This Harlem teacher shares how she encourages various writers

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Growing up in the Bronx, books offered an escape for Fatuma Hydara, who, as the eldest daughter of a Muslim family of West African immigrants, took on many household chores.

Because of her love of books, she decided at a young age to pursue a career as a librarian, book publisher or teacher. After a summer internship at HarperCollins showed her that office life wasn’t for her, she decided to become a teacher. She has been in the classroom for eight years.

Hydara teaches English to eighth graders at Harlem’s Neighborhood Charter School, where her background has helped her connect with students and parents who are also Muslim and West African. Some of these families, including their own, have ties to the borough of the Bronx, where New York City recently experienced one of the deadliest fires in decades.

Hydara’s background also inspired her to open her own virtual bookstore. Tuma’s books and thingswhere she curates a selection of books each month by authors who identify as Black, Indigenous, Black and/or Queer.

“My mission is to ensure ALL identities can find stories that reflect and honor who they are while allowing others to learn about people who might be different from them,” Hydara said.

She also sits on the Council of Educators for RetroReports, a non-profit journalistic organization that creates classroom-friendly videos that aim to connect history with current events. She is one of 20 educators from across the country in the founding board of the organizationtasked with helping create lessons to accompany the videos.

Hydara spoke to Chalkbeat about being a bibliophile, the importance of having teachers who look like her, and how this school year has been more challenging than any other.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Tell us more about your love of books and how it inspired you to start your own virtual bookstore.

Growing up, I had a limited and sheltered childhood. As the eldest daughter of West African immigrants, I had many responsibilities at home – taking care of my siblings, doing chores around the house and helping my parents settle in America as a translator. I wasn’t able to get many experiences or explore different places. But books have opened up worlds for me instead.

As much as I loved reading and books, I never came across characters like me – black, first-generation Muslim girls, West African girls. And I didn’t even recognize it as a problem until I got older and started reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Reading my first African writer felt like coming home after years of being away.

Does your school serve students from the West African region where your family is from? I wonder how important you think it is for these students to see you in your role as a teacher.

Yes, there are West African students and that’s a big part of what I enjoy about working at this school. I think it’s definitely important because I’m able to connect with these students on a personal level. They share information about their family life that they don’t share with other teachers. I am able to communicate with their families in a way that they appreciate and understand. I knew my presence made a difference when on the first day of Ramadan a student I do NOT teach walked into my classroom, asked if I was fasting, said “me too” when I said yes and asked for a fist bump.

Did anyone at your school – or even yourself – have any connections to the community or to the victims of the tragic fire in the Bronx? We had heard that it was difficult for this close-knit community, made up largely of Muslims from The Gambia and other West African countries.

Yes, I used to live in another building owned by the same company just a few blocks away. My parents still live there. I have many friends who lived in the building and a close friend who lost her sister. Many of my friends and I came together in those first terrible days to support as much as possible. It was amazing how much money the church was able to raise and how many supplies we were gathering to take care of our own.

Did you find this year more difficult than the previous ones given the long time students have been away from the physical classroom? Do you see something different in your students?

This year was definitely different. Many students are used to (and prefer) the looser routines of home. While my school had a solid online program, there were many students who did not enroll in Zoom or [do so] in time. They checked out early for chores or errands. You just didn’t finish the job. Given the mitigating [circumstances]we all passed the students, but it instilled bad habits and a worrying mindset in the students.

Most students started the year believing they didn’t have to work for their grades. They didn’t care about working hard. Offline and tech-free students’ attention spans are shorter than ever. My reading and writing stamina is lower than it has ever been in my career.

Tell us about a favorite lesson. Where did the idea come from?

One lesson I love is my intro to Macbeth by Shakespeare. I set the scene by closing the blinds and finding thunder/lightning sounds on YouTube. And I read the lines of the three witches with the sound effects. It immediately puts the students in an understanding of the mood, and in later scenes they better understand why Macbeth should be wary of the witches.

What’s happening in the community that affects what’s going on in your class?

My school is in Harlem on a very busy street with a police station on the subway. I think my students are affected by the same things as many urban New York kids – poverty, drug use, homelessness, mental health, etc. Many of the families we work with have been impacted by the pandemic and their financial constraints. Nearly 100% of our students are entitled to a free lunch.

What part of your job is the hardest?

What I struggle with the most is the work/life balance. The long day at a charter school drains me, and when I get home I’m often too tired for many other things. I would also like to continue learning and improving my craft but participating outside [professional development sessions] is a schedule nightmare due to lack of coverage.

What was the biggest misunderstanding that you initially brought into the teaching?

I thought schools were well-oiled running machines, but there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to roles. When one part fails to do its job, others have to overcompensate, or it starts to come loose. I quickly realized that teachers are the backbone of the education system, but our role is often devalued and our voices are silenced.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about teaching?

You can’t do everything and you can’t help everyone. Many things are literally beyond your ability as an educator. As one teacher in a long line that a child will have, all you can do is do your best and then pass the torch.

Amy Zimmer is Chalkbeat New York Office Manager. Contact Amy at [email protected]

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