Giant sheets of lined paper filled with personal, analytical, and poignant essays on Mark Twain, his life, his works, and his sarcasm fluttered on the walls of Kristine Nazzal’s English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom in Union City High School Monday afternoon.
It was business as usual as Nazzal fluttered like her students’ essays, effortless from desk to desk, attending to the questions of juniors who had or will spend anywhere between six months to a year and a half under her guidance.
There was a definite sense of connectedness between students and teacher, sort of like one big family; or, as Nazzal says, “We are a sancocho class.” Sancocho is a Hispanic stew that combines many different (delicious) ingredients.
“The thing about ESL that’s beautiful is not just the melding of different cultures and nationalities, but the way we come together as a family,” she said. “It can be a daunting thing coming into a brand new country, but here I try to pack their parachutes so that when they step off the plane into society they will have the best chance at success.”
Nazzal has taught in Union City, whose population is 85 percent Hispanic, since she student taught language arts 14 years ago at Union City’s Emerson High School. Just last month, she was named Hudson County’s Teacher of the Year for 2012-2013 by the NJ Department of Education.
“The thing about ESL that’s beautiful is … the way we come together as a family.” – Kristine Nazzal
Choosing to educate
Nazzal grew up in West New York, and her father owned a business in Union City. She originally attended neighboring New Jersey City University for commercial art, but after a tutoring stint, she changed her mind as she found she was “destined for grading,” she said.
“When I started at Emerson I felt completely at home and knew this was my destiny,” she said. “Between the staff, the fantastic students, even just walking into the building, it was a gut feeling in my heart and I knew that this is what I was meant to do: to strengthen my ability to reach these kids and make things right for them.”
Upon graduation, she asked the district to keep her in mind. She stuffed her teaching portfolio with the many letters she received from students thanking her. She sometimes takes them out now, and they make her cry, she said.
Nazzal was hired to teach ninth grade English, and when she came back from maternity leave after giving birth to her first child in 2003, they offered her an ESL class.
“It’s an artistic class repertoire with so many outlets of literature to look into,” she explained. “We take books like Mark Twain and apply them to life, analyze the characters, and create internet scavenger hunts based on it so that students can understand his style of writing and connect his life to themselves and their new society.”
A particular challenge Nazzal finds with ESL students is easing their fear of the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) standardized tests required by the state. Half of the HSPAs test on proficiency in the language arts, and for students just learning English, this can be frightening.
“They’ve only been here for a short time, and they’re overwhelmed,” Nazzal said. “I am responsible for motivating them, and my motto is to believe because the possibilities are endless. They did so well, and I am so proud of them.”
She even baked her students a giant lasagna to celebrate their achievements. Her lasagnas have quickly become legendary, even beyond her classroom.
On Sept. 23 Nazzal joined 300 teachers from across the nation on MSNBC Nightly News with Brian Williams to discuss issues surrounding education in current times.
“I was proud to comment about the changing times for assessments and up-scaling curriculum to cater to the changing needs of students,” she said.
Nazzal will also serve on New Jersey Technology Council’s bilingual assessment committee in Trenton this year, and will travel to Atlantic City in November to participate in a round table seminar. She strives daily to improve her methods of reaching the students she has committed her life to.
“I accept openheartedly the challenges with a motivation that comes naturally to me,” Nazzal said, “Because I am so compassionate about and dedicated to giving my kids the instruction they need. I will not let my students fall through the cracks. I will do my best to make things work for them.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org