School of Many Nations

By David Ruenzel — April 01, 1994 25 min read

It’s midday at the Manhattan International School in New York City, and the lunchroom is serving up a thick linguistic stew. Spanish, Chinese, and Polish predominate, but there is also a dash of Arabic, Bengali, and Lithuanian, not to mention, of course, English. In all, there are 18 languages spoken at this unusual school, which opened its doors last September.

Located in Chinatown, on the fourth floor of an elementary school building framed by crowded sidewalks on which vendors peddle fish, vegetables, and Chinese-language newspapers, Manhattan International is a public school of almost staggering diversity. About the only things students here have in common are low scores on English-proficiency tests and four years or less in the United States--these being the two prerequisites for admission. All are here by choice, most having been referred by guidance counselors at other schools.

The 90 9th graders at Manhattan International--another 90 or so will be added in each of the next three years--are immigrants from 22 countries, including Bangladesh, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Haiti. They range in age from 14 to 17 and may take anywhere from three to five years to graduate. Almost a quarter have been in the United States less than six months; more than three-quarters have been here less than two years. All have had to make cultural adjustments, be it something as small as dealing with a religious prohibition on eating pork served in the cafeteria or something as anxiety-provoking as living with parents from whom they’ve been separated for months or years. While some, like a boy from Bosnia, have come with their families to escape war and political or religious oppression, the majority, like so many immigrants before them, are simply seeking the happiness that attends prosperity. “I thought it would be rich,’' a Polish girl named Angelica says of America. “I thought I’d get a BMW with an open top. Then I come here with my family and have a tiny four-room apartment.’'

Some students speak English with a near fluency or at least an awkward efficiency; others, recently arrived, lapse, when approached, into a laconic silence or manage to emit a colloquial “How ya doin’?’' Teachers say a boy speaking Bengali--a language with an arcane grammar and script--was in shock, “like a deer in headlights,’' when he first arrived. While he is now doing better, he still appears taciturn, never glancing up from the map he is working on to exchange a word with anybody.

Students’ academic backgrounds are just as varied as their languages and cultures. Some, like the Poles, have a strong foundation in math and science, while others, like many of the Haitians, have had little more than a 3rd grade education.

For many teachers and administrators, diversity of this magnitude would be intimidating, even terrifying. Since the formation of the first common schools more than 100 years ago, educators have puzzled over how to reach classrooms of students with little in common, and they’ve done what they could to avoid them. But not the educators at Manhattan International. Here teachers and administrators see diversity as an asset. And it shows. There is a buoyancy about the place, a bristling energy that seems particularly American.

Teachers here do not attempt to dissuade students from speaking their native languages, for bilingualism is perceived as a strength. It keeps students rooted in their own cultures, even as they attempt rapprochement with another. More pragmatically, students utilize their native languages to augment their understanding of English; together, they translate, paraphrase, summarize, and explore the nuances of English expression.

The belief that students learn English best when simply immersed in an English-speaking environment is rejected by the Manhattan International faculty. “It’s a myth,’' says Rona Armilla, assistant director of the school and a bilingual educator with 20 years of experience. “Sink or swim--we would have lost a lot of these kids with that philosophy. [It’s] one of the very reasons why the New York schools are losing so many kids.’'

The fact that the New York City public schools were indeed losing so many students, particularly immigrants with extremely limited English-speaking skills, induced the board of education in 1985 to create the LaGuardia International School--the progenitor of Manhattan International.

From its inception, LaGuardia International, which is located on the LaGuardia Community College campus in Queens, has been a “break the mold’’ school, determined to change, sometimes radically, the way foreign-born students have traditionally been taught. The school’s faculty, guided by principal Eric Nadelstern, decided early on to de-emphasize drill in English grammar, pass-fail testing, and the familiar textbooks and work sheets. Instead, students learn English as they learn subject matter, the idea being that language learning is most effective as an outgrowth of academic activity rather than as an exercise conducted in a vacuum.

