September 15 marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage month in the United States - a month in tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our country and society. For longtime Lower School faculty member, Jen Ferreira, marking what it means to be Hispanic American is an everyday occurrence.
Miss Ferreira who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent revealed that while the culture, music, food, and language of her family have always been important she is actually a language heritage learner - or someone who is around the language but does not speak it.
When asked what this month’s designation means to her, she said, it means “having a spotlight on the wonders of our culture. There's a lot underneath the Latin community. There’s a spectrum, whether you are from Spain, Latin America, or the Caribbean. Then in America, people identify as Puerto Rican American or Columbian American. All that creates a huge, complex community,” she explains.
Identifying with her culture, or herself didn’t always come easy for Miss Ferreira and is part of what drew her to teaching. “Growing up,” she explained, “I felt like I didn't really know where I belonged. I didn't really hear anything about my history.” As a part of her first grade curriculum she wants “kids to be able to explore different communities. It is important to me that they have both windows and mirrors. I want them to be reflected in the room, to see themselves,” she explained.
This month to honor Hispanic Heritage Month, Miss Ferreira will teach lessons around two books with young main characters who she relates to ethnically. The first is Coqui in the City by Nomar Perez about a boy who misses Puerto Rico’s vibrant sights, sounds, and smells and seeks to find them in his new home. And the second is Islandborn by Junot Diaz about a little girl who knows very little about her family’s island of origin and learns about the Dominican Republic through the stories of her family. Together they will give the students a real window into Miss. Ferreira’s heritage.
Miss Ferreira felt she missed the ability to be open and authentic as a kid and is trying to set a different model for her students. “I am a lighter-skinned Latina so I can blend in with the white community but I didn’t really feel like I belonged there. Then with my Latin X community, I didn’t speak the language and because that's such a huge piece, I didn't feel like I belonged there either.”
She also integrates her heritage into her teaching in simple ways. Looking around her classroom, you will find labels for desks and chairs, even numbers and shapes in Spanish. Miss Ferreira also likes to share stories about her upbringing and finds it especially rewarding when students can relate.
“I'll say things in Spanish now and then and describe what was normal for my family growing up. I grew up with a bunch of uncles and aunts living in the same household with one bathroom,” she recalls saying. For many students that is a very different experience, but for those students who can relate, that mirror means everything. “Your teachers are here to reflect but also share connections. It’s powerful for me to share that with them.”
As co-coordinators for Equity and Inclusion in the Lower School, Miss Ferreira and Mrs. Mack are focused on being a resource for the whole division. In addition to professional development and curriculum around holidays and different cultures, Miss Ferreira is well poised to integrate the work she has done in the first grade into the Lower School because, as she says, both mirrors and windows can be very powerful.