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December 20, 2022

Queens teacher ignites student activism

Author: Molly Belmont
Anastasia Difino and students

Our "It's What We Do" series offers portraits of NYSUT educators who give back to their communities and across the world.

Anastasia Difino still remembers her first day of school. “My parents were Greek immigrants. The only English word I knew was ‘hello.’ My mother was so worried when she put me on the bus,” she said. Difino reassured her mother in Greek. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, mom. I’m going to go to school and learn how to speak English.’”

Today, Difino teaches fifth-grade English and social studies at PS 120 in Queens, the same district where she grew up, and she is helping another generation of immigrants find their footing in a new country through the “Civics for All” curriculum she recently helped pilot for the NYC Department of Education.

Civics for All is based on the idea that students at every grade level can make connections between history, current events, and democracy – an idea near and dear to Difino’s heart. The new curriculum focuses on lessons that are interactive, project-based, and relevant to student’s lives.

PS 120 boasts strong student diversity — 98.8 percent of students are students of color. Difino acknowledges that her school has always been diverse, but she says that there has been a shift in demographics since she was a child. Today, Asian and Pacific Islander students make up 80.2 percent of the student body, with Latinos making up the largest part of the remainder.

Difino is committed to making her lessons practical and authentic. “Since I’m teaching English language learners, I want to make it real and accessible for them,” she said, just as her teachers once did for her.

As part of the Civics for All curriculum, Difino asks students in K-5 to consider the ways in which government and civic organizations are tackling problems in their own communities, and then write and deliver a persuasive “soapbox speech” on how the problem should be addressed. From the submissions, the school administration selected two speeches that will be delivered as part of SoapboxNYC, a citywide public speaking contest. Competition is stiff; Difino’s elementary students are primed to deliver passionate orations on drug addiction, global warming, mental health and animal cruelty, among other topics.

“I want them to learn about civics by thinking about it in terms of how they can help their communities. I want them to see that, ‘Hey, I may just be one little person, but I can have an impact,’” Difino explained.