Learning Through Language: “My Hair a Mi Modo”

If you walk down the hallway of the fourth floor, you’ll find Spanish teacher Sarah Ely’s bulletin board at the end. The bulletin’s purple block letters read “My Hair a Mi Modo” or “My Hair, My Way” presenting colorful rows of “peek-a-boo” portraits of Grade 4 students unlike any other you’ve seen. Inspired by the book “Whose Hair” by Christina Christoforou, the faces of students’ portraits are completely blank with a minimal black outline. The negative spaces of each portrait are contrasted by the decorated canvas of limitless possibilities beyond the outline, full of personal details.  Children expressed their own hairstyles artistically. Among the portraits are multicolor beads that dangle musically at the end of braids, ombre hair bleached at the tips, tightly coiled pipe cleaners colored chestnut brown or midnight black and cut to fit the ears. You can imagine students’ excitement as they were invited to think about their hair. Beneath the sheets of paper, the second “peek-a-boo” layer reveals the smiling faces of each Grade 4 artist.

“Our Lower school students talk about identity from Nursery through Grade 4, and they’re taught to be proud of their identity to honor and respect other people’s identities.”

Sarah Ely
Embracing One’s Awesomeness

“I think one of the most wonderful things about working in the Lower School is its strong commitment to student identity, student agency and to equity, inclusion, and social justice,” Ely reflected. “Our Lower school students talk about identity from Nursery through Grade 4, and they’re taught to be proud of their identity, to honor and respect other people’s identities.”

Ely’s Spanish classroom is a space where students are learning through language. They’re not learning language in the same way she learned it in school which was a repetitive pattern of “sit down, conjugate verbs, translate.” Students are given goals or tasks to accomplish with language as a tool and they’re taught language to achieve that goal. Ely knows that language doesn’t exist in isolation and that the best language learning is immersive and hands-on. It encompasses art, connection, and conversation, all of which align seamlessly with the Lower School’s emphasis on teaching students to become confident self-advocates and compassionate friends to others.

My Hair a Mi Modo bulletin board
My Hair a Mi Modo bulletin board
A Snapshot of What Inspired “My Hair a Mi Modo”

The whole unit “¿Quién Soy Yo?” or “Who Am I?” originally inspired by Colombian-Pop duo Bomba Estereo’s song, “Soy yo” encompasses a variety of lessons, including the “My Hair a Mi Modo” project. The unit begins and includes a brief discussion in Spanish of the differences between “ser y estar,” which both mean “to be.” Students use the verb ser, to begin identifying themselves in Spanish. Later, they watch the music video, which shows a young, confident girl walking through different areas in New York City, comfortable in her authenticity in each new spaces, without caring about what other people think of her. The message of the 2015 music video starring Sarai Gonzalez is to not worry about what other people think of you, be true to who you are, you are worthy of being celebrated. After watching the video, students rewrite their own lyrics to the song, using verbs, adjectives and identifiers in Spanish. 

My Hair a Mi Modo bulletin board
Celebrating Diversity and Positive Self Image

Years later, Ely found her inspiration for a new project within the “¿Quién Soy Yo?” unit when she spots Sarai Gonzalez as a now young adult while watching an ad on YouTube. The familiar tune to “Soy Yo” started to play except this time, she noticed new lyrics that had been changed to celebrate ones’ hair. The ad was for Dove. The inspiration of the campaign is to inspire women, particularly Latina women, to be proud of their different hair textures and “to help drive conversations surrounding the limiting societal expectations associated with Latinas’ hair and celebrate the beautiful diversity of hair within the community.” With this, Ely knew she had a larger project to develop for students and sought out her colleagues in the art department, Heidi Zarou ’86 P’22, ‘22 and Patti Smith P’20 for support in developing the artistic aspects of the project.

Ely showed her students the new Dove-directed video and they responded so positively, many of them pointing out other people in the music video. Once students learned how to describe their hair textures in Spanish, whether the length, in braids, curly, straight or its color, they were ready to show their artistic skills. In the project, students showed incredible creativity, making braids out of yarn, dying the material and putting it in order. They shaded, spent time to figure out how to best convey texture and style and through the process of making, found a pride in their work that reflected a pride in their hair, and the unique hairstyles of their classmates. To complete their projects, students were tasked with writing a short sentence that required they give three self-identifying clues about their hair. 

My Hair a Mi Modo bulletin board
My Hair a Mi Modo bulletin board

Before hanging each students’ “peek-a-boo” project on the bulletin board, they had one final interactive moment of joy with their projects: they played a guessing game in Spanish to read the sentences and find out who each portrait belonged to. Now that the bulletin is up, everyone from Kindergarten to Grade 4 still loves to climb the stairs and engage playfully with the interactive board. They point and smile, exclaiming “I know who that is!” “I know who that is!” This is part of what Ely loves about Lower school: it is a place where identities are celebrated and always acknowledged; the whole school is a space for students to be their fullest, most authentic selves.

My Hair a Mi Modo bulletin board