CITY OF NEWBURGH — Hanan Ali, 16, spoke quietly into a cell phone as she worked on her assignment in Alyssa Cruz’s eighth grade social studies class on Thursday.
Her voice was barely audible, but as she spoke, the phone screen began to shake. One half of the split screen displayed his Arabic lyrics and the other half displayed the English translation.
Hanan sat in a corner of the South Middle School classroom with two other students who were learning English. They wore sleek white headphones that looked like Apple’s AirPods but were slightly larger. Cruz wore one too. A green light shone on the earpiece, indicating that it was working.
Hanan and Shaima Hasan, 13, are Arabic speakers from Yemen and their classmate Luis Calderon, 14, speaks Spanish. The group worked on separate English assignments, depending on their skill levels. The headphones provided real-time simultaneous translation into their native language as Cruz and the students spoke to each other.
Cruz purchased four sets of these Timekettle WT2 translation devices, along with new furniture and tools for group work, with a $10,000 Award for Resilient Neighborhoods grant from the school future public education charity.
Representatives from Future of School came to the district on March 22 to officially present a check to Cruz, although she received the money last year. The organization had distributed 20 such grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. Ten thousand was the maximum an individual educator could receive through the initiative which rewarded innovative “blended learning” strategies. Blended learning combines traditional in-person teaching methods and online technology.
Before Cruz had the new translation devices, she and her students mostly relied on Google Translate to communicate. It was impersonal, she said.
Cruz, who has been teaching at Newburgh for more than three years, said she is good enough in Spanish to get along with her students, although she is not fluent in it. But she didn’t speak Arabic at all with her students from Yemen.
Last year, she used creative methods to connect with Hanan.
“Before I had this,” Cruz said, holding one of the new translation devices, “I was leaving little notes for him in the room in Arabic. I was translating it, but then I was writing it personally, and it would be like, “I’m so proud of you”, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Hanan found the notes and answered Cruz in Arabic, sometimes teaching him new words. They quickly formed a bond, Cruz said.
Cruz has been using the new translation devices in her classes since January. They cost around $400 a set. Hanan told Cruz that she liked the technology because the teacher could hear Hanan’s voice in her native language.
Earlier this year, Cruz said, they made a breakthrough using the technology.
“One day I was here during my prep, and there was a class here, and the whole time, 45 minutes, she was just telling me about her culture and just going back and forth…” said Cruz said. “It was beautiful because we were talking about our culture, our family, our religion, but for me, I loved the fact that she opened up so much to me.”
The devices also provide language translations in different dialects. Thus, it provides translations for Spanish from a number of Latin American countries, such as Honduras, Dominican Republic, Mexico, as well as different forms of Arabic.
Depending on the success of the devices, the district may consider purchasing more for other classrooms, said Cassie Sklarz, district communications director.
Cruz is passionate when she talks about taking care of her immigrant students. On Thursday, she spoke about the importance of making her class feel safe and comfortable for them.
To create this atmosphere, she used some of the grant money to buy a comfortable set of sectional chairs that could be rearranged or pushed together in the corner near her desk where she teaches English to learners. The chairs cost around $350 each.
Her classroom is adorned with various affirmations: “Teamwork makes the dream work”, “Tu voz importa”, “Escape the ordinary”.
In the early 2010s, when she was around 20, Cruz traveled to Iraq to do humanitarian work. She was inspired by missionaries from her church to travel to the Middle East.
“I think my heart is just in defending the person, not the perception that we in America might have of what’s going on outside of our country,” Cruz said. “And showing that there’s a lot of untapped potential and a lot of things we can learn from each other if we just beat the language barrier.”
Lana Bellamy covers Newburgh for The Times Herald-Record and USA Today Network. Contact her at [email protected]