Teacher makes connection between writing schoolwork and students’ lives
Nearly half of the students in Danielle Bero’s class are homeless or in foster care, and almost all come from low-performing middle schools and meet federal standards for a free lunch. For these kids, concentrating in class can be almost impossible. But Bero’s approach to writing and speech — from poetry slams to screenwriting — is engaging the students, and earning her a nomination for a Hometown Heroes in Education award.Comments (1)
By Ben Chapman / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, June 22, 2013, 10:06 PM
Susan Watts/New York Daily News
Danielle Bero is nominated for a Hometown Heroes award for her work as a creative writing teacher with disadvantaged kids.
Queens native Danielle Bero, 28, connects with students at the Broome Street Academy Charter High School in SoHo by encouraging them to express themselves through poetry, screenplays and letters to pen pals overseas.
Nearly half of her students are homeless or in foster care, and almost all come from low-performing middle schools and meet federal standards for a free lunch. For these kids, concentrating in class can be almost impossible.
But Bero keeps them engaged with creative assignments that draw on their own life experiences.
No topic is considered off-limits or too difficult to tackle in her class.
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“I create a safe space for students to talk about whatever they want,” said Bero, who has taught at the Academy since it was founded in 2011. “They know they can share anything and nobody will judge them for it.”
Bero’s inspiration for teaching at-risk youth in the city came from stints studying in Africa and working as a teacher in Indonesia after she graduated college.
That’s when she came to believe that even young people who face dire situations, such as war and extreme poverty, can find solace and strength from creative projects.
And Bero said her background — attending Queens public schools and Lafayette College on a scholarship — helps her forge a special connection with her students.
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“The students connect with me because I came from a similar background and I understand where they’re coming from,” said Bero, whose class is mandatory for freshmen.
She tries to make her assignments as accessible and inspiring as possible for her students. Poetry slams and screenplay-writing exercises are class favorites so far.
The goal, said Bero, is to forge a connection between schoolwork and her students’ lives outside of class, even if the subjects can be difficult.
Sexuality, domestic violence, addiction, homelessness and racism are among the topics that Bero’s students have confronted in their coursework.
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Jayda Estrada, a freshman from the Bronx, said the class takes kids out of their comfort zone, but in a way that allows them to feel confident in what they have to say.
“It taught me how to stand up for what I believe in, in a creative way,” said Jayda, 15. “It’s okay to have opinions when you write. You can say what you want.”
Bero, who also runs the school’s creative writing and performance club, and coaches the basketball teams, said she’s happiest when her students feel empowered.
“I want to provide them with a safe and productive environment so they’re not on the streets,” said Bero. “Whatever it is, at least I’m in the room with them.”
What is and has always been important to Bero is social justice. So important that she created her own major at Lafayette called creative media and social justice. Discovering who matters occurred when she worked as a KIC volunteer through the Landis Community Outreach Center. As KIC grew, Bero realized the programming could no longer accommodate children spanning ages 6 to 17, so she started a spinoff program called Teens in the Community.
“The minute I went down the hill and met those kids, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she says. “Back in my social justice classes, I found that the solutions to most of the problems we discussed were access and education. If I could be involved in education, I could target a lot of the issues directly.”
She began that journey by first winning a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to work at a high school outside Jakarta, Indonesia, for a year. She taught students conversational English and helped them gain a better understanding of the United States. When she returned she began teaching English to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders in the Bronx through Teach for America.
Bero received a master’s in secondary English education at Herbert H. Lehman College, City University of New York, and is completing a second master’s there in educational leadership/educational management.
She is a founding teacher at Broome Street Academy (BSA), a charter high school that opened in the SoHo area of Manhattan last year. The school recruits students who are homeless, in foster care, or from low-performing middle schools. Through its partnership with The Door, one of New York City’s leading youth development organizations, BSA also provides nonacademic services, including counseling, health care, creative arts, and college prep programs.
“Students in foster care or transitional housing are one of the most troubled, at-risk, and forgotten populations,” Bero says. “A school like BSA completely changes the game—and the trajectory of success—for them.”
Bero teaches creative writing, coaches the boys’ basketball team, runs a writing program, and serves on the committee that oversees the school’s unique advisory program. Each student is assigned to a small group, guided by an adviser. Bero’s creates the curriculum and lesson plans, which include team building, community service, and leadership.
Most of Bero’s students relate more closely to Jay-Z than Shakespeare, so by integrating artistic genres like hip hop and film, she gives them more confidence to express themselves. Her pupils study hip hop lyrics and culture and discuss misogyny in the music industry. They create their own 16-bar verses and choruses about topics that arise in class. The slam/spoken word unit builds on those skills.
“Hip hop can be visceral and gut-wrenching, and when I see my students have that same connection with their inner selves, it’s a beautiful moment,” says Bero, who records and performs her own work.
Bero wants to do more than teach. For instance, she wants her students to study abroad. In addition to her year in Indonesia, as an undergraduate, she mentored and taught children for a summer in Namibia and South Africa and studied in Guatemala for three weeks during an interim session.
“My trips to Indonesia have produced some of the most meaningful experiences in my life,” she says. “My first stay allowed me to grow up. I became more patient. It solidified my desire to teach. I felt the most intense homesickness and felt the most liberated. Being able to travel through Lafayette opportunities equipped me with the strength and knowledge to absorb into the culture.”
BSA will select 10 students for a cultural immersion program, in which they will study language and culture, and conduct team-building exercises. Bero will accompany them to Java, Bali, and Sumatra next spring.
“Lafayette helped me define myself and put me in a position to speak for those who didn’t have a voice,” says Bero. “If I hadn’t gone to Lafayette, many of the opportunities I have been able to take advantage of might not have existed. It provided me the very access that I try to provide to my students.”
I read with great interest the work you are doing and your dedication to helping children who are less fortunate. It is apparent that this has been a passion and commitment of yours from the time you attended Lafayette .
As an alumnus who graduated 50 years before you (1956) I have similar feelings and interests. I will be in New York in the Fall and perhaps we can have lunch and discuss our mutual interests. Amongst my involvements is the Lee Pesky Learning Center http://www.lplearningcenter.org and the Pesky Award for Inspirational Teaching (Google).
Congratulations on your good work ………Best regards , Alan Pesky