New Muppet Julia Raises Autism Awareness

By Leonel Henriquez
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On April 10, a new red-haired muppet named Julia made her debut on Sesame Street. Although she is just four years old, it took PBS and Sesame Street over five years to create her, in consultation with more than 250 organizations and experts. Julia, the result of these efforts, is autistic, and Sesame Street is hoping her presence on the show will increase awareness about autism. They also hope she will provide the opportunity to educate others on how to positively interact with friends and family who have been diagnosed with the disorder which, according to the Center for Disease Control, is 1 out of every 68 children in the United States.

Julia exhibits several traits typical of many autistic kids: she doesn’t like to shake hands, doesn’t always immediately respond to questions, waves her arms over her head when feeling anxious, and covers her ears when sounds are unpleasant to her.

Parents and educators are responding enthusiastically to Julia. Mabel Concepcion, a mother of three school age children, likes the new character. She thinks it is a great way to not only talk to your children about a sensitive topic but also provide them with an example on how to interact. “I think parents should talk to their kids about other kids with disabilities so that they are aware, so that they know how to act,” she said. “Kids don’t know how to act when they see something the first time.” She added that as a mother, “you want [your kids] to learn to get along with everyone.” Concepcion also believes parents can also learn from Julia. “It is just as important for one parent to recognize when another parent in a restaurant or movie might be dealing with a child that is having a difficult moment and offer help or support.”

Many share the hope that awareness will translate to inclusion, and believe that people with autism and other disabilities live somewhat segregated lives just because others just don’t know how to constructively interact with them. “Sesame Street is taking a step towards an inclusive culture for all students with disabilities,” said Jen Flinn-Knizeski, a special educator with the NYC Department of Education for ten years. “I love that the script explains autism as ‘what autism for Julia is,’ because it is a subtlety that is so important for our children to understand. For one child, the blender may really bother them, but for another child it may be the most soothing noise to them.”

The hope is that children will be able to recognize certain behaviors in their classmates and be able to interact accordingly. “I think exposing preschool students to Julia will help them understand more about how people communicate and play in different ways. They understand social cues from their friends and when given guidance, like Elmo gives guidance about Julia, they will understand how to be patient with children with autism. Indirectly, they may learn how to be patient with others and themselves,” said Flinn-Knizeski, a special educator trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention.

Elise Saldana, assistant chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at Lehman, expressed a similar opinion. “Yes, I think that young children are very capable of adapting and accepting the different behaviors, personalities, and situations that they see in each other, without prejudice, because they are not to presumptuous at this age,” she said. When asked if she thought if children ages four to five would be able to recognize similar traits in their classmates she replied, “I do think that young children can make associations and recognize similar behavior in others because they are open-minded and conscience regarding their world, and all that is in it and around it. When trying to mainstream or integrate children, I would think that it is best to highlight our similarities, rather than our differences.”

To learn more you can read Julia’s back story at www.sesamestreet.org.

Lehman Student Wins Prestigious Watson Fellowship

By Mairin Cahill

 

Victoria Smith, winner of a Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Victoria Smith.

Victoria Smith, winner of a Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Victoria Smith.

Lehman freshman Victoria Smith won a Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship this April. The fellowship gives freshmen and sophomores selected from 12 partner institutions in New York City access to a rigorous program intended to help them flourish in their undergraduate careers via stipends, internships, cultural events, and mentoring.

Of the 16 Lehman students invited to an interview before a panel of college faculty, four were selected to represent the college before fellowship board, with Smith selected as the sole winner from Lehman.

Smith says she hopes the guidance provided by the fellowship, coupled with the experience of being a Lehman and Macaulay Honors College student, will be instrumental to her growth as a student. Though Smith has not yet declared a minor, she anticipates her Watson internships will help her find her educational and career paths. Her passion for social justice issues has led her to consider majors in Africana studies or psychology, but she said that could all change, depending on how the next three years as a Watson Fellow shape her. She added that her undergraduate career is an opportunity to transition from being identified solely as a female drummer, as she was in high school, to a more comprehensive identity. “I’m open to a lot of different options” she said, regarding the future.

