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New Teacher Profiles

Speaking her students’ language

Spanish teacher mines a shared heritage to elevate education
New York Teacher
Speaking her students language
Jonathan Fickies

Spanish teacher Candy Jorge infuses the curriculum she developed with literature written by Latino authors like Pedro Cabiya in an effort to connect with her students.


Spanish teacher Candy Jorge knows firsthand the struggle and the triumph of mastering a second language: Jorge emigrated by herself, at 17, from the Dominican Republic to the United States to learn English and start a new life. Now in her third year at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), where she teaches 8th- and 9th-grade students, Jorge is the 9th-grade team leader, responsible not only for guiding her fellow teachers and 120 students but also for developing and implementing a curriculum that supports heritage Spanish speakers and new language learners alike.

Upon arriving in New York, Jorge enrolled in Bronx Community College to learn English. After stints as a supermarket checker and a pharmacy tech, Jorge earned her bachelor's degree in Spanish at Lehman College. At that point, she says, she “decided to try teaching, and I ended up really liking it.” After joining the Teaching Fellows program and starting at WHEELS, she knew she’d found her calling.

“She’s the essence of a ‘warm demander,’ ” says Natasha Gudiño, Jorge’s colleague and mentor. “She came here with nothing — no family support. She’s able to connect with students and new staff members alike.”

WHEELS, a pre-K to 12 school in Manhattan, offers a dual-language program through 5th grade, and a majority of the students are either immigrants from the Dominican Republic or have family ties there.

Because the 8th- and 9th-grade students are a mix of native Spanish speakers and second-language learners, Jorge was tasked with developing a curriculum that meets the needs of both groups. She tackled the problem, her colleagues say, with characteristic determination. “Candy has the rare, extraordinary quality of being able to see the big picture but also be extremely detail-oriented,” says her colleague Kerry MacNeil, who teaches English language arts.

Jorge created units that are accessible to students at all levels of Spanish language proficiency, intentionally choosing books, rather than poetry and short stories, to keep students engaged over a longer period of time. She designed a unit around a novel that featured a Haitian character living in the Dominican Republic as a way for her students to develop empathy.

Jorge says her primary goal as a teacher is to keep the Latin American immigrant population at WHEELS, and the students who are descendants of immigrants, connected with their heritage. At the moment, she’s teaching a novel about the civil war in the Dominican Republic so that her 9th-graders learn about the history of that country.

“The kids who grew up here and have a Dominican background — they don’t always know about their history. One of the reasons I became a Spanish teacher was to teach literature,” she says. “I teach grammar, but the history of Latin America is my passion.”

Jorge is mindful that she embodies the American dream for her students. “They see me and they realize, ‘OK, I can learn English, I can go to college. I can be successful.’”

Jorge describes teachers in her home country as “more formal, more separate” than American teachers. She believes in following that model to establish herself as an authority figure — but she infuses the role with American warmth to form solid connections with the kids.

“That boundary, the respect — the line — is there,” she says. “But you can still build the relationship. I earn their trust.”