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Lessons in Language

Not too much surprises Rita Kamani-Renedo ’08.

After eight years of working with New York City teenagers, the high school humanities teacher still relishes every opportunity to watch her students uncover new ways of seeing themselves or one another.

On any given day, she interacts with 88 young people at International High School at Prospect Heights, each with a range of educational experiences. The students come from more than 10 countries and speak more than 15 languages.

The needs of each student vary, says Kamani-Renedo, who teaches English language arts and English as a new language at the Brooklyn public high school, which serves newcomer immigrant and refugee youths. “My students trust that I’m there to help them reach their fullest potential, and I trust that they will be willing to try whatever I’ve cooked up for them tomorrow, even if today didn’t go as planned.”

The humanities are critically important, Kamani-Renedo says, because they reveal the world in its deepest complexity.

“They give us the language and space to understand ourselves, and encourage us to see and think about the world from a different perspective,” she says. “I’m lucky that in my time as a humanities teacher, I haven’t felt undervalued. The schools and organizations that I’ve worked in have been deeply invested in helping young people think critically about the world around them and in making connections between our past, present, and futures.”

It’s rewarding work, she says, but “every day brings reminders of the systemic realities that limit our ability to meet our students’ needs, and of the global conditions that have led to the trauma and violence that pushed many of our students out of their homelands and into our schools.”

Despite that reality, Kamani-Renedo strives to build more opportunities for the moments when students “can feel successful, feel seen, or feel like what they are learning in school is relevant to their lives.”

As a language arts teacher, she uses poetry and stories as “windows” and “mirrors” for her students to see themselves reflected in what they are learning.

Her career was inspired by classes in Swarthmore’s Educational Studies Department. “Those courses helped me see very clearly the connections between education and justice, between schooling and social stratification, between critical pedagogy and critical thinking,” she says.

Kamani-Renedo knew she wanted to work in education, particularly with multilingual students. She lived in Chile for a year and then moved to New York for graduate school. She enjoyed working in an educational nonprofit that focused on human rights education and youth leadership development-—but something was missing.

“I felt called to the classroom and wanted to be more stably rooted in a school community,” she says. “It took some time to land where I am now, but I am grateful to have found my school.”

At Swarthmore, Kamani-Renedo was surrounded by people who were motivated by a vision for social justice and a critical understanding of how identities shape experience. Those relationships continue to inform her teaching and shape her life.

“My Swarthmore community has mentored me, cheered me on, and supported me through the ups and downs,” she says. “Many of my closest friends are Swatties, and without the guidance of those people throughout these years, I am not sure I would still be teaching today.”