But the critical component of the school’s vision--that which distinguishes LaGuardia International from the vast majority of other schools--is its emphasis on collaboration. Students are no longer taught English by a drill-oriented taskmaster but are instead placed into diverse groups where they learn English--and course content--from one another. Learning, not teaching, predominates. Paraphrasing Jean Piaget, LaGuardia physics teacher David Hirschy said in a 1990 speech: “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it for himself. The goal is for students to assume responsibility for their own learning and to discover how they learn best.’'

Group work, LaGuardia teachers believe, enables students to pool resources that a solitary teacher could never provide. And because the 460 students speak 42 languages, they have a tremendous incentive to communicate with one another in English.

Clearly, LaGuardia is succeeding in its mission. Now in its ninth year, the school has an attendance rate of 95 percent; what’s more impressive, 93 percent of its graduates have gone on to college, this in spite of the fact that two-thirds come from families at or below the poverty level.

William Ling worked as a teacher and administrator at LaGuardia before leaving last year--at the gentle urging of Nadelstern, his mentor--to found and direct the Manhattan International School. Ling was perfectly happy and productive at LaGuardia, which, oddly enough, is the very reason he left. “Complacency is the enemy,’' Ling says. “That’s the funny thing about [LaGuardia] International. They’re constantly reinventing themselves and encourage you to do the same. Whenever you’re beginning to feel complacent, that’s the time to challenge yourself and do something else.’'

Ling, a soft-spoken, gracious man of 45 who compares his first years of teaching in East Harlem to missionary work, emphasizes that while Manhattan International is modeled after LaGuardia, emulation should not be confused with slavish imitation. Like Nadelstern, Ling believes that good schools are unique and, therefore, inimitable, each being an evolving vision of a particular group of people. “We had a retreat a couple of weeks ago,’' Ling says, “in which we tried to hammer out what we will expect from our kids, what a kid will look like after four years with us. We are not yet 100 percent sure of these things as a shared vision. It’s fluid, constantly evolving.’'

This does not mean that the school started at a kind of philosophical ground zero. As a member of the Center for Collaborative Education, a New York affiliate of the reformminded Coalition of Essential Schools (headed nationally by Theodore Sizer of Brown University), the Manhattan International School takes a broadly progressive, holistic view of learning. Because faculty and students must know each other well--that is, as “whole’’ people--coalition schools are limited to 500 students. Students are seen as workers rather than as passive absorbers of information, and they are assessed on how well they perform on self-initiated projects rather than on standardized tests. Classes are organized with a mix of ages and ability levels, the assumption being that students frequently learn best from one another.

The broad coalition principles provide the framework for Manhattan International, but Ling believes that teachers, working together, must have the primary responsibility for “creating’’ the school. He values flexibility in his teachers as much as their classroom skills; democracy, he says, demands an unselfish willingness to change.

Not surprisingly, then, teachers at the Manhattan International School have significant latitude, both in and out of the classroom. Each Wednesday, students are dismissed at lunch time so the 11 staff members can spend the afternoon together, going through an agenda that they themselves have developed with Ling’s input. The teachers initially found this new freedom and accompanying responsibilities somewhat unsettling, even though virtually all had fled large, impersonal New York City schools for the increased intimacy and autonomy a school like Manhattan International offers. “Many teachers,’' Ling says, “first find teaching at a school like this a frightening experience because we all arrive with a mindset of where we have been. You’ve been teaching a certain way all these years, and now someone is giving you freedom, encouraging you to explore. There’s apprehension. What does it mean for our students to learn something well? To graduate from our school? You never have it down pat. I tell the faculty that it’s a continual struggle to which there’s no permanent solution. And that’s how it should be. Because as soon as we develop criteria, absolute standards, we become like any other system. You’re never completely set; once you think you’re completely set, it’s dangerous.’'

