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“One, two, three … Focus!” says Evelyn Mosquea-Taveras ’99, and every kid in her classroom looks up and pays attention. A skillful teacher who fuses a warmly caring manner with a flair for the dramatic, Mosquea is exactly where she always wanted to be: at the heart of an inner-city classroom. And what a classroom! It’s an innovative pilot project testing the premise that non-English speakers can learn English faster if it’s taught in the context of compelling subject matter.

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Mosquea’s school, Grover Cleveland High in Queens, N.Y., created this Global Studies English Language Learners project, known as GSELL. Based on the work of Lily Wong Fillmore, an acclaimed pioneer in English as a second language, it fuses ESL onto a rich curriculum of global social studies. Mosquea’s class is small, just 20 kids hailing from a dozen different cultures, from Puerto Rico to Poland to Tibet. Each session, running two full periods, is team-taught by social-studies leader Kristin Fraga with ESL specialist Mosquea. And it hums with activity—kids riffle through desk dictionaries, shoot hands up to answer questions, and jump forward to circle vocabulary words and underline key clauses on the big electronic “smart board” at the front of the room.

Focus firmly established, Mosquea reads aloud: “‘By 1850 the British controlled most of India; however, there were many pockets of discontent.’ Is there anything here that you don’t understand?” When one teen admits he’s stumped by “pockets of discontent,” Mosquea turns comedic: “What, you don’t have pockets?” She stuffs her hands deeply into her own and turns them out. “Stand up! How many pockets do you have?” As the meaning of the metaphor visibly dawns on her kids, it’s just as visible that she’s doing what she does best.

The first in her family to go to college, Mosquea left a tough East New York neighborhood for Skidmore in the summer of 1995. Ever since she was a little girl play-teaching her brother and sisters, she knew she wanted a career in education. But on the cusp of college, she also wanted to marry the fiancé who gave her the engagement ring she wore when she arrived on campus. Immigrating with her parents from the Dominican Republic, she was raised a traditionally dutiful daughter; to achieve independence, there would be tradeoffs. “I had to confront my culture and my traditions,” she recalls. “It was not easy to do, but I had to learn about life for myself. How else can you learn?” After a doubt-filled first fall, in the spring of her freshman year she ended her engagement and dedicated herself whole-heartedly to her Skidmore education. She was “grabbing life,” she says, just as she’d done in order to get to Skidmore in the first place.

While her parents kept her safe and off the mean streets, Mosquea studied hard at school and racked up the extracurricular credits (president of Hispanic Club, roles in music and theater productions) she knew she’d need for her college applications. When she first visited the Skidmore campus, traveling up on a Skidmore bus to a “Connections” weekend, she thought, “Whoa, what if I come here?” Like many other strong learners from academically or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Mosquea was helped by New York State’s Higher Education Opportunity Program. Cited as one of the best in the state, Skidmore’s HEOP offers a supportive yet challenging summer preparation session and ongoing advising.

Arriving on campus “thirsty for learning,” as she recalls, Mos­quea drank up everything Skidmore had to offer, wringing each semester’s possibilities like juice from sweet oranges. As if personifying Skidmore’s signature strengths, she double-majored in a liberal arts field (Spanish) and a preprofessional program (education), she snapped up electives in theater, dance, and Prof. Regis Brodie’s legendary ceramics class, and she plunged into cocurricular interests from the campus Newman Club to the a cappella group Quiet Storm. (Just about the only Skidmore amenity she skipped, she reflects, was “the gym.”) Along the way, she buttonholed HEOP staff for counseling and tutoring when needed and met with Skidmore faculty to help her drive her English and her grades up to her own high expectations. Spanish professor Paty Rubio remembers Mosquea warmly as “a solid, dedicated individual who liked to learn and was fascinated with the richness of Hispanic cultures but also excited about new ideas.”

After studying in Madrid in her sophomore year, she conquered the education program’s daunting “junior block” of student teaching. She graduated double-certified to teach both elementary and bilingual education. Job offers came in, but “I needed to be on my own and independent—I was a real rebel,” she chuckles. “I went into the Peace Corps instead.” She worked in Belize with its Art Council and National Youth Choir, facilitated workshops on music in the school curriculum, and directed a production of West Side Story. Back in New York, she earned a master’s in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) at Columbia University and topped that off with another master’s, in education administration.

