CITY OF NEWBURGH – Hanan Ali, 16, spoke quietly into a cellphone while working 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’s screen started moving. One half of the split screen displayed her words in Arabic and the other half displayed the English translation.
Hanan was sitting in a corner of the classroom at South Middle School with two other students who were learning English. They wore sleek white earpieces that looked similar to Apple AirPods but were slightly larger. Cruz wore one as well. A green light glowed on the earpiece, indicating 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, based on their skill levels. The earpieces were providing simultaneous, real-time translation into their native languages as Cruz and the students spoke to each other.
Cruz purchased four sets of these Timekettle WT2 translation devices, along with some new furniture and tools for group work, with a $10,000 Resilient Districts Prizes grant from the Future of School public education charity.
Representatives from Future of School came to the district on March 22 to formally present Cruz with a check, though she received the money last year. The organization had given out 20 of these grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. Ten thousand was the most an individual educator could receive through the initiative that awarded 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 felt impersonal, she said.
Cruz, who’s taught in Newburgh for more than three years, said she is proficient enough in Spanish to get by with her students, though she is not fluent. But she couldn’t speak any Arabic 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 would leave her little notes around the room in Arabic. I would translate it, but then I would write it personally, and it would be like, ‘I am so proud of you,’ ‘I’m so happy you are here.'”
Hanan would find the notes and write back to Cruz in Arabic, sometimes teaching Cruz new words. They soon formed a bond, Cruz said.
Cruz has been using the new translation devices in her classes since January. They cost approximately $400 a set. Hanan told Cruz she likes the technology because the teacher can actually hear Hanan’s voice in her native language.
Earlier this year, Cruz said, they had a breakthrough using the technology.
“One day I was in here during my prep, and there was a class in here, and the whole time, 45 minutes, she just talked to me about her culture and was just going back and forth …” Cruz said. “It was beautiful because we were talking about our culture, our family, our religion, but to me, I loved the fact that she was opening up so much to me.”
The devices also provide translations of languages in different dialects. So, it provides translations for Spanish from a number of Latin American countries, like Honduras, Dominican Republic, Mexico, as well as different forms of Arabic.
Depending on the success of the devices, it is possible the district will look into purchasing more for other classrooms, said Cassie Sklarz, the district’s communications director.
Cruz is passionate when she speaks about caring for her immigrant students. On Thursday, she spoke about the importance of making her classroom feel safe and comfortable for them.
To create that atmosphere, she used some of the grant money to purchase a cozy set of modular sofa chairs that could be rearranged or pushed together in the corner near her desk where she teaches English language learners. The chairs cost about $350 each.
Her classroom is decorated with various affirmations: “Team work makes the dream work,” “Tu voz importa,” “Escape ordinary.”
In the early 2010s, when she was about 20 years old, Cruz went to Iraq to do humanitarian work. She was inspired by missionaries at her church to travel to the Middle East.
“I think that my heart is just to advocate for the person, not the perception that we in America might have of what’s going on outside our country,” Cruz said. “And show that there’s a lot of potential that’s untapped and a lot of things that we can learn from each other if we just fight a language barrier.”
Lana Bellamy covers Newburgh for the Times Herald-Record and USA Today Network. Reach her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Times Herald-Record: Newburgh teacher uses $10K for translation technology in classroom