Black, brown, white, yellow... Here at the Manhattan International School the Rainbow Coalition is a living reality rather than a political slogan. Kids wear everything from gaudy jewelry and rich brocades to flannel shirts and generic jeans. But most popular, especially among the boys, are T-shirts and sweat shirts lettered with names of American colleges and professional sports teams. Chicago Bulls clothing is particularly popular--"I want to be like Mike,’' one boy, finding himself observed, says with a smirk. A lot of the kids look extremely American, and it’s more than just the clothing. Upon request, Hector, a boy in teacher Dan Grywacz’s social studies class, demonstrates his “Michael Jackson moonwalk.’' He glides across the floor and then returns to his seat, where he is designing a seal for New York City. On his paper, a dollar bill, like a pigeon, flaps its wings above the Statue of Liberty.

All day, every day, in classrooms that are noisy but not unruly, students work in groups. Chinese work with Latinos, Poles with Haitians. Together they consolidate research, solve problems, debate issues, and try to unravel the meaning of certain English words and phrases. The latter sometimes leads to mimicry, pantomime, or impasse. In Grywacz’s social studies class, for instance, a group is stumped by the word “tugboat.’' The teacher tries to explain but gets nowhere. Then he grabs a student’s arms and begins to tug; “Oh, tugboat,’' the boy says with sudden clarity. “Tugboat!’' In another group, “barge’’ causes confusion. One student draws a square and holds it up; the others nod--ah, yes, a barge is a square boat.

Later in the morning, during a human-relations class, the students read a New York Times report about a menacing ritual that had been occurring in municipal pools. Groups of teenage boys churned the water around isolated girls whom they then harassed and sometimes assaulted. In the article, the word “vagina’’ appears, which the Polish students say they do not understand. A frantic attempt is made to secure a Polish dictionary, but the word is not there; the kids claim that the only word in Polish is vulgar slang.

Learning new words encountered in reading is an ongoing process. The students, in order to enlarge their vocabularies, compile glossaries. Sometimes this causes amusing misunderstandings. A boy working on the pool assignment comes across the word “fondling.’' This sends him to his dictionary and, after some rumination, he writes the following entry in his glossary: “Fond: to have kind feelings for.’'

Things are particularly difficult for students who arrive in midyear. Four Chinese girls who speak scarcely a word of English feverishly page through English-Chinese dictionaries, trying to figure out what the assignment is all about. With their heads bowed together over their desks, they look as if they’re trying to hide. Many new students are apprehensive, temporarily withdrawn, but these four, counselor and translator Lillian Jay explains, must make an even greater adjustment; raised in the authoritarian climate of mainland China, they’re discomfited by the new freedom.

A Polish girl, in the United States for all of two weeks, strolls over to the Chinese girls, produces a billfold, and shows them her family pictures. Politely, the girls nod, smile, and return to their dictionaries; the Polish girl returns to her seat. It’s not much of an introduction, but it’s one of the ways in which students from vastly different cultures break the ice.

Teachers of all subjects at Manhattan Inter- national emphasize thematic units culminating in projects. The theme Grywacz’s students are working on this semester is “Cities.’' They’re beginning with New York--that being a city familiar to all--but will eventually move on to ancient Rome, 12th century Paris, and 4th century Istanbul.

As this suggests, Grywacz isn’t particularly concerned with chronology. He believes--as do his colleagues--that broad thematic approaches are more sensible, particularly for immigrants of limited-English proficiency. Presenting subject matter sequentially tends to confuse students, as information presented one day may not appear to have any apparent connection with information presented on the next. Like a flock of butterflies, facts and figures flutter about to no apparent purpose.

Grywacz, a cheerful man in his early 30s with an unpretentious literary air, says he once tried to use a sequential approach to teach limited-English speakers but found it nearly impossible. “Using chronology with kids from different countries presupposes a lot of things,’' he explains. “Mainstream kids, for instance, may have impressions of old England or France that these students just don’t have. I remember trying to get Russia across to Haitian kids--that was wild. Using themes is a more thorough way to get at a concept. If a kid studies something like ‘law,’ ‘motion,’ or ‘cities’ in depth and then applies these concepts to specific cases, he’s far better off than memorizing, say, the rules and mores that govern various societies.’'

