Teacher Spotlight: Q&A With Stephanie Morales

Stephanie Morales is a 7th grade science teacher at John W. Garvy Elementary School in the Chicago Public Schools. She has been an active participant in The Learning Partnership’s professional development series on supporting scientific argumentation within Amplify Science. Stephanie recently implemented a tutorial on argumentation using the coquí module from Journey to El Yunque. Claire Cronin talked with Stephanie about her Puerto Rican heritage and her experiences with Journey to El Yunque.

Question: How did you decide to become a teacher?

Answer: Growing up, I always worked with kids. I started attending day camp at the Chicago Park District from the time I was six, and then became a lifelong camper. Once I turned 18, I got offered a year-round position. When I was in my 20’s, I continued to work with kids.  I loved playing with kids and coming up with different activities and having fun. I became a year-round rec leader too, even after doing day camp. So, I continued to work for the park district up until I finished my undergrad. Even when I was away at school, I would come home on the weekends and continue to work at the park district. So, I always loved working with kids.

Question: What is most rewarding to you about being a teacher?

Answer: I think the biggest thing is those aha moments when you see that light bulb go off in a kid, or when they really understand and get what you’re saying. I love those moments. I love being able to just connect. The other thing I love is being in the school – I’ve been at my current school for 10 years now. So, being able to connect with not just the children, but families where I’ve had older siblings. And they get to know you, and you build that rapport with families. I love that aspect of it too. Not just the daily connections and getting to know kids, but also really getting to know families and establishing those relationships.

Question: Can you please tell me a little bit about your Hispanic heritage?

Answer:  I am Puerto Rican. Although my mom was born here, most of my heritage is based on my mother’s side. My grandparents came to Chicago in 1955 around the time my grandmother was pregnant with my mom. And they originally lived in Wrigleyville on Addison, which is really funny because my grandfather was a Sox fan. My mom said they would get on the train and go to Comiskey to watch Sox games. My grandmother stayed here the remainder of her life, and my grandfather went back to Puerto Rico. I don’t know exactly when he went back, but he went back, and that’s where he lived the rest of his days. I always remember, especially when I was a little girl, my mom was definitely a daddy’s girl. We would always go to see my grandfather in Puerto Rico, because he was in a nursing home. I have memories of going to see my grandfather almost on an annual basis when I was really little. Probably up until the time I was maybe 12, in seventh grade. He passed away when I was in eighth grade. So, I remember those trips. After that, I hadn’t been to Puerto Rico in a long time, but we always went almost every year before that. 

Question: What were those visits like when you would go?

Answer: I actually have a really vivid memory of a visit to Puerto Rico. I remember my mom would always – I know it sounds really funny – but she would always buy new clothes. I remember we got dressed one day, and that my shirt was navy. We went to the nursing home and they were making food. The woman was mashing plantains to make Puerto Rican pasteles, and she asked my mom if I wanted to help, and I was like, “yeah, please.” So, I remember we were down there mashing the plantains, which went fine, until it was time to wash my hands. The woman told me to wash my hands with bleach, not knowing I would get all these bleach marks on my shirt. My mom was so mad. I remember that exact memory of doing something that was a cultural experience, but it is funny that the biggest thing I remember is getting bleach all over my brand-new shirt, and my mom being so mad.

Question: How has your Hispanic heritage influenced the way that you teach?

Answer: I was blessed in my first three years of teaching to teach in Humboldt Park. I was in two different schools in those first three years. I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago, so there was some diversity but I went to Walt Disney Magnet School on Lakeshore Drive which was a really diverse school. Kids were bussed in from all over the city, so I had a very diverse schooling experience growing up. I remember getting my first teaching job and being able to teach students who were of a similar cultural background. I loved being able to connect with families and understand where the parents were coming from, and the sacrifices that they were making for their children. I loved being able to really support families however they needed at that time. I cherish those experiences. The school I’m at now is very diverse, so I’m grateful to teach students from a lot of different backgrounds. Being able to make those cultural connections and experiences are extremely meaningful, but also being able to teach students about what they don’t know about your culture is extremely cool. Once they hear you share something about your background, they can resonate with it and see another side of you. I include personal touches about myself in my classroom so that kids know where I’m from and what I’m about because they very much identify with that cultural background and their cultural aspects when it’s very inherent in them. Everybody has something that they do that’s unique in their family. What is culture to you may not be to me, but it is just as significant and as relevant and as important. And that’s what is important for kids to know.

