Learning the language of connection

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Rachel Bujalski

Photo by Jason Reblando

Rachel Bujalski

At Cárdenas Elementary, a year-round school in Little Village, Rachel Bujalski is about to teach an art lesson to a kindergarten class.

The challenge: They have just begun to learn English, and Bujalski is still learning Spanish.
Bujalski holds up a poster of Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” an abstract painting of yellow lines broken up by white, blue and red squares.

“Last week, we looked at this painting, remember?” she says in English. “Raise your hand if you remember this painting.” It’s obvious some children don’t understand, so she urges them again—“Everybody, raise your hand”—and uses body language to augment her English. 

Bujalski points at patches of different colors and leads the class in practicing the words for them in English. Then she hands out materials for a project—making smaller versions of the painting by cutting shapes from colored construction paper and gluing them onto a larger sheet—and races around the room helping the students.

“Keep going, keep going,” she tells them if they slow down. She turns to the classroom teacher. “How do you say ‘keep going’?” she whispers. “Siguen,” the teacher replies.

At the end of class, she uses some of her Spanish. “La mesa más calladita se va a formar primera (The quietest table will be able to get in line first),” she says. As the students leave, she waves at them, hugging the girls’ heads and offering the boys high-fives.

Bujalski, a student teacher in Illinois State University’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline program, says living and student teaching in Little Village has sparked her interest in earning a bilingual teaching endorsement.

The ISU program offers Spanish courses through Enlace Chicago, a non-profit community development organization in Little Village. To earn a bilingual endorsement, she’ll have to study even more Spanish.

Several months later, in early November, Bujalski is student-teaching at Little Village/Lawndale High School’s Infinity Math, Science and Technology High School. Today, in a photography class, Bujalski walks around checking off homework. Most of it isn’t there.
“If you didn’t have photos yesterday or today, it’s 50 points [off], see ya,” Bujalski says.

She’s faced the problem for weeks: the double-whammy of students who didn’t do homework and don’t seem to care about losing dozens of points. In response, she’s adopted a tough-love approach. Today, it’s more tough than love.

“I would suggest taking them, so you can get points for editing them in the final project,” Bujalski tells one girl. “I have to give you a zero, because they were due yesterday,” she says to a boy. As Bujalski walks down the rows of students, the classroom teacher tells some of those who don’t have photos to make collages from magazine pictures for extra credit.

Many of the students are visibly unhappy. Most of them missed the “bell-ringer,” an activity that takes place in the first minutes of class that is an important way to improve their grades. Bujalski warns them that they need to make it to class on time.

“They don’t realize they need to get their stuff done and it’s counting for points,” Bujalski says later.

By the end of the semester, Bujalski has finally learned to be persistent and tough, following up when homework is late or isn’t done at all. If all else fails, she can give students another activity to help make up for missing assignments.

 The lack of homework isn’t unique to Little Village/Lawndale, but the students here often face unique pressures.

 “Violence could be going on outside, or pressure to join a gang,” Bujalski says. “That’s something I did struggle with at the beginning—learning that not every student’s going to bring their homework in.”

When students aren’t ready for class, the only thing in her power is to work harder to connect with them, Bujalski says.

“You need to adapt, and really weigh out what is important for them to get done,” says Bujalski, who graduated in December and now has her teaching credentials. “Obviously you’re not going to fail them based on their home life.”