Over the course of her teaching career, Asil Yassine has witnessed many broken promises to the children of Detroit. She’s seen, she says, “poisoned water fountains, a dearth of books, or mice shooting through the hallways” of buildings.
Yassine enrolled in the Language and Literacy (L&L) Program to learn how to better fight these systemic failures, and find strategies to teach English to her many immigrant students. At HGSE, Associate Professor Paola Uccelli’s Bilingual Learners course gave her important new perspective.
“Before we even touch pedagogy, we have to deeply understand what it does to a person's identity as they embark on this journey to learn English,” Yassine says. “Education is about deeply interpersonal encounters with people and texts, all riddled with power.”
Yassine’s dedication to working on literacy problems both real and theoretical led her to a collaboration between a group of HGSE students and the litigants of the first federal case asserting a right to literacy based on gross inequity in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) that culminated in an on-campus event where parents, teachers, and students from DPS led a conversation.
“That day solidly defined another goal of mine: to figure out what it would mean for our country, our schools, and our students if literacy is recognized as a civil right,” says Yassine, who will be applying to Ph.D. programs for fall 2018 to study literacy, identity, and civil rights. “It is completely unacceptable for students, families, and educators in the wealthiest nation in the world to be handed schools like that.”
“Asil’s experiences as an English learner shaped her interest in the science and art behind literacy education, even as a math educator in an urban district,” says Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, faculty director of L&L. “She has been an active participant in class discussions demonstrating clear evidence of her deepening knowledge of how language mediates all learning and how English learners present both strengths and challenges in classrooms. Her cohort noted Asil’s advocacy for students, both recognizing problems and actively searching for solutions and promoting cultural understanding.”
Yassine will receive the Intellectual Contribution Award for L&L at Convocation on May 24. Here, she reflects on her time at HGSE and her life in education.
What will you change in education and why? Detroiters are engaged, they are organizing, and they are showing up. It's time for the state of Michigan to take accountability for these conditions and for what it is doing to our students' access to opportunities — namely literacy.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year? Listening. Everyone has a story — and I'm not just speaking about folks at the Ed School. That's listening at an open mic, or listening to a neighbor, or listening to my former students' loving voicemails, or listening to an artist at their gallery opening, or listening to my family crack jokes, or listening to Arabic music with my lovely friends at the Harvard Arab Student Association.
Any special study spots? This only really works a few weeks out of the year, but a blanket laid out near the Charles River, a few snacks, and the glistening sun make a fantastic workspace. Otherwise, I'm either at Algiers Cafe enjoying some mint tea or the law library enjoying some ... productivity.
Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for … 20 minutes of yoga in the morning at home and a bit of non-school reading before bed. I'm currently enjoying Leila Ahmed's memoir, Border Passage. It's fantastic.
What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Reflect, question, reflect again. This takes time, so create a schedule that is manageable that gives you the opportunity to do what you likely set out to do: learn. Being productive does not necessarily mean you're being reflective.