Once at work in a classroom of her own, Mosquea quickly paid back her undergraduate student loans, which were relatively modest thanks to HEOP’s packaging of state and Skidmore grants, work-study jobs, and low-interest federal loans. (While four years’ worth of student loans now average around $25,000, HEOP students are graduating with more like $8,000 in student debt, according to Skidmore’s HEOP program.) “My Skidmore loans were not huge compared to others I’ve taken out,” Mosquea says gratefully. “Now I’m working on paying off my master’s. But no matter what it costs, education is worth it,” she adds.

“Maybe you could get an equally good education at a public university,” she muses. “But the resources at Skidmore! The library, the arts, the individual attention from faculty… And the education department—I never trained in secondary education,” she points out, “but when I went into the high school classroom, I was confident because I’d gotten state-of-the-art training in my major. I came out knowing education, knowing how to teach.”

Nowadays Mosquea is married and living close to her parents, family, and friends and five minutes from her high school, where, as its ESL coordinator, she teaches both GSELL and standard ESL classes and also helps with after-school programs, home and family advising, adult ESL training, and a multicultural festival each winter. She says she still relies on the concepts of differentiated instruction that fired her imagination at Skidmore. “My thesis was on Howard Gardner’s multiple-intelligence theory on the seven ways that people learn,” she explains, ticking off verbal, mathematical, visual, musical, and more. “That was the most useful thing I ever learned.”

And she has embraced technology with fervor. “I’m applying for grants and purchasing programs like Achieve 3000, where students log in on laptops, are pretested for reading levels, then get articles e-mailed to them according to their reading skills. Technology has been such a good group tool.” She adds, “Other teachers come in to study our GSELL system,” which tracks the history, art, religion, and cultures of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America from ancient times to the present. It’s material of strong interest to students whose family roots lie in Cuba, Montenegro, Egypt, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and beyond.

Begun in 2008, the class is so new that Mosquea and her colleague Fraga had to create a lot of their own teaching materials, loading their digital lesson plans with images of artifacts and fine art and primary and secondary source materials, as well as vocabulary words and points of grammar. Each Friday the students log in, ponder current-events stories related to the nation they’re studying, answer multiple-choice questions, and then produce their own sentences, paragraphs, and eventually whole essays.

The class is a joy, say both teachers, whose working partnership is a big part of it. “They gave me the best teacher in school to work with,” marvels Mosquea, and Fraga returns the compliment: “Evelyn is the most gentle, sincere, warm, pleasant, hardworking, passionate, dedicated teacher I ever met in my life. Working with her makes me a better teacher.” Assistant Principal Regina Dominguez adds, “Evelyn is very vigilant to protect the fragile population we serve, and she is an outstanding role model. She is a Grover Cleveland graduate who is giving back to her community. As a Hispanic woman myself, I am proud of her.”

During last year’s budget cuts, they feared for the survival of their groundbreaking new class. Defending it was a challenge, but “one I was passionate about,” says Mosquea, demonstrating the indomitable side of a personality that HEOP director Monica Minor recalls as “an interesting mix of demure and fierce.” As it turned out, the GSELL students did so astonishingly well on their rigorous state regents exams, in English, that not only is the class continuing this year, but Fraga and Mosquea are teaching a second one as well.

Two days after school ended this past June, Mosquea set off for a summer in the Dominican Republic, to study its history, culture, and schools. The trip was a step toward her goal of one day founding a technologically based K–12 “smart school,” either in the Dominican Republic or in New York City. “I will focus on developing literacy skills through the arts, for children faced with numerous challenges stemming from lack of resources—those coming from low-income backgrounds, perhaps those who are orphans or homeless and may have never been to school.”

Such a school is still in the dreaming stage, admits Mosquea, who counts on husband Luis Daniel Taveras, a financial analyst and computer expert, to “help me find the funds, write grant proposals, and plan a budget while I lay the groundwork for the curriculum with our educators.” But “everything is falling into place,” she says happily. “Skidmore opened every door” in her own life, she says, and now she is determined to lead a new generation of inner-city kids through those doors, and beyond. When she stands up among them, they will snap to her call for “focus”—count on it—and follow her.