West Point Middle School Students Learn Beyond Textbooks
by Michelle Schneider, U.S. Military Academy at West Point
February 17, 2020
“I shall not spare any effort or trouble for the benefit of the colonies.” These bold words demonstrated the courage of Bernardo de Galvez from Spain.
The history of Galvez was brought back to life by Guillermo Fesser in his children’s book, “Get to know Bernardo de Galvez.” Fesser visited West Point Middle School on December 5, 2019 as a guest speaker for the Hispanic Author’s Assembly.
December 5, 2019 - Guillermo Fesser speaks and laughs with students while teaching them about the processes involved with developing a children’s book at the West Point Middle School.(Photo by Michelle Schneider, U.S. Military Academy at West Point)
Spanish and ESL teacher Domenica Conte said that leaders, teachers and parents at West Point are a tight-knit community dedicated to enriching students’ experiences during school. They regularly host assemblies throughout the year to expose students to international perspectives and future career options. The Hispanic Author Assembly was one example of a well-rounded learning opportunity.
“The whole school assembly involves everything we do in social studies and addresses the fine arts as far as the book itself,” Conte said. “The story talks about a Spanish military leader, a colonial governor of Spanish Louisiana, contemporary of George Washington and for (the person) whom Galveston, Texas is named. He’s a historical figure in the Spanish world and in American history.”
Fesser’s visit was not just about a history lesson, although that is one of West Point Middle School leader's learning objectives. He also taught students about the process of writing a children’s book, from character design to scene perspectives such as how lighting is used to create different moods. Fesser, a Spanish journalist, radio personality and television producer has used his background to research and write several books.
During the assembly, he also shared that after moving from Madrid to the United States, he realized there were many references about Spanish culture in the country that he never thought about. He discovered the oldest synagogue in New York City was founded by a Spaniard, that the Hudson River was originally called the Rio San Antonio and that the state of Oregon was named after oregano fields by Spanish travelers.
“I started thinking, what is happening here? At that time, the politics in our country were changing and there was a lot of animosity about the immigrants and the Latinos. Things were said, that they did not belong here, they are trying to get our jobs and they are newcomers,” Fesser said. “So, I went to a publisher in Miami and said that we need to tell the real story. We don’t have to preach, just tell the story about the Spanish roots in this country. Latinos are part of the textile of America and I said, I think I know the way.”
He went on to share that he found an American Spanish hero named Bernardo de Gálvez who has a story that could help bring things into perspective. Fesser said at the time of the Revolutionary War, two-thirds of the United States was called New Spain. Without the help of those two-thirds or the Latino people who lived there during the war, Fesser believes George Washington would not have achieved independence.
“I would love for the students to know that the people who speak Spanish in the United States belong here as much as anyone else. They are not newcomers, not everyone is illiterate, poor and miserable. There are Latino people who have done crucial stuff for this country, are part of the history and they helped to make this country the way it is,” Fesser said. “Hopefully what I see is the Latino kids in school get back the pride and self-esteem that has been taken from them with all this rhetoric that we hear.”
After the Hispanic Author Assembly, eight students from Conte’s classes were selected to partake in a reflection group to talk about what they learned.
December 5, 2019 - From left to right, students Charlotte Black (Grade 8), Christopher Ortega (Grade 7), Mario Gonzalez Marquez (Grade 6), Franki Gonzalez Marquez (Grade 6), Nicholas Keehn (Grade 8), Maddie McInvale (Grade 8) and Gabriela Moreno (Grade 8) pose with Guillermo Fesser (center) before participating in a reflection group. (Photo by Kerri Schools)
During the discussion, students shared how the assembly provided them an opportunity to be educated about the research, linguistic and artistic processes involved in illustrating a book.
When asked why they think West Point Middle School hosts these types of events, one student shared there is much to learn beyond what they are taught in school.
“I think it’s to show us different career opportunities and to educate us about how Mr. Fesser did research and found that there’s more than what is shown to you in school and you can look beyond what you’re taught,” eighth grader Nicholas Keehn said.
Another eighth grade student shared her idea of one of the most important messages she took away from the author.
“I liked his message about how everyone belongs even though they come from different backgrounds and have different interests,” Maddie McInvale said. “I thought it was cool that his motivation was for his children and that he wanted to show them that they belong just as much as any American and that we are all diverse.”
A sixth grader shared a different perspective of the importance of why events like the Hispanic Author Assembly are important, which is to broaden peoples’ understanding and acceptance through learning more about history.
“West Point was part of the war, and if West Point wasn’t here and the Spanish people did not help, the war may have taken too long, or the Americans may have surrendered,” Francisco Gonzalez Marquez said.
West Point Middle School regularly hosts events throughout the year with advanced learning objectives to expand students’ cultural awareness, open their world to various careers and inspire them to use as many resources as they can to learn.
Conte shared that she hopes that the assemblies and school events will make an impact on her students.
“There are little things, even in your youth, that will just click. And you’ll say, ‘You know what, I’d really like to do this. This is something that speaks to me,’ and so that’s what we want to do,” Conte said. “We throw little bread crumbs out there for the children and this way they say this really speaks to me or I understand. Many will come back years later and say, ‘I remember when you did this, and it was so much fun.’ It’s life experiences that speak to many of the children, and that’s what we want the children to get from the assemblies.”