Spotlight on Alumnus Arturo Acevedo: Bilingual/Bicultural Education as a Journey of Self-Discovery ☆

Arturo Acevedo is a high school Spanish teacher at the Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.  He did post-graduate work at the University of Maryland and has a Master’s degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Education from Teachers College (’08).  Arturo hopes to begin his Ph.D. studies in September, 2012.

Has your own experience as an immigrant student provided motivation to become a teacher yourself?  And has it uniquely prepared you to teach this population today?

Very much so.  I came to the states when I was six years old and grew up outside Washington, D.C.  When I started school, I did not speak English.  My English was limited to one through 10 from Sesame Street.

I understand the difficulties of learning a new language, and the fact that while a student may learn to speak the language, he won’t necessarily be able to perform at a high cognitive level or do well at school.  Those are the challenges—and also the discriminations—that I experienced.  I don’t want students like me to suffer through the same paths I’ve gone through.  I want to be a voice to help them.

In 20 years, Latinos are going to be the largest population in this country.  I have always wanted students with similar backgrounds as mine to be responsible citizens and set a good example to change this country for the better.  This is something I tell my students when they come in.  Not just the Latino students—all of them.  Being a good role model has been a great motivator. As a Spanish teacher, I want to impart a knowledge about my culture to all students:  Those who aren’t familiar with it at all, or those who are familiar through their own heritage, but as a second- or third-generation.

I was always interested in teaching high school level.  Bilingual programs across the city generally cut off at middle school.  So I went off on my own tangent:  I got Master’s Certification at the University of Maryland and I got the methodology from TC.  I came to TC because I was really looking for the higher-level thinking and connections.

Can you share a memorable research project that you worked on with TC faculty?

Absolutely.  I grew up as a fair-skinned Latino, and because of that my dad said that I’d be shielded from prejudice.  I worked on a journal project for Professor Garcia, and it was through this work that I started to see and discover racist things that I went through as a child, but didn’t have an understanding of at the time.  I recalled that my school had me in speech therapy classes to eliminate my accent, and that they told my mother that she could not speak to me in Spanish at home.  My mother went along with it for about three months, and then she had enough.  She went to my school and had a meeting with the principal.  She told them, “My son is Puerto Rican, and he will always be Puerto Rican.  I’m not going to stop teaching him how to speak, read and write in Spanish.  I will do everything I can to help him do well at school, but the Spanish will continue.”  I had no idea that my mother did this; it came out after I told her about my recollections as a result of working on this journal project.

You have applied to Ph.D. programs in Urban Education and the Sociology of Education at Columbia University.  Why are you taking this step?

We are all well aware of the deficiencies of the system.  I feel that if I want to be responsible for change, I need to be in a higher position because I don’t feel like I’m doing enough where I am.  It is time for my generation to start looking for those places of leadership and become the means for change, rather than being idle.

Can you tell us about the Gotham Professional Arts Academy?

I’ve been a New York City public school teacher for 5+ years.  I’m in my second year at the Gotham Professional Arts Academy, a Title I school that’s a part of the small school movement.  My students are about 20-30% Latino, and the rest African American.  Since it’s an alternative school, the students do not take the Regents.  Instead, they work on PBAAs (Performance Based Alternative Assessments) where they create and defend papers, just as you would a thesis.

How did your partnership with El Museo del Barrio come about?

Teaching Spanish at a high school level in the types of neighborhoods I’ve worked in is difficult.  I’m often the only teacher in the entire language department, and from the top down, there’s not a high value placed on learning another language.  It isn’t seen as ‘useful’, so it is marginalized. I’ve been finding it hard to engage my students because this disinterest trickles from the top down.  Motivation is a huge problem.

I reached out to El Museo del Barrio because students learn a language best when they are experiencing it in context.  Plus, I don’t want to teach a class where if I were a student I’d be bored!  My students take many art classes, and I thought what better way to tie my curriculum to the school’s arts focus and make it work hand-in-hand.  I developed a curriculum based on pieces in the museum’s permanent collection.   My students are learning about art and Latino culture, but through the Spanish language.  The students learn their vocabulary, and we apply the themes to works in the museum.  I’m very excited, because this makes it a little more visual for them.  Plus, we have a very creative student population.  If I can play into their existing interests, I see it as a win-win scenario.

Why do you feel learning a second language is important?

I believe we should be teaching totally bilingually from early childhood.  If our mission is really to prepare our students for jobs in the global marketplace, then we need to include language in that education.

Practically, students who take a foreign language do better on SATs because they learn the Latin roots of words, and they look at language and words in different ways.

You have described your time at TC as life-changing.

It was, very much so.  It was an amazing self-discovery.  Now when I consider my past academic life, I recall a sentiment expressed by a bilingual expert named Jim Cummins:  For second language learners, learning in another language is like chasing a moving target.  Every year, no matter how much you improve, your peers are improving in their native language that much faster.  The second language learner is always chasing, and it is hard.

For me, it never seemed to ‘click’ academically until I got to TC.  My grade point average was the best ever when I was at Teachers College.  Being in the Bilingual/Bicultural program was a journey of self-discovery.  I give thanks to Professor Torres-Guzman because she took a chance on me.  She called me before I was accepted and asked certain things about my past academic record and why I thought I was a good candidate for the program.  As my mom said to me, “You were always stuck, in a way, and when you were accepted to Columbia you took off.”

This is a very emotional story for you.

It is.  I was chosen as a candidate to be one of the TC graduation speakers.  I went through the process of the interview, and I think the reason I didn’t get it was because I was too emotional.

They didn’t want you crying up on the podium?

Yes, me and every mother in the audience!