, her first grade students at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn jumped into action, putting away their sight-word Bingo games.
Twenty-six pairs of little feet scurried to the reading corner.
They plopped down in four neat rows onto yellow and green cushions. Before the petite teacher wearing pearl earrings and a purple blouse could say “y tres.”
“Es un dia en Espanol, ninos,” she announced, making sure the kids remembered that on that day, her classroom was a Spanish-only zone. Of the 780 pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students at P.S. 24, 91 percent are Latino and nearly half are in one of the 17 dual language homerooms, like Ms. Brito’s. Getting a seat in her class isn’t easy; there are just 11 schools with English/Spanish first grades in Brooklyn, paltry when considering that nearly 20 percent of the borough’s residents, or more than 500,000, are Latino.
It’s a critical year for Ms. Brito’s dual language learners, as they make a transition from a Kindergarten curriculum that’s 80 percent Spanish, 20 percent English to a first grade one that’s half and half. Ms. Brito’s students alternate full days of Spanish and English instruction, and she oversees twelve different reading groups, six in each language. Almost every student is at one level in one language, and another in the other. “I think they’re right where you want them to be. Their ability to learn is so strong,” she explained.
To Ms. Brito, effective dual language first grade teaching is about three things: words, words, and words. She works hard with her students on English vocabulary and expressions, employing visual aids, spending extra time on tricky words, and soliciting help from her best English students. But Spanish is close to her heart. “It’s teaching kids culture, and I see the importance of them maintaining their Spanish,” she said. “It’s a battle to maintain their Spanish. It’s a challenge and I like it.”
It’s a challenge she’s been undertaking since she was a student teacher for P.S. 24 while majoring in dual language education at Brooklyn College. Eleven years later, she’s never worked anywhere else.
“I’m 33,” Ms. Brito said quietly and out of range of little ears. To her six- and seven-year olds, 33 may as well be 103. “I don’t tell my students my age, and they’re dying to find out!”
Working in Sunset Park seems only natural for a woman who’s spent most of her life here. Born in the Dominican Republic but only living there as a baby and for a few of her elementary and middle school years, Ms. Brito’s education took place almost entirely in Brooklyn. She spoke primarily English at home in New York, and refined her Spanish during her time in the Dominican Republic. Ms. Brito and her husband of ten years, along with their daughter, lived in Sunset Park for years until they left for a quieter neighborhood in Staten Island in 2010.
But the hour plus commute isn’t enough to come between Ms. Brito, her daughter, and P.S. 24. Her nine-year-old is a dual language fourth grader at the school. “I wanted her to maintain the Spanish language, and I wasn’t doing a good job of that at home. I noticed she was forgetting her first language,” she said.
Ms. Brito has always felt at home with the little ones, and has spent her career with Kindergarten and first grade classes. Half of the Kindergarteners she had last year are in her first grade class now.
One of those students is Miriam Chub’s child. “My daughter says she’s the best teacher,” Ms. Chub said, adding that her daughter’s twin wasn’t happy to be placed in another classroom. “My other twin, she cried to be with Ms. Brito too!” Ms. Chub, a native of Guatemala, said her English isn’t strong and she’s grateful her daughter is becoming bilingual so young. She was a teacher in her home country and just started volunteering in Ms. Brito’s classroom, hoping it will help her re-pursue her career. Ms. Brito has welcomed her presence whenever she’s available.
Ms. Chub was studying Ms. Brito closely last Monday, watching as she started a lesson. “What day is it today?” Ms. Brito asked in Spanish. “How many days until picture day?” Excitement over the upcoming annual event propelled the kids to do some quick mental math, and hands shot up with the answer. Math sufficiently on her students’ brains, Ms. Brito transitioned over to a counting game, she and the kids counting in tens from twenty (veinte) to 100 (cien). First, they clapped to the beat, Ms. Brito included. Then they snapped, and last they shrugged their shoulders.
“Her style is she gets the kids interested and to get them to want to do something, she puts herself in the situation and gives examples,” explained Evelyn Perez, a paraprofessional who has known Ms. Brito for ten years and worked in her classroom part-time for two.
Back in the reading corner, Ms. Brito asked the meteorologist-for-the-day – her students take turns – to look out the window and report on the weather. The little girl indicated it was cloudy, and Ms. Brito drew a cloud on her dry-erase calendar. She then moved into a science and language arts lesson, reading from a poem on posterboard called El tiempo y el cielo, or The weather and the sky. She pointed out the word “llueve,” a conjugation of the verb meaning “to rain” that contains the diphthong “ue.” Soon, she was asking the kids to point out all the words with “ue” diphthongs in the poem.
The seamless transitions and creative conversation keep the kids engaged. “I wish there was more creativity in here,” Ms. Brito said. She noted that while she’d like to do more arts and crafts, and more active lessons where the kids can jump and dance, she sometimes feels constrained by state requirements. “It’s hard to balance a happy learning environment with all the pressure that’s coming down on the kids and on us.”
It’s also hard for Ms. Brito to find enough hours in the day to do the work she wants and needs to do. “Teaching doesn’t only happen here in the classroom. It’s part of your life,” she said. In addition to planning daily lessons and completing in-depth monthly performance rubrics for each student, Ms. Brito spends hours at home searching for resources for her classroom. Spanish ones are particularly difficult to find.
After working late with her fellow first grade teachers to plan new February units on Friday, Ms. Brito ordered new books and searched for math game and art project ideas on Sunday night; she’s hoping to work on watercolor paintings of family traditions and a winter-themed mural with the kids. While the city provides $110 for reimbursable teacher expenses, Ms. Brito explained “that has been long gone since August. Whatever else extra I buy, it’s on me.”
Ms. Perez praised Ms. Brito’s work ethic. “She does work a lot, she takes her work home,” she said. “She works through her lunch period a lot.”
Ms. Brito couldn’t see it any other way. “I’m really happy being here. I imagine what it’d be like if I were a doctor, a lawyer, but I can’t picture myself being anything else other than what I am today.”
That happiness is matched by the faith she has in her students. “I think I am patient, hopeful and expectant,” she said. “They know I believe in them and that if I give them the right tools, they will rise.”