One of the greatest challenges of using a thematic approach is finding materials that will give focus to what are extremely long and open-ended projects. Teachers at Manhattan International think that commercial textbooks, thin in content and style and yet fatuously bulky, are inappropriate for all students but particularly for those who are being introduced to English. Nothing can kill a student’s incipient interest in language and literature faster than the desiccated language borne of “smog indexes.’' As a result, teachers use original sources or paraphrases of such sources that they themselves have created.

The front table in Grywacz’s social studies classroom is buried with books, encyclopedias, and magazines. Students are using the materials in their study of New York. One of the students, an Arab boy, has found his own source, an issue of the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer; he asks Grywacz if he may use it. “I guess it’s OK this time,’' Grywacz says, “though in the future you may want to use newspapers that are more serious.’'

Grywacz has created his own guidebook for the “Cities’’ unit, and most of the students are in its first pages. Today, they’re finishing up their New York seals, which are supposed to depict their impressions of the city. For the most part, the seals are finely rendered in colored pencil, utilizing a variety of symbols and images. As in Hector’s seal, the Statue of Liberty is often the dominant element; around her float airplanes, ships, skyscrapers. Noteworthy is the prevalence of money as a visual motif; seeing the Statue of Liberty strafed and festooned with bills, it’s hard not to think that the students equate freedom with wealth. Grywacz says most of the students still think that America has “streets paved with gold,’' though this conflicts with their own experiences of the city. Most of their parents work in factories, restaurants, or kiosks, or are on welfare--as is the case of a particularly articulate Polish girl. “I was the richest girl in my school back in Poland,’' the girl says. Still, she remains optimistic, believing that anyone who lives in America can get ahead with determination and hard work.

A key tenet of the school is that there must not be any separation between language learning and subject matter. As one learns social studies and math, one learns English; as one learns English, one learns social studies and math. This explains why so much of the students’ work consists of visuals and graphs accompanied by writing. While students may not yet be able to express themselves well in English, they can create cityscapes, maps of the five New York boroughs, and glossaries with small pictures of, say, an automobile and a subway station. As their English improves, they begin to write more nuanced text, describing, for instance, the borough in which they live.

The theme for the first semester at Manhattan International is “Beginnings,’' which consists of a number of holistic activities combining science, math, composition, and literature. Students, after interviewing a partner, write a biography in a series of drafts; later, they conceive of questions they’d like to ask a famous scientist and then research the answers. These activities culminate in a comprehensive autobiography, which includes a family tree, a personal time line, and genealogical research. Other units ask students to calculate the relationship between human height and individual bone lengths and to study the dimensions of cockroaches. In the process, students learn, among other things, how to gather data and calculate ratios as they construct graphs and charts.

Pure abstraction is typically avoided in the teaching of science and math. This is because students have such uneven levels of scientific and mathematical training; a concrete emphasis gives everyone an opportunity to participate. Map- making, for instance, is the focus of a math class. As amateur cartographers, the students learn how to apply certain mathematical principles to their work. What’s more, projectoriented activities like this require precision, compelling students to use English with as much exactitude as possible.

One of the eight points in the mission statement of the LaGuardia International School reads, “Attempts to homogeneously group students in an effort to make instruction more manageable preclude the way adolescents learn best: that is, from each other.’' LaGuardia teacher David Hirschy writes that “Heterogeneity is not a problem to be solved. In fact, when embraced, it is a positive force in the classroom.’' These statements reflect the belief that the more heterogeneous a school is--the more respectful it is of individual differences--the better it is.

Over and over again, teachers at Manhattan International speak of the necessity of teaching the students before them. And this, they say, should be seen less as a dire necessity than as an opportunity to help students draw on variegated talents and backgrounds. Too many teachers at too many schools, they claim, are attempting to teach to their idealized student, disregarding the fact that those before them have their own histories, their own passions and problems, that cannot--and should not--be whitewashed in pursuit of some imaginary pupil.

