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Making a world of difference

Lowell High School

Making a world of difference

History teacher Jessica Lander earning praise for using global perspective

By Barry Scanlon, Correspondent

Being surrounded by students from around the globe makes Jessica Lander feel like a million bucks.

Even if she doesn’t win that amount.

“My life’s work is working in education,” the Lowell High School teacher said. “ I love what I do. It’s inspiring.”

The 33- year- old U. S. history teacher and Cambridge resident is a finalist to receive a seven- figure bonus. Lander has been named one of 50 worldwide finalists for the Varkey Foundation’s $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

“ This is one of the very few places in the country where you can have some true global diversity. My students are inspiring. My students are so incredibly strong. They have such grit and determination. They come to school every day ready to learn,” she said in her classroom during a recent free period.

Lander, a teacher at Lowell High School since 2015, has already beaten the odds. The Varkey Foundation received nominations from 121 countries for more than 8,000 teachers for the largest prize of its kind in the world.

“ It’s a huge honor,” she said.

Lowell High teacher Jessica lander, seen in her classroom, is one of 50 finalists for a global teaching award. this year she put up this collage of photos of past students on the wall behind her.

Julia Malakie / Lowell Sun

“ I’m definitely humbled to be recognized as one of the 50 finalists.

“If I was to win, my hope is to use the money to create an organization to connect educators and schools across the country who are doing incredible work to support immigrant-origin students, and to create a national community sharing best practice to support the nation’s roughly five million immigrant-origin students.”

Her students hail from 27 countries. Her classroom is adorned with flags from across the world. It’s a true United Nations. Some of her students have been in the United States for just weeks, others for three or four years. Some have had their education interrupted by wars in their homeland.

“We have such global expertise in our classroom,” Lander said. “It’s so beautiful. I think we’re doing really powerful work in the classroom.”

Lander teaches U.S. history to immigrants whose native language is not English.

Julian Viviescas, a UMass Lowell sophomore, returned to visit Lander on a recent afternoon. Today he is a confident student studying journalism and professional writing. In 2015, he was a stranger in a new land, an immigrant who moved to Lowell with his family from Colombia.

“I would love to see her be the No. 1 teacher globally because she totally deserves it,” the 2019 LHS graduate said. “She goes above and beyond. She’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

Prior to his senior year, college seemed a distant dream to Viviescas. Then Lander found an application for a $20,000 scholarship. The scholarship seemed “very out of reach” to Viviescas, but Lander encouraged him to apply. A few months later he learned he was awarded the scholarship, which enabled him to afford his UMass Lowell tuition.

“She is the kind of teacher that wants to see all of her students succeed, going above and beyond to provide opportunities to see her students to do well. She is very passionate about her job and it really shows. As a student in her class, she made sure to spend time with me to help me succeed in the class, but even when class ended she made sure that I knew I could count on her support, to give advice, or to have someone that could listen to me on bad days,” Viviescas said.

Each year her students write opinion pieces, some of which are published in The Sun. In 2017, her class worked with regional organizations like the Merrimack Valley Food Bank to begin a school-based food pantry. Other schools in the state are now following Lowell High’s lead.

In 2018, she was asked to create a course. She started a Seminar on American Diversity, kick-starting a class which has produced six books (and counting) from students who in many cases are new to the country.

In the same year, her students wrote personal essays of their experiences and identity as Americans. The experiences were compiled into two books, “ We Are America,” and “ We Are America Too.”

Lander and 14 of her former students founded the We Are America Project in an attempt to shape a national conversation about American identity. Lander created a 100-page curriculum on American identity. Now more than 50 teachers in over two dozen states offer the We Are America Project in their classrooms.

The late South African President Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Stephen Gervais, Lowell High’s chair of English Learners and World Languages, said Lander embodies Mandela’s words.

“Her goal is always to empower, and give voice and agency to her students,” Gervais said. “She has done this from day one at Lowell High School, and she continues to find new ways to help challenge and guide her students to be the changes they want to see in the world.”

Regardless of the global winner, Lander already feels like a winner. She’s in contact with many of her fellow finalists from across the planet. After the pandemic she’d like to meet some of them and visit their classrooms. She loves exchanging ideas with teachers from across the globe.

“Since her arrival at LHS, Jessica has given our students access to a world class educational experience,” Social Studies chair Robert DeLossa said. “Now what we have known here at LHS has been recognized around the world through the Global Teacher Award committee’s designation of her as a top 50 finalist.”

Lander said the semester is off to a fantastic start because, unlike the 2020-21 school year, students are back in the classroom. The sight of her students walking

into her class again elic- its an ear-to-ear smile, even if it’s hidden by her mask.

“It’s so wonderful to be back in the classroom again,” she said. “ That’s why I do the work I do. All the joy of education is back.”

A Cambridge native, Lander earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a certificate in African studies from Princeton University. She taught English and critical thinking at a university in Thailand, sixth grade in Boston, and then leadership skills for college women in Cambodia. She accepted the Lowell High position after receiving her master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard University.

She has found a home at Lowell High.

One of her former students, Carla Duran, arrived in Lowell from the Dominican Republic six and a half years ago. Duran took Lander’s U.S. history class her senior year.

She and a friend initially vowed to challenge the new teacher, give her a hard time. Then she met Lander. Soon she liked being in her classroom so much that Duran would eat her lunch there.

Duran, 23, is now a UMass Boston junior studying political science “ because she made me love history so much.”

“It made it more interesting. I was just sort of a student who was passing through high school when I met Miss Lander,” she said.

Duran, who helped found the We Are America Project, returned to Lowell High following graduation. She served as a teacher’s aide to Lander, trying to soak in as much information as possible from her mentor.  “She’s the best,” Duran said. “I love her.”

Robert Aliganyira, a 2019 LHS graduate, says Lander changed his life.

“I would start with the fact that she is the definition of kindness. She sees broken souls, gives them tinder and amber to ignite in life. Coming to the U.S. as a young African refugee man, I liked school but did not entirely see myself aiming for higher education or any purpose of pursuing to advanced levels. One of the reasons that drew me to such conclusions was there’s always many barriers that lie between people like me and the American education on the other side,” he said.

But Lander helped him navigate college applications and financial aid. Today he is a Brandeis University junior.

“Her kindness, love and mentorship extends beyond any ordinary person,” he said.

Lowell high teacher Jessica Lander, seen in her classroom, is one of 50 finalists for a global teaching award. this map shows the countries where students in her classes are from.

Julia Malakie, Lowell Sun

Lowell high teacher Jessica Lander is one of 50 finalists for a global teaching award. In some classes she has students sit in a circle on the floor.

Julia Malakie, Lowell Sun