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Building a classroom community

In her more than 20 years of teaching, one of Cassandra Lawrence’s proudest moments had nothing to do with student achievement and everything to do with student character. One recent autumn morning, as she was about to walk her fourth-graders into the school building, Lawrence, a bilingual teacher at the Dr. Herbert N. Richardson 21st Century School in Perth Amboy, N.J., tripped and fell. As she lay on the sidewalk, embarrassed, she looked up at her students. “They were totally quiet,” she recalls. “No one was laughing.” The students circled her and rushed to help her up. For the rest of the day, they asked if she felt OK. “I’ve seen an adult fall, and kids just think it’s the most hilarious thing—but not these kids,” Lawrence says. Their reaction showed her that in just a couple months, she had established respectful relationships with her students and had created a caring classroom environment. “That’s not math, that’s not language arts,” she says. “It’s community, it’s family. That’s teaching, too.”

The daughter of Bolivian immigrants, Lawrence studied Spanish in college and realized her longtime dream of becoming a teacher. As a child, she would play school with her siblings and neighborhood playmates. Her father, who taught high school Spanish, set up a “classroom” with a chalkboard and children’s desks for her in the family’s playroom.

At Richardson, Lawrence teaches many children who come from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and other countries in South America. Most students speak only Spanish at home; the school’s bilingual program allows them to build on their Spanish as they learn English and study U.S. culture. Their bilingual experience differs from Lawrence’s own recollections of having to speak only English when she was a student. “While raising us, my parents maintained our Spanish language and culture at home, so that was always a part of my life,” she says. “When I went to school, I had to switch all that off.” Lawrence, the vice president for New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/New Jersey Bilingual Educators, is grateful that she can help her students keep their Spanish language skills while they learn English.

Elisabete Mazzeo, who team-teaches with Lawrence, especially admires her colleague’s emphasis on vocabulary. For instance, she encourages students in their writing not to rely on basic words such as “stuff” and “nice.” And she exposes them to a broad range of words to describe various colors, such as cerulean for blue.          

 “She just takes so much effort and time with those kids,” Mazzeo says, noting that Lawrence’s students always are well-behaved. “It’s a respect thing, not a fear thing,” Mazzeo says. “As long as they’re raising their hands, she’s going to allow them to talk and say what they feel.”