Beatriz Cabrera joined The New Century School this 2016–2017 school year as teacher of elementary and middle school Math and Global Studies. She teaches these two subjects in Spanish, immersing her students in the Spanish language while providing content unrelated to language-learning.
Her background is brimming with teaching experience. After earning a Master’s Degree in Mathematics in her native Spain, Sra. Cabrera began working at a Spanish middle and high school similar to a U.S. charter school. She taught there for 4 years and enjoyed the experience very much, having developed quite a rapport with her coworkers. She still visits them each time she returns to Spain, she says.
When Sra. Cabrera and her husband arrived in the United States from Madrid 2 and 1/2 years ago, she did not speak any English. Since then, she has become fluent enough to teach in both English as well as her native Spanish. She says that although she studied English grammar through high school, using the language in real-life contexts is much different (hence the need for a more immersive approach to language-learning in schools). Her early efforts with the language proved to be of little use. “When I first came here,” she says, “I could not understand a single word!”
Once here, and thrown into the culture, she realized that she just needed to start speaking if she was ever going to be proficient with English—a very immersion-style concept. She emigrated from Spain because her husband, a research scientist, got a position at the National Institute of Aging at the Bayview campus to study how to maintain good health as we age.
When she moved to Baltimore, she found a teaching position after only a week at the Baltimore International Academy, where she taught Math and Science. There, she met Manuel Caceres, who later encouraged her to consider TNCS. She first found out about TNCS, however, because the head of her husband’s research group (also Spanish) highly recommended it, his daughters having attended as preschoolers. She laughs, “I applied just in case, and here I am!”
“I am very happy to be here,” she continued. “I appreciate the environment and my coworkers. The students are very lovely and work very hard. They have a lot of good energy and are very inquisitive. They have an excellent attitude—they love to learn. That is the most important thing.”
Reflections on Dual Language-Learning
She teaches math in Spanish to two separate groups: the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders and the 2nd- and 3rd-graders. She explains:
Spanish and English are very similar languages, so it’s easy for them at this age to work in both languages. It’s important to start early. The materials are all in English, so they are also learning the related English vocabulary, which is necessary, because when they get to high school, they will need that foundation. At the same time, learning in math in Spanish is a great opportunity for them to be special. Not everybody knows a second or even a third language. So this kind of learning makes them more competitive. Being totally fluent in Spanish and Chinese—speaking, writing, reading—will set them apart.
The speaking part, in particular, distinguishes their abilities. Reading and writing in another language can be somewhat easier, as that is how foreign languages are traditionally taught. Being taught another subject entirely in that language, however, trains the brain to operate, to think, in that language—the hallmark of fluency. “When they are in class, they don’t think, ‘I am learning Spanish.’ They think, ‘I am learning math.’ But, in effect, they have 90 minutes of learning two different subjects at the same time, which they don’t even realize.” They are working, enjoying math, but also assimilating Spanish very organically.
Sra. Cabrera also teaches Global Studies to TNCS 2nd- through 6th-graders, which is a new discipline for her. “I have found that Global Studies is something I really like. Again, the materials are all in English because knowing the relevant English vocabulary is important. But, when they make presentations or do projects, they get extra credit for using Spanish. Once again, they do not even realize they are also learning Spanish.” She laughs again—“And also the parents are learning Spanish!” Parents who probably oversaw the creation of the “Egipto” presentations, that is (wink, wink).
“The harder part for the students and the part that takes longer to learn is speaking, and I can understand their feelings. Even going to a restaurant was a challenge for me when I first arrived, so I get it. When they try to speak and find they do not know a word, they lose confidence. I tell them, ‘Just try.’ I am not going to say to them, ‘You should know this.’ No, they are here to learn.”
A True Love of Teaching
With her homeroom, the upper elementary and middle school students, she also places a big focus on Service Learning. Although it has always been an implicit element in the curriculum (see TNCS Elementary Engages in Conservation by the Barrel!, TNCS Elementary Takes Earth Day by Storm!, and TNCS Holiday Outreach Programs), it is a key pillar and core school value as of the 2016–2017 school year. So far, her students have taken a trip to Gunpowder State Park to help clean it up, participated in Project Linus, and acted as ambassadors to a group of Chinese education entrepreneurs visiting the school. An ongoing project is serving as “School Safeties,” escorting the preschoolers into the school building after morning drop-off and ensuring that they arrive safely at their appointed classrooms. “They love this,” she said. “They feel very important when it’s their day to be Safety, wearing their orange vests.”
In her spare time, she explores the United States. “This is a big country with a lot of very interesting places to visit. I have been to Boston, Niagara Falls, Miami, New York a couple of times, Chicago, San Francisco. My next goal is New Orleans.” She also feels a special warmth for Baltimore, but recognizes the city’s pervasive socioeconomic issues. “At my other school,” she says, “my students had family and social problems. They hated snow days because they did not want to have to stay at home—they preferred to come to school. That is so sad. At the end of the day, all they need is love.”
She explains that the way teaching is done in the United States is very different from how it is done in Spain (where adhering closely to an extensive curriculum is paramount). “I am also learning and developing professionally, which is very important. Here, students learn faster because they are pursuing what interests them and they want to be here. We can play math games, for example, which increases their enjoyment but also facilitates the learning process. Sometimes, rote memorization is more emphasized in Spain, which method I do not like. But Spain is starting to emulate some U.S. approaches,” she says with relief.
TNCS is very lucky to have this kind of dedication and insight in all its teachers, and Sra. Cabrera fits right in. “For me, teaching is something I love. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I never saw myself as anything other than a teacher, even from very young. I love what I do. It is not just a job.”