With Deeper Learning, Students Draw From Past to Prepare for Future

With Deeper Learning, Students Draw From Past to Prepare for Future

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Above: Hawlatu Sowe, a refugee from SIerra Leone and graduate of Brooklyn International High School credits teachers there with helping her find her own voice.

Ed. Note:
With graduation season here, New America Media is profiling students who have benefited from the Deeper Learning education model. Supported by a national network of foundations and organizations, the Deeper Learning Network aims to revamp the way students are taught in U.S. classrooms, focusing on mastery of core content while also fostering skills critical to competency in both college and career. This is the first in a series of NAM stories looking at how Deeper Learning has impacted students from traditionally underserved communities.

BROOKLYN, NY — Hawlatu Sowe was only 8 years old when she and her family fled the civil war in her native Sierra Leone. After several years in a refugee camp in Guinea the family eventually gained asylum and settled in the United States.

With no formal education Sowe initially struggled in school, but thanks to an innovative approach to teaching – one that allowed her to tap into her experiences as part of the learning process – she learned to thrive in her new setting.

“It made a lot of great changes in my life,” says Sowe, who is 18 and a recent graduate of Brooklyn International High School (BIHS). “I learned to speak out and let my voice be heard … All of a sudden, my grades also got higher.”

According to her teachers, Sowe spoke little to no English when she first entered school in the third grade. She had trouble communicating and making friends. It was when she got to high school that things began to turn around.

“I was lucky to have teachers here who would pull me out of nowhere to study English and focus on other areas, like math and science,” Sowe explains. “They taught me to be independent, to grow on my own — and, at the same time, they were my mentors.”

Most of the students at BIHS are immigrants like Sowe, many of them of designated English Language Learners. The school is part of a nationwide network of some 500 public and charter schools that have embraced the Deeper Learning model, which emphasizes a mastery of “21st Century skills” including enhanced oral and written communications, critical thinking and the ability to work collaboratively.

Advocates say the model focuses on fewer core academic areas while delving more deeply into each. They also point out that the adoption in 45 states of the Common Core State Standards – which embrace Deeper Learning principles – has leant energy to the movement to expand the practice to more schools.

According to data from the Hewlett Foundation, which has thrown its weight behind the push to expand Deeper Learning, the network currently reaches more that 200,000 students in 41 states, some 73 percent of them students of color and over half low income.

Fred Wambolt teaches English at BIHS and was Sowe’s instructor. He says he saw Sowe “thrive in a Deeper Learning environment,” noting that her experiences as a refugee helped her connect to the characters in novels they read in class and to share those insights with her peers.

“Tutu [Sowe’s nickname] is an avid reader, and because of her background, she has a great deal of empathy for others — and that empathy extends to the characters in literature,” Wambolt notes. “She was a valuable member of class discussions, eager to share her own ideas but always ready to listen to the ideas of others. Deeper Learning encourages this kind of healthy debate and exchange of ideas.”

In her final year, Sowe became active in the school’s community programs, leading the “Fighting Against Hatred” campaign. Pursuing her dream to become an immigration lawyer, she also served as a peer trainer and member of student government.

"I like joining the student clubs,” she said. “Whether the person is Chinese, African or Hispanic — everyone there is welcome."

Preparing for the future

Like Sowe, Erik Montes came to the United States speaking little English. An undocumented immigrant from Mexico, he says his experience with Deeper Learning gave him a better idea of what to expect post-high school.

“This is the kind of exposure that will get you a job,” said Montes, 18, after an in-class group project at Flushing International High School. “We put our ideas together. It’s great that I’m experiencing this in school.”

In 2012, Montes crossed into the Unitd States from Puebla, Mexico, to reunite with his parents and an older sister. His mother enrolled him in FIHS after hearing about the school’s friendly environment for immigrant students, regardless of immigration status.

Her interest was also piqued by what she’d heard about the school’s Deeper Learning model, says Montes, who recalls sitting with teachers when he first arrived at FIHS and listening to the radio in order to get used to someone speaking in English. Other teachers would give him “baby books” to start with the basics.

Montes says he was impressed by what he saw as a “dedication to learning” on the part of his teachers.

“I came to this country with no word of English. But, after six months, it was amazing that I started to speak conversationally in English with my cousins and friends,” Montes says. “I know that they teach students here in a more personalized way.”

Toni Mendoza, one of Erik’s teachers at FIHS, described him as someone who is “determined to succeed, quiet and introspective, but focused and always thinking deeply about the changes he wants to effect in his life and the life of his community.”

Mendoza also points to what he calls Montes’ “true grit,” a trait emphasized by Deeper Learning practitioners as key to student success. Grit, or resilience, they say, allows students to persevere despite academic or other challenges.

In Montes’ case, that grit allowed him to “survive crossing deserts and borders,” Mendoza says, adding that at FIHS students’ academic and social and emotional needs are considered equally critical to their success.

“This [Deeper Learning] approach allows students to acknowledge and understand genuine obstacles that impede their academic and emotional growth, and to learn skills [that will] help them manage [and] handle those obstacles.”

On campus Montes has been involved in advocating for immigrant rights, particularly pushing for legislation that would make undocumented students like himself eligible for financial support in college.

Until that time, he says he plans to work and save up for college, where he hopes to study farming and agriculture.

“I’ve gained a lot of support in my school. My teachers were always there to give me good advice, to push and challenge me to do things,” he said. “It’s a good balance. I’m ready for my future.”