Question: Do you feel connected to Journey to El Yunque?

Answer: I do. When I saw this unit in that first year working with The Learning Partnership, we were learning all the tools and resources that they were going to provide to us. Journey to El Yunque was a foundation of our studies and understanding on how to utilize the tools and resources. Right from the beginning, I thought that it was so cool. And getting to teach it this year, I actually connected to the one time in my life that I remember going to El Yunque. For my first lesson that I did with the students this year, I included that picture of me at the rainforest in my first slide with the kids. And they thought it was cool. 

When I was first introduced to Journey to El Yunque, the unit was right around the time of Hurricane Maria, and I was trying to get in contact with my aunt who had been living there at the time. So, there’s just so much of a deeper connection than I thought. And I love it. I know it’s really silly, but I love frogs, so I’ve always found the coquí to be so fascinating. I love that the coquí is so culturally relevant because it literally chirps in the night sky. As soon as it turns dark out, all you hear are coquí everywhere. It’s just such a cool part. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling out there.

Question: Does it excite your students that you have such a personal connection to the unit and that you’re able to tell them about your personal experiences with visiting Puerto Rico and hearing the coquí?

Answer: Absolutely. Yesterday, it was so funny, I went apple picking with a friend. And when we were walking at the orchard, and I’m looking at the ground, I saw something moving. So, I look down and it was this itty-bitty toad.  I stopped dead in my tracks. I crouched down and I took a little video because I had never seen it that close. And then today, I was sharing the experience with my class, and a student said, “Like the coquí?  I’m sure you loved it.” That was so cute to hear them say, “Oh, it’s just like the coquí that you love.” Because I made it a point to say, “I love the coquí. I think they are so cool.” The kids are listening to you, they’re paying attention to everything you say, and they internalize so much of what you say and what you love. That means a whole lot too, because sometimes you’re like, “Are they listening to me?” But they are, they’re paying attention, and they’re waiting for that moment to be able to make that connection back to you.  I think that’s so nice.

Question: In what ways does your knowledge of Puerto Rico influence the way that you approach teaching Journey to El Yunque?

Answer: Just being able to make that connection between the unit and my experience there at El Yunque. I remember taking that hike and getting to that main waterfall and just seeing its beauty. That was extremely significant, plus my personal connection of hearing my aunt’s first-hand account of Hurricane Maria, because after the hurricane and all of the devastation, she came to stay with us. She came in November and stayed through February between my house, my mom’s house and just visiting a few relatives. I was impacted by her visit and hearing her first-hand account – she brought us newspaper clippings from the days that followed, and the rationed meals that the military distributed. She wanted us to see all of that. She ended up passing away that April afterwards, and it was my first time on the island in maybe 10 years. And then going back and still seeing some of that devastation, I have pictures on my phone of trees that were just completely uprooted, and signs that were still turned around. But I’ll always cherish that firsthand experience from her and knowing exactly what it was like and getting that quality time with her. I want to make sure I’m immersing my students in that culture and providing those connections. Being able to make those connections has been extremely meaningful. Anytime you can connect a lesson to your personal experience, it just makes it that much more meaningful for you. It makes it that much more meaningful for the students. And if you can make the connections, if they’re able to make them, that’s everything.

More information about Journey to El Yunque can be found at: elyunque.net

Journey to El Yunque is supported by the National Science Foundation.