Room 412 at the American Dream School in Mott Haven was full on a Saturday morning in early spring. Thirteen middle school students sat at their desks, wearing hoodies and jeans instead of their school uniforms. At the front of the room, seventh grade teacher Israel Morales, tattooed arms showing underneath his red t-shirt, drew circles around words projected onto the dry erase board, asking students to define them.
“Safety net programs.” “Deteriorate.” “Prevented.” “Surging.” “Statistically significant.” At the top of the board was the phrase: “Argument #3: Means-tested welfare reduces poverty.”
The students looked tired, but persevered.
At the bilingual charter school on E. 141st Street, inaugural members of the school’s debate team dedicate their lunch breaks and afternoons to studying current events, vocabulary and rhetoric in English, even though for most, their English language skills are still a work-in-progress.
For the 15 sixth and seventh graders who make up the team, debate has been a way not only to improve their English, but to learn about the world and represent the Bronx at citywide tournaments. Team members have won medals and trophies at competitions featuring hundreds of students, including the American Debate League’s NYC Spring Classic on May 21 and the Queens Spring Classic in March.
For Morales, who coaches the team, debate is important because it also teaches his students how to code switch—that is, to conduct themselves in a culture different than their own.
“They feel so comfortable here in this neighborhood. Right here in Mott Haven, they can walk these streets, they can talk the talk, they’re not shy of anyone here,” he said. “But as soon as you take them down to Manhattan, as soon as you take them out of this neighborhood, that confidence drops tremendously.”
According to the US census, 64 percent of Mott Haven’s population receives public assistance, and 97 percent is black or Hispanic. Those numbers helped make the topic of the students’ May 21 debate—-income inequality—-a little more personal. Unlike many of their competitors from around the city, the debaters at the American Dream School have faced that issue firsthand.
At a recent afternoon practice, the students learned about social welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid.
“These are usually the programs that our parents use,” said team co-president Arli Moyao-Ramirez, 13.
Later, they tried to imagine a city without income inequality. “It’s not like ours, where there’s trash all over the floors,” said Dalila Perez, 12.
At their first two debate tournaments earlier this year, it was hard for team co-president Melanie Madrigal, 13, to ignore the differences between her team and her competitors. “I could tell they weren’t from poor areas or poor communities,” said Madrigal. “Their vocabulary was better than ours. I could see that they had uniforms, really nice uniforms.”
Brenda Gervacio, 12, said she was intimidated by the advantages the other teams enjoyed. “I felt sad because I’m trying my best but I don’t think it’s enough,” she said. “I would get mad because, how are we different from them? We all go to school, we have the same things—but they have more,” she said.
Gervacio and some of her classmates said they struggled with the vocabulary used in the debate material. Team co-president Arli Moyao-Ramirez said that at times she got confused between her two languages, but she couldn’t ask her Mexican parents for help because they don’t speak English.
“Since English is not my first language—-Spanish is my first language—-I had a hard time knowing which is which,” Moyao-Ramirez said.
Because 90 percent of the school’s 161 students are from Spanish-speaking households, code switching is crucial. At practices, which take place four times a week during lunch and twice a week after school, they learn how to articulate clearly, stand up straight, use hand gestures and settle conflicts. Morales said the debate team provides a golden opportunity to learn communication skills they’d be otherwise unlikely to have once they leave the neighborhood.
“You can’t be that person you are from your barrio or from your ’hood or from your neighborhood,” he said. Students from suburban areas, he said, are raised to speak in a way that is accepted by dominant American culture, and don’t need as much training to be perceived as professional.”
“It’s being able to teach them that there is a time, place and manner for everything and how to use that to their advantage when it’s appropriate,” said the school’s principal, Melissa Melkonian.
Shortly after Melkonian asked Morales to create and coach a debate team last fall, the students participated in their first debate in December, but didn’t place. But, Morales said, they’ve been steadily improving. At first, he said, they were self-conscious when they sensed their competitors were laughing at them for mispronouncing words, but they’ve been working to change that.
Melkonian said seeing them progress has been gratifying.
“They own it,” said Melkonian. “They own the text, they own their arguments, they own their questioning, they own their points of view; because now they’ve understood it after so much practice and dedication.”