Creating a Class of Our Own
The reverberating percussion sounds blast out the door as students enter the classroom. “La Gozadera” by Gente De Zona featuring Marc Anthony continues to play. Some students quietly sit down, scroll through their phones, or tap to the music’s rhythms. Every year, I play this song on the first day of class. It invites my students into a fiesta of Latinx pride, the same pride I feel every time I hear the opening line, Miami me lo confirmó (Miami confirmed it to me). These pulsating words evoke Miami’s sights and sounds that I often reminisce about, and these words also bring me the comfort and joy of growing up in a predominantly Latinx and Hispanic Spanish-speaking immigrant community.
When the bell rings, I lower the music and warmly welcome my new students to their English class. I tell them my full name, Teacher Marvin Aguilar, correctly pronouncing my Hispanic last name. This is another connection to my community as an American-born Latino. This is an act of visibility.
The first activity is an independent questionnaire where I ask about their past strengths and challenges in English. They also indicate their preferred names, and they have the option to notify me of their pronouns. From there, I guide students to look at the front board because I have now projected a slide with maps of all the states and countries represented in our class. I emphasize the significance of learning and understanding different experiences in a course aptly named Perspectives in Literature.
After reviewing skills we will practice throughout the year, I direct students to the handout “Top Ten Expectations for a Successful Year” in their syllabus packet. I read the first expectation, which is about respect. Here, I share with them my upbringing in a traditional Miami neighborhood where respect among the people I grew up with may be culturally different from my students. At the same time, I want to hear from my students on what respect means to them.
They quietly draw a visual about what they envision respect will look like in class. Afterwards, I tape each drawing to the board. They then join me at the front of the class. It is time to imagine we are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a gallery. They closely look at their peers’ works. I ask for observations. Some excitedly share their responses, which usually includes appropriate language and behavior and acknowledging different ways to participate. More than anything, students stress year to year the power of hearing everyone’s voices.
For the remainder of class, I share my story on why I became an English teacher. If I am asking my students to take risks in the classroom, I must model it. I speak of my time as a first-generation college student at Georgetown University, about the years I struggled with reading and writing assignments, and the ongoing feedback to proofread my essays. Nevertheless, I grew as a reader and as a writer with the generous support of my professors. Only years after graduating did I know I wanted to teach English. I yearned for the opportunity to ignite a love for literature, characters, worlds, and prose to new generations of students. As did my teachers, I hold my students to a similar high standard. But I will also show them that I care and allow for mistakes because as their teacher, I will make mistakes, too, and that is okay since we are together on this journey. My goal is to prepare them to attend colleges like Georgetown so that they are ready for the obstacles and accomplishments after Westtown. The end of the class has arrived. As students exit, I collect their questionnaires, briefly rummage through the papers, and find myself smiling at their responses.
About the Author
Marvin Aguilar teaches English in the Upper School where he is also a faculty advisor and 10th grade Class Dean. During his time at Westtown, he has taught English, overseen the Writing Center, and worked in residential life. Marvin studied art history at Georgetown University, holds a Master’s in Education from Saint Joseph’s University, and earned a Master’s in English from Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Prior to Westtown, he taught English and coached crew at Pomfret School in Connecticut. His educational philosophy is grounded in culturally responsive teaching and learning. Marvin advocates for multiple literacy opportunities in the English classroom where historically marginalized voices are taught alongside mainstream voices. Outside of the classroom, his writing has appeared in The Bread Loaf Journal, The Miami Herald, Curbed Miami, LearningfromMiami.org, and TheArtblog.org.