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Making Civics Real Workshop 2: Electoral Politics  
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Workshop 2

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Teacher Perspectives: His background

Jose Velazquez: I’ve been teaching 15 years in the Newark public schools. I was raised in Harlem, New York. I actually never thought I would leave New York City. I had two career options. One was to be a lawyer and the other was to be a teacher. I’m so glad I chose teaching. I have a lot of friends who are lawyers and I think I’m a lot happier then they are.

I went to school in Harlem. I dropped out of my first year of college back in 1970--a period of great turmoil in this country. I went back 10 years later and finished my degree in American History at Columbia University in New York.

I think what inspired me to become a teacher was my experience with my sixth-grade teacher. [At a] ghetto school in Harlem, a teacher actually changed my life. Most of the friends whom I grew up with are dead. It was drugs or Viet Nam or something else. I think that teacher actually took a group of us and exposed us to the world beyond 125th Street in Harlem. And she did it on her own time, on the weekends. Sometimes, I think I subconsciously went back to that experience when I had to make a career choice for myself. I wanted to talk about how I could impact young people, how I could change the world, how I could make a difference. I think the choice became really clear.

I started teaching in 1987. I went through what was called the alternate route program in the State of New Jersey. I was kind of a unique alternate route candidate because I had a minor in education at Columbia University, but I didn’t take the student teaching component. The alternate route in the State of New Jersey required taking 200 hours of classes, coursework, and teaching--on-the-job experience. The first year you are in a classroom at Central High School here in Newark. It had the reputation of [being] one of the worst schools in the state of New Jersey. I think that reputation was definitely exaggerated. For me, coming to Central High School having been raised in Harlem, I’m home. I understand students. I know where they are coming from.

I had a very good support team at Central High School. My first year I really began to tailor my teaching strategies using cooperative learning, not necessarily in a formal way because of training but because of a practical necessity. I started as a bilingual teacher. I have certification to teach social studies in Spanish. I was in a bilingual setting with five or six different language groups. The only way to do that was [to adopt] a sheltered-English approach using cooperative learning. This meant putting them into groups according to language, hoping that there was one student in each group who knew a little bit more English than the rest of the students who could become a group leader and help in the translation of the lesson. It was almost by practical need that I became comfortable with cooperative learning.

Some important evolutions of my teaching have been working on getting my Master’s Degree. I’ve taken a lot of coursework in the Princeton Center for Leadership Training. I did three years there and became what was called Master Teacher. That part of my training was important [because] they focused a lot on the development of groups and group dynamics.

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