For her first internship this summer, Victoria will be working at the Thyroid, Head, and Neck Cancer Foundation. Though at first unsure if it would be a good fit, her impression soon changed. “I loved the environment! I wouldn’t just be in a lab coat breaking down molecules, this would be a research internship where I would be learning about what goes into a successful research project and I would learn how to work with people in many different areas of concentration, and study a very broad topic such as cancer.” 

Hillary Frank, a Lehman junior majoring in chemistry, is currently flourishing as a Watson Fellow. During her Freshman year, she began working in a research lab on campus, where faculty mentors encouraged her to explore other areas of science, and prompting her to apply for a Watson fellowship. For her first internship with the program she was able to do just that. As a Digital Learning Fellow at the Museum of Natural History, she was moved out of the lab, and into a science-teaching position in which she was creating curriculum, and coordinating science programs for children over the summer.

Hillary is looking forward to her internship this summer working with the Smithsonian Institute Research Center on their Waterland Biochemistry Project near Edgewater, Maryland. There she’ll be working with researchers to measure chemicals in water and on the surface of trees. “We’ll be looking at chemicals related to methane in the water, and trying to determine how it connects and contributes to global warming,” said Frank.

The Watson Fellowship has exposed her to many scientific sub-fields, including public policy, education, and lab work. “I don’t have any concrete ideas about what I would like to do [for a career], but this program is exposing me to different areas that will help me decide,” said Hillary.

Sophomore Helina Owusu, one of the four finalists, also feels that the application process pushed her to grow. Owusu, a first-generation immigrant from Ghana, is driven to make a difference by becoming a pediatric or family practice physician.

Helina Owusu, a Lehman finalist for the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Helina Owusu.

Helina Owusu, a Lehman finalist for the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Helina Owusu.

“My goal is to help that kid get better and help them get back to school,” she explained. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet new students through the application process, and we encourage each other throughout the process. I’ve been able to build myself professionally through the mock interviews. Going forward I’m going to use all those skills I learned through this process.”

Owusu and Smith, along with sophomores Amna Azeem and Natori Beckford, the other finalists from Lehman College, were all assisted by Professor Alice Michelle Augustine, faculty member and facilitator for the Office of Prestigious Awards which includes the Beyond the Bachelor’s Program and the Emerging Scholars Program. As an undergraduate student at Lehman College, Augustine herself was a Watson Fellow, which led her to internships at the State Supreme Court, the New York City Council, and the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice in Ghana.

Augustine said that Smith was committed to the application process since first hearing about the award last year. “She stayed on top of it, and was very invested,” said Augustine. “She asked for a lot of feedback and did what she needed to do to be a really competitive candidate.”

Lehman Alum Addresses Hood Education

By Leonel Henriquez

 

Dr. Christopher Emdin and educator Janice Johnson perform cypher at NYCWP conference. Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

At the New York City Writing Project’s (NYCWP) 19th annual Teacher-to- Teacher conference, held at Lehman on March 18, its keynote address was delivered by Dr. Christopher Emdin, a Lehman alumnus and author of the New York Times bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.”

The NYCWP models itself on the belief that teachers bring knowledge, expertise and leadership to their profession and that teachers are the best teachers of one another because they bring experience gained from working in actual classrooms. The conference consisted of 25 workshops and panel sessions, all conducted by educators, on topics including literacy, communication, cultural interpretation, writing, math, ethnomusicology, common core standards, and activism.

For Jane Higgins, director of the NYCWP, having Emdin deliver the keynote speech brings her journey in education full circle. Higgins was a high school English teacher, and Emdin, “was one of my students,” she recalled. “Chris Emdin gave me language to talk about what I tried to do in the classroom.”

Emdin’s rousing and charismatic speech was titled, “Teaching to Get Woke: the Teacher, the Preacher, the Healer.” In it, he emphasized that in order to teach effectively in “the hood,” i.e. in urban centers, there must be a different level of comprehension of the hood culture where the school is located, and a better understanding of the responses required of the students that live in the area. White educators, Emdin believes, cannot come to teach in the hood with the idea that they are coming to save the hood. Educators need to better comprehend what the students are saying in response to how and what they are being taught, he said, and better communication between teacher and student fosters better learning relationships.

“Over half the suspensions in public schools as they relate to men of color or boys of color in those schools is a function of a teacher confronting a child head on and creating the dynamic that ushers that you have to respond,”he explained.“Hood rules dictate that when someone calls you out, you have to respond. When a student responds in a manner that is consistent with what his environment has taught him this paints him as a disciplinary problem and sours the student’s taste for learning.”

“The government talks about weapons of mass destruction. We have weapons of mass distraction” he said. Those distractions are things like budget cuts to after school meal programs. Emdin pointed out that some kids go to a home with little or no food and are concerned with the fact they are hungry and don’t think about doing homework. Other distractions he addresses are the debates over funding for charter and public schools. This debate, he said, distracts educators and parents, while many kids continue to go to a school without enough resources.

“I have his book and I was just inspired by him and everything he represents,” said Janice Johnson who joined Emdin in a hip-hop cypher during his address. She is a teacher at P.S. 531 in the Bronx and is earning her Masters through Lehman Teaching Fellows. She said, “I think it’s important being a woman of color teaching in the Bronx and being from the South Bronx that you have to have some kind of knowledge of who you are teaching.”

Billy Green, a teacher at the Frederick Douglass Academy III in the South Bronx, and a former student of Emdin’s concurred. “I came here today because one of the things I learned is that Chris Emdin has given us that platform, that language for us educators who like I said embrace the hood, the rules of the hood,” he said. “This book brings it all together in order for us teachers in urban centers to do our work, and for white educators like Miss Higgins who have to face a lot of backlash” he said.

The NYCWP also sponsors other events throughout the year, including a Spring Writing Marathon at Poets House, a Spring Writers’ Residency from April 20-June 8, two Summer Open Institutes for new K-12 teachers, and an Invitational Leadership Institute both from July 10 to 20, at Lehman.

Those interested can visit nycwritingproject.org.

How Lehman Students Cope without Mom on Mother’s Day

By Keidy Gómez

Photos courtesy of Kimberley Aguirre, Biancania Romero, and Shareida Spencer (respectively).

Mother’s Day presents a special challenge for Lehman students who can’t always celebrate the holiday with their mothers. These students have to struggle to fill the void of her absence and recreate the bond they miss. In doing so, though, they creatively keep the memory alive by giving all the love that wasn’t provided to them. While this can be difficult, in some cases, they find themselves blessed with another created family of their own.

“Due to both of my parents having personal issues, I was placed in foster care from the age of one till five,” said Lehman senior Kimberley Aguirre, 26. Aguirre, an English major, explained, “Throughout the years I've spent sporadic time together where [my biological mother] tried to buy my love with toys and clothes. After a fight at the age of ten over tickets to my graduation, she walked out my life.”  Aguirre admits that wanting to have your mother in your life and not having her there is hard, but she herself embraces motherhood vigorously so she can foster a bond with her own daughter. “What I've learned from this is to focus on my daughter and no matter what happens to be there for her always.”

For Lehman students who grew up in foster care, Mother’s Day has brought about feelings of loneliness, sadness and grief, because they have been hurt before, or they are waiting to see their mothers again. “In foster care days, you can’t just sit there and buy things, you have to wait for visitation,” recalled Shareida Spencer, a 25-year-old Lehman sophomore majoring in social work.  We get into a group and if all [the biological mother’s] kids are in the same foster care we get one big card and put flowers in it.” She added that for someone who has been separated for so long from her mother, it is difficult to feel close to her. “I’ve haven’t been with her all my life, so there’s lots of Mother’s Days I’ve missed,” said Spencer, who had to deal with the fact that on Mother’s Day she either had to wait to see her mother or celebrate it with strangers. Spencer hasn’t forgotten her mother, whom she cares for deeply. “I would love to get her...a house. She’s been talking about it ever since I was born, that’s 25 years, and she’s never had one. If my life was to get right and things go the way they are supposed to, I would get her a house,” said Spencer.

For other students, illness has separated them from their mother on Mother’s Day, and fear instead of celebration becomes heart-wrenching. “The worst Mother’s Day, I would say was back in 2014, when my mom had open heart surgery months before and I was taking care of her until she was better,” recalled Biancania Romero, a 20-year-old junior, majoring in speech pathology. However, the experience taught her an important lesson, she added. “I think that Mother’s Day was the day I realized I had to appreciate my mom the most because of everything she’s done for me since I was born. My mother is truly the person who always had my back no matter what.”

Ultimately, many students found that growing up without a mother can actually strengthen their own love and shape them to choose to be there for their mothers even when they hadn’t done the same. “If I have a break, I’ll visit [my mother]” Spencer said, “and we’ll cook and sit there and have conversations.” For Aguirre, the experience has made her into a mother that creates a stronger bond with their children. Now, she said, “Mother’s Day is a day for my love as a parent to be recognized. Although my daughter is only two and a half, I tell her every morning and night that I love her, and give her a hug and a kiss. All a child needs is to be reminded that they are loved.”

Lehman Students Want an Updated Canon

By Shivani Boodhoo 

Updating the canon is a good idea according to Lehman students. Photo from Creative Commons.

The English canon, or books considered to be classics, consists mainly of books written by dead white European men. To this set of classics a few writers of color have been added. In 2017, in a globalized world full of writers of different ethnicities and faiths, many students believe the canon should be revised to introduce more writers that aren’t white and male. At Yale University, for instance, students have started a petition to revise the courses. According to The Daily Beast, the petition states, “It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors.” This inclusivity is important because as Mark Lilla, a Professor of political philosophy and religion, wrote in The New York Times, “What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition.”

Several Lehman students cite Junot Diaz as an author that gives them this sense of self-recognition, and concur that the canon should be expanded. Edgenis Abreu, a senior, and environmental science major, loves Diaz because “when he speaks about certain Dominican traits or cultural things, I can see how true they are.” For example, he explained, Diaz talks about how sexist guys are, which Edgenis agrees is a very big thing in Dominican culture. Having started off with Diaz’s novel “Drown” and liking it, Edgenis continued to read other books by Diaz, loving the way his characters speak. “It’s in tune to the way we speak other than an old-fashioned story. It’s more relatable to our age than other books might be.” Abreu believes is important to have authors like Diaz in whose work students can see themselves through characters that are minority or POC.  

Other Lehman students would also like to see the traditional canon adjusted. Jose Lazo, a bookworm and Lehman alum, believes that the classics are relevant today, and that we should update, not replace, the canon. “I think it hasn’t been updated because literature doesn’t get as much attention and people don’t read as much as they used to. Students only read because they have to,” he said, adding that it’s rare in his social groups. He doesn’t think race plays a factor in the chosen classics. When he reads, he said, he doesn’t look at the author and think of color, he hardly even notices the author,  just judging the book on whether or not it is a good read.

Lehman junior Ndeye Fatou Coundoul, an English Literature major, thinks the classics are great, but also overrated. “We are learning from the old traditional stories and plays, but at the same time we are readers who as students are missing a lot of other great books,” she said. “I think we should most definitely update the classics. There are authors who have been set aside due to societal standards, class, and race and that takes a lot from the overall learning and understanding differences through literature.” Coundoul doesn’t want people to give up on trying to expand the canon, but feels it is difficult to even try to talk about it. She added, “It almost feels like no one is listening.” 

Several of Lehman’s faculty members agreed that the canon should be more diverse. J. Bret Maney---a professor of English who teaches courses in American literature, critical theory, and composition---said, “The literary canon, or set of ‘classic’ texts we read, reread, and teach, should definitely present a rich diversity of perspectives, which can be broken down by race and ethnicity, faith traditions, gender and sexuality, class, and other pertinent categories.”

Maney also explained that historically, DWEMs, or Dead White European Males, made up the majority of the canon, and that in the 1970s and 80s, feminists, African Americans, and Latinos fought for the canon to be expanded so that it would represent accurately the diversity of the human experience. This, he believes, led to the Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican, as well as the African and Africana Studies Departments at CUNY.

Another English Professor, Phil Mirabelli, who specializes in English Renaissance literature and culture, echoed Maney. He holds that the canon wars have calmed down now and that the canon has been expanded in different ways because, “Many teachers and editors of anthologies have taken a wider view of what we mean by literature.” Mirabelli said, “I think it’s important to study not only our own culture and society but also other cultures from around the world and through history. It seems to me to restrict our students from studying any type of literature, media, theory, criticism, and culture, either historical classics or more recent classics, including those from all cultures and subcultures, would be impoverishing our education.”