Some teachers at the school speak almost contemptuously of policymakers who think that students’ reading, writing, and math skills will automatically improve if we just set higher standards, drill, and test. “The idea that you can just raise standards and get tough is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’' Rona Armilla says. “Now, in New York, we have higher standards, and more and more and more kids are bound not to meet them. It doesn’t help the people on the bottom to move up. So we still have teachers teaching to imaginary kids.’'

Armilla describes a visit she made to a predominantly Hispanic and African-American school. “You walk into this school, and what do you see displayed in the lobby? Black and white photographs of famous people who graduated from the school. Who are they? Italian, Irish ... Nothing in that school reinforces its kids. And you can’t talk to the teachers and administrators in this school. ‘Let’s,’ I said, ‘stop trying to teach to these kids who aren’t here. They left 50 years ago, and now you have to teach to the kids who are here.’ People go around angry because kids aren’t the way they want them to be.’'

Wanting kids to be a certain way, or insisting that schools make them a certain way, is an old American tendency. When waves of poorly educated immigrants from eastern and southern Europe swept onto American shores a century ago, nervous politicians and educators wondered how they would ever be able to absorb such a diverse population. There was an attempt to recast students in a kind of American mold, or to at least chip away at the sometimes stubborn ethnicity. In accordance with new principles of scientific management and mass production, schools adopted an almost mechanistic approach to education, designed to impress students with knowledge and skills as they were conveyed from one classroom to the next. Students were subjected to increasingly heavy doses of standardized tests along with an inoculation of civics. Those showing sterling results were deemed the best and brightest, the most promising Americans.

The others--often immigrants who seemed less malleable-- were not to receive rigorous academic preparation. Instead, they were slated to remain in the working class from which most had come. By and large, they were slotted for vocational training, which consisted of curricula derived from the agricultural, industrial, and household arts. The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, an influential publication written in 1918 by the National Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, recommended that students be taught: “1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home-membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.’' Number two, “Command of fundamental processes,’' meant that students should learn the three R’s. There was nothing in the document about intellectual training.

The idea behind this frankly coercive education was to sort students into fairly uniform groups. But this quest for homogeneity, this attempt to modify if not to erase an immigrant’s past, has never, many educators now agree, really been successful but for a small number of students. A few graduated; many of the others dropped out and got factory work--factory work that is less and less available in the United States.

In an attempt to reverse this deterministic course, the LaGuardia and Manhattan International schools have eradicated this drill-and-test mentality. Students learn English in the context of ordinary reading and conversation. Teachers do not correct their students’ English, particularly in the early stages of their language learning; they believe that students shy away from speaking a new language when overly conscious of making errors. Furthermore, the school sets students up with career internships beginning in the 9th grade. These internships--offered in businesses, social-service agencies, elementary schools, and other similar places--have a manifold purpose. In the narrowest sense, students learn how to interview, how to prepare a resume, and how to dress and comport themselves accordingly; they’re also compelled to venture out into a city from which many of them, quite naturally, would like to retreat. But, in a much broader and more important sense, students are not so much being trained for a specific job or position as being given an opportunity to weigh career choices and to understand what those choices will require of them. The goal is to provide students with a sense of options, of possibilities. “Sure we could just let them get jobs at McDonald’s,’' Ling says. “But what would that say about our expectations for them?’'

Teachers at Manhattan International--once they adjust to the school’s tone and methodology--seem to experience a professional, and even spiritual, relief. English teacher Sophie Balcoff, who for several years taught at a large New York City high school, used to stand in front of classes for 50 minutes. “The stress level was terrible,’' she says. “We’d drill and drill. The ones who got it were quickly bored; the ones at the bottom struggled, not really getting help. You’d have to yell, scream all the time, to get anything out of them. The kids start to think, ‘If the teachers don’t beat on us, they’re not serious.’ So you had to be very firm, very mean. If you weren’t that way, you’d get stepped on, destroyed. You had to steel yourself to be a very firm disciplinarian.’'

