Gabrielle Vega describes herself as a “very theatrical person.” So, it’s no surprise that as an 8th-grade student at PS/IS 109 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, she was drawn to a social studies teacher with a flair for the dramatic.
“When he was teaching us about anarchy, he literally jumped up on the desk screaming and ripping paper,” Vega remembers. “And I just thought: ‘I want to be him.’”
Vega, who is now in her first year of teaching social studies at MS 936 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, became a teacher long before adulthood. As a child, she derived deep satisfaction from helping her younger sister with math homework.
“I enjoyed that ‘aha moment’ when she finally understood what I was teaching her,” Vega says.
Vega originally planned to become a math teacher, but as she wrote out her college applications, her passion for history proved irresistible. “I get pleasure out of solving equations, but in social studies, there is no right or wrong answer,” she says. “There’s all this drama, and you have to dig deep.”
Her affinity for theatrics is serving her well at MS 936, also known as Arts Off 3rd, which was founded in the fall of 2020 as District 20’s first middle school dedicated to the performing and visual arts. In September, Vega banged a gavel to kick off a role-playing scenario in which she was the school principal; in October, she presided over a classroom debate on Columbus Day that resulted in a lot of “respectful yelling” among students.
“I can be dramatic when I’m teaching certain topics, and I do that to motivate my students because they really enjoy it,” she says.
But Vega has found that stepping back from center stage can be just as effective in the classroom.
“I do a lot of station teaching, where students have to work together to analyze documents and complete a task. The kids teach themselves and I facilitate — that’s the ideal,” she says. “When you’re working with historical documents, sometimes the language is easier to understand from a peer than from a teacher. They’re able to hear someone else’s perspective, and they’re able to identify things about the text without me telling them.”
Beginning her teaching career at this moment in the pandemic has been “a rollercoaster of emotions,” says Vega. “Last year, I was a long-term substitute for a remote 2nd-grade class, and it was really difficult to engage kids on the computer. I’m so thankful we’re in the building, but seeing the work the kids are submitting — I see there’s a lot of work that we all have to do to fill the gaps.”
Because many of her students are struggling with writing, Vega is working closely with her colleagues to embed literacy and vocabulary lessons into her curriculum. She’s also formed a tight partnership with special education teacher Jon Baras, the school’s chapter leader, with whom she co-teaches two classes.
“As a new teacher, planning lessons and units can be very overwhelming, and I’m learning so much from him,” she says.
Vega and Baras have set a goal of holding a weekly Socratic seminar in which students reflect on open-ended questions.
“I’m always doubting myself after a lesson — did they get it?” says Vega. “But stepping back and seeing them do their thing in an open discussion shows me I must have done something right.”