Education Across Languages
Bennington’s experiential “learning by doing philosophy” of education allows students to assemble a toolbox of skills, which in turn prepare them to not just secure a job, but also to become innovators and leaders in their chosen fields.
Such is the case for Z Winters-Derevjanik ’20, who discovered Bennington when they were 11 years old and have since found the college to be the perfect place to pursue their two passions: neuroscience and education.
“When I came to Bennington, I wanted to focus on how individuals' brains worked and find out how we could use that information to make the delivery of public education more accessible and effective,” Winters-Derevjanik said.
Intent on one day becoming the US Secretary of Education, Winters-Derevjanik has used both their Plan process and their Field Work Terms (FWT) as a training ground to reach this goal.
“I know that getting that job is not only going to take extensive teaching time, but it’s also going to take a background in educational research and policy. So I’d like to use my FWTs to get an idea of what that work actually looks like,” Winters-Derevjanik said.
In 2017, Winters-Derevjanik spent their FWT in New York City at the Education Development Center researching autism spectrum disorders, STEM education, and the specific needs of autistic learners.
Though Winters-Derevjanik found the experience eye-opening, “for the entire seven weeks, I kept thinking, ‘I miss actually being around kids.’ So I was determined to get into a public school classroom this year.”
Winters-Derevjanik found an opportunity to work at Auburn Middle School in Auburn, ME, as a teacher’s assistant in the English Language Learning department. In addition to serving a broad range of students on an as-needed basis, Winters-Derevjanik worked every day with five boys from Angola, Iraq, and Somalia.
This FWT experience, Winters-Derevjanik felt, was right in their wheelhouse.
“I’m part of the four-college research Consortium on Displacement, Forced Migration and Education that Bennington participates in with Vassar, Bard, and Sarah Lawrence,” Winters-Derevjanik said. “Last spring, I went to Bard with Susan Sgorbati and Ella Ben Hagai to present on the social and emotional needs of immigrants in American public schools.”
It was that research, Winters-Derevjanik said, that solidified their want to work with refugee youth in an educational capacity. Since they also have experience teaching English as a second language, the position at Auburn Middle School felt “kind of perfect for me.”
Still, the work Winters-Derevjanik undertook came with its own surprises.
“I knew I was going to be dealing with kids from war-ravaged areas, kids who maybe hadn’t had a roof over their heads for a while,” Winters-Derevjanik said. “But what I didn’t expect was having to deal with one of my 7th graders fake-crying all day because he didn’t have time in his schedule to give his valentine to his 8th-grade girlfriend.”
Middle school and early adolescence are universally challenging.
“I was so focused on these students as refugees, English language learners—all of these political identifiers—and I wasn’t thinking about the fact that they’re 13, they’re dealing with puberty, and they love that pizza is served every other Friday in the cafeteria,” Winters-Derevjanik said.
The added challenge of working with middle school boys through language constraints, however, also brought Winters-Derevjanik unique rewards. They described tutoring a 7th grade Iraqi boy in math and finding the moment when the boy began solving the problems on his own.
“We were working on subtracting two digit numbers with carrying over, which wouldn’t be hard to explain to an average English-speaking 7th grader but was extremely hard with such a huge language barrier,” Winters-Derevjanik said.
However, by the third line on the worksheet, the student started working through the steps without Winters-Derevjanik guiding every one.
“He would point and say, ‘Okay, this step next.’ He couldn’t put English words to the steps, but he understood the concepts, which was much more important to me than him having the math vocabulary for it,” Winters-Derevjanik said.
Rewarding moments in the classroom, along with the live/work set-up of Winters-Derevjanik’s experience, were what made this FWT invaluable to them. Living situations can make or break a FWT, and Winters-Derevjanik stressed the benefit of their particular arrangement.
I chose to live with a teacher at Auburn Middle School, which meant I got a fuller experience of what it’s like to be a teacher. Z Winters-Derevjanik '20
“We’d get up early to set up the classroom, stay late for meetings, and grade papers over dinner. I think that told me a lot about what teaching is actually like.”
With two FWT experiences under their belt, Winters-Derevjanik has refined their thoughts on education reform to include their newfound understanding of educational systems.
“Going forward, I’m pulling away from just looking at education in terms of individuals and individual emotional needs and experiences and looking instead at the systems that reproduce an effective education,” Winters-Derevjanik said. “I think that’s going to tell me more about how to reform it than individual research will.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer