One step inside Newton Rayzor Elementary and I was sold. An International Baccalaureate (IB) school, Newton Rayzor focuses on creating “internationally minded participants in a global society”. The multicultural emphasis in this school is readily tangible; maps, world clocks, flags, and framed artwork depicting the world's continents create this “internationally minded” atmosphere. It's effective. And frankly, it’s adorable.
We were early, so Stuart and I wandered the halls, admiring the artwork. We arrived at the classroom belonging to the teacher we'd come to meet - whose class would receive the book donation. Just outside the door, we found artwork depicting important figures who had “taken action”. That’s a big thing at Newton Rayzor: choosing a cause, taking an action, and reflecting on it. Abraham Lincoln, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and others—drawn in expert kindergarten style—adorn the wall outside the classroom. After spending a few minutes admiring the art, a small, smiling woman approached us: Mrs. Arriaga, Kindergarten and first grade ESL teacher, and absolute hero.
Mrs. Arriaga is wonderful, and it’s evident in every word she delivered when we sat down to discuss her students. As an IB school, they focus on "inquiry-based learning," leading with questions and teaching children to be naturally curious. Currently, her class is putting together a class book on butterflies, entirely in Spanish, and teaching her students how to phrase things in their own words. It’s a bilingual classroom, and they have a “language of the day”. She takes little moments out of the day to bolster the students' English, like while reviewing the day's calendar and while getting ready for recess. The struggles of bilingual and English language learner (ELL) students is a “pattern that you see every year,” she says.
“It’s usually those students who don’t have access to books at home, or who come in with zero knowledge of…where to even begin with reading,” Mrs. Arriaga continued. ELL students make up almost 11 percent of the student population, and these numbers are rising, with only about four percent of those students performing at-level or higher academically. Knowing that is what propelled me headfirst into the educational world; I want to be a reading specialist so that these numbers can change, and people like Mrs. Arriaga can facilitate that change.
To Mrs. Arriaga, reading is where her students consistently struggle the most. Some kids “come in with a lack of any knowledge and you have to teach them how to talk, how to hold a pencil. It takes time and requires certain skills to even begin.” Reading is the foundational stepping stone when it comes to early education. To Mrs. Arriaga (and myself), it is “the first thing they need to go into other areas of education. [Teaching a child to read] is like learning another language [and entering] a new world.”
That’s what we’re hoping to do with the proceeds we receive from our show this Friday. We want to enable the children in Mrs. Arriaga’s class to escape into a new world the way that I remember escaping into the world of Harry Potter and the way I got to go to Narnia as a child. These kids don’t have those opportunities yet, and we want to give that to them. The donation will give her classroom literary resources that she says she currently has to make herself because it’s difficult to find books that are appropriately leveled in the languages she needs. With dual-language books, Mrs. Arriaga hopes to raise parent involvement in her classroom, something that is sorely needed.
“It’s the key for kids to have passion for learning,” she says. There’s a big difference in children who do have parent involvement and those who don’t—a child who is read to by their parents almost daily, by five years of age, will have the vocabulary of a six or seven-year-old, but a child who isn’t will only have the vocabulary of a three-year-old. Giving parents who otherwise can’t afford to buy books at home or can’t go to the library the opportunity to read to their child makes a world of difference academically, and Mrs. Arriaga wants to make that possible. She plans on giving the books to the students, enabling them to build their own libraries. “Having that resource will open doors for their families."
I’ve never met a more deserving person. It's not often you meet someone who has such a strong-willed passion for giving to others, and Mrs. Arriaga exudes this. She wants so badly to help the students in her class succeed, but simply lacks the resources to do so. And that’s where we come in. With the proceeds from the show, we hope to provide books for her to give to her students. In true IB school form, we chose a cause, took an action, and soon we’ll be able to reflect on it. Mrs. Arriaga told her students as much.
“I said, ‘boys and girls, there’s someone who is taking action with our class!’” And the kids are thrilled. Some have even suggested books they want us to buy. This is going to be the most worthwhile shopping trip of my life.