On her last day of teaching, Lauren DeGraw dragged a chair to the front of the classroom and read a book to her seventh and eighth grade math students at Immokalee Middle.
Please dream for those who’ve given up, for those who’ve never tried
Please use your dreams to make new dreams for all the dreams that died
Because you’re the one whose dreams can be whatever dreams you want, whose dreams can change the way things are and the way that things are not
She reached the end, closed the book — called simply “An Awesome Book” — and stood up.
“If you take anything away from me the 10 weeks I’ve been here, I want you to remember that whatever dream is big or small inside your head that if anyone in the world is telling you those dreams can’t come true, Miss D is out there,” DeGraw said. “I’m serious, I’m out there somewhere and I believe in all your dreams.”
It was the last lesson she wanted to share with her students. Soon after Friday’s class, DeGraw was set to move back home to Michigan, nearly 1,500 miles away.
The 22-year old is one of eight Central Michigan University education majors who said goodbye last week after spending the semester working with students in Immokalee. Their presence at Immokalee Middle and Pinecrest Elementary is part of a partnership between the university and the Collier County School District.
For the district, the benefits include exposing local students to new teachers and teaching methods. It’s also helped create a pipeline of teachers for Immokalee schools: Three of last year’s teachers were hired full-time and now work in the area. Two from this year’s group are already being courted for other teaching positions there.
“It opens the door for us,” Immokalee Middle Principal Abel Jaimes said. “Retention and recruitment is one of the challenges for us. This gives them an opportunity to see what it’s like here.”
And for the Central Michigan students, coming to Immokalee provides an opportunity to experience teaching in more diverse classrooms than those they’d find back home.
At Immokalee Middle, only about 27 percent of students speak English at home and more than 97 percent are economically needy. At Pinecrest Elementary, just about 14 percent speak English at home and 99 percent come from lower income families.
Keith Bader Snider, 23, one of the eight student teachers, taught at a school in Lansing, Mich., before coming to Immokalee.
“My six weeks up there were, I want to say, the exact opposite ends of the earth,” he said.
Bader Snider, who taught language arts at Immokalee Middle, said he signed up for the program because he wanted to try something new.
“It kind of helps you to celebrate people because everybody is different, and it’s cool to see the differences and the different cultures and attitudes,” he said.
That’s the reason Central Michigan University professor Lorraine Berak first began pushing for the program. During a consulting trip to Immokalee years ago, she began thinking about the possibility of bringing students there to experience the different culture.
“That was what planted the seed in my head,” said Berak, who directs the program. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to get back there and do something with them.’ I just kept wanting to find a more affordable way to offer kids an experience to work with diverse cultures without going overseas.”
Five years ago, she got approval to begin putting the program together. Last year was the first that students came to Immokalee to teach.
The most difficult part, Berak said, has been finding housing for the group.
This year, the women lived in a house her family lent them and the men lived in one they rented. The eight students carpooled each day to Immokalee.
Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton hopes to tap into local alumni to help support the program. She’s been supportive of it, saying there are major benefits for both sides.
On Friday, the students and teachers showed their appreciation. Bader Snider’s class made him a quilt and DeGraw’s gave her a card. Another group of students gave their teacher a book full of letters they wrote.
Bader Snider called the semester “lifechanging.”
“As much as I wanted to teach the kids ... I think they’ve taught me equally as much,” he said.
In one of DeGraw’s math classes, some of the students don’t speak English. As she read the book on Friday, two translators repeated her words first in Spanish, then in Creole. Listening to it, DeGraw said she nearly cried, thinking of the experience she’s had.
“How often do you have three different languages in a room and the same story being told?” she asked.
For more information on the program, contact Lorraine Berak at berak1LS@cmich.edu.