This destructive cycle of acting tough, followed by a redoubled emphasis on acting tough to show that one isn’t merely posturing, is a shared experience among many teachers. It’s a difficult cycle to break out of, for a variety of reasons. Students, for one thing, are likely to have a hard time adjusting to a more collaborative approach, perceiving the greater freedom, at least initially, as an indication of teacher weakness. Furthermore, teachers are likely to encounter administrative opposition.

Khan Nguyendon, who came to the United States from Vietnam at the age of 11, had little success as a traditional math teacher at his former Upper East Side school of 4,000 students. Students were lost and alienated, so he slowly began to incorporate more group work into his classes. “For the first three years, I caught shit,’' Nguyendon says. “The supervisor was rigid, wanting me to cover four problems a day. Besides, the chairs were bolted to the floor, making it pretty damn hard to do group work. And then there was the principal. He was set on having a quiet class and used to watch me teach through the window.’'

Nguyendon believes it’s inherently difficult to set up collaborative groups at large schools. The method, he says, almost demands a small, intimate atmosphere so that the relationships between students and teachers do not vanish into fluorescent anonymity as soon as the class is over. “If I saw a fight in my old school,’' Nguyendon explains, “I wasn’t going to get involved because I didn’t know the kids. I could call the dean, but by the time he arrived it would be too late.’'

Director Ling is himself a kind of quintes- sential Manhattan International student; English is his fourth language. Born in South America of Chinese parents, he first learned Spanish, Chinese, and French. His father, a United Nations civil servant, brought his family to New York City when Ling was 13. Speaking no English when he arrived, Ling attended the U.N. school where the teachers were mentors in the fullest sense of the word, guiding both personal and academic development. To this very day, Ling sometimes feels the demanding but kindly presence of his math teacher over his shoulder.

Ling says the education he received at the U.N. school is the kind of education he wants to pass on to his own students. He wants to help them make the crossing from their foreign pasts to their American futures without closing the door on those pasts. This straddling is an admittedly delicate balance. To remain wholly steeped in the past is to shut oneself from worthwhile American values; to close the door on the past is to risk superficiality, becoming all too susceptible to an omnipresent American popular culture. “We’re passing on Kim Basinger, Madonna, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to people who are demanding this stuff all over the world,’' Ling says. “Hollywood, popular music, entertainment ... it’s a liberating force, but is it a good force? I don’t know. It creates rebelliousness and alienation that are very difficult to combat.

“It all comes down to one question: Why did your parents come to the United States? Usually it’s an economic situation, and that’s actually the trouble. The kids see that the U.S. is colorful, bursting with variety, but they’re confused by American values. On one hand, America is altruistic; on the other, it’s violent and racist. It’s a cruel world for immigrants--it’s always been cruel--so there’s this concern with ‘Getting my piece.’ Everyone comes here to reap benefits, but we want kids to think about what they’re sowing. If you’re philosophy is, ‘I’ll make a fortune, litter the streets of New York with garbage, not vote,’ you’ll be contributing to the decline of this country. The whole entrepreneurial spirit gets in the way of values.’'

It’s far too early to say how well the Manhattan International School is doing in imparting values skewed more toward American ideals than American realities. However, it seems indisputable that the school is on the right track. There is in the classrooms an air of mutual respect, allowing for a playfulness that never degenerates into chaos. And the students clearly like it here, pleased to be in a school where, as one girl puts it, “the teacher is a friend, not a God who’s always telling you what you’re doing wrong.’'

In few American schools do students say they want to become teachers. They want, instead, to be businesspeople, lawyers, celebrities--anything but members of a profession that they perceive as being marked by unrelenting hassle and grief. Khan Nguyendon says that at his former school, not one student out of 120 wanted to be a teacher.

At Manhattan International, however, teaching is an extremely popular career choice. That so many want to join a profession that is, at least ideally, altruistic at heart perhaps speaks better than anything of a new school teeming with a unique kind of American promise.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as School of Many Nations