BMCC was still in its first decade when Gay Brookes joined the faculty as a young ESL instructor. Richard Nixon was in the White House. Barack Obama was 11. And the subway fare was 35 cents.
Brookes’ retirement at the end of this semester will mark the first time in over 40 years that she has not been a regular presence at BMCC. It will also serve as the coda to a singularly distinguished and accomplished career.
In recognition of “her dedication to the profession...and the advancement of English Language Learners,” Brookes received a Lifetime Achievement Award this year from New York State TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).
Professor Christine Jacknick formally submitted Brookes’ nomination to TESOL, supporting it with testimonials from Brookes’ colleagues, who described her as compassionate, humane and a generous mentor.
“Their comments were awe-inspiring,” Brookes says. “I was incredibly touched.”
By the time she first arrived on campus to take up her teaching duties, Brookes was already an experienced educator, having taught high school English in the U.S. and ESL as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. She had also trained ESL teachers in Ghana, Kenya and Botswana.
Over the next few years, she would figure importantly in the creation of a new Department of Developmental Skills, staffed by reading and ESL faculty.
“It initially took some doing to get the two groups on the same page,” she recalls. “I like to feel that I made a difference in bringing the department together and taking it in new directions over time.”
Under Brookes’ chairmanship, the Developmental Skills Department has grown to serve some 5,000 students and added courses in critical thinking and linguistics. And it has played an active role in a wide variety of faculty development programs—notably Writing Across the Curriculum, which supports the integration of writing into all departments in order to promote student learning.
Building fluency, brain cell by brain cell
Back in her days as a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Brookes’ primary area of study was the teaching of writing. Later, as BMCC’s Developmental Skills chair, she says, “I felt it was also important to know more about reading and came to understand the degree to which reading supports writing. I feel strongly that the department has benefited in important ways from bringing the two together.”
Reading affects the brain in a very real, physical way, Brookes notes.
“As you gain fluency as a reader, dendrites grow in your brain and you learn new words much faster than if you were fluent only as a speaker.”
While Brookes feels that high school graduates today are entering college better prepared than in the past, she notes that “many continue to struggle to meet reading and writing requirements.”
It’s thus essential that the department she helped found—soon to be renamed the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics—continue to actively support students as they address the challenge of reading and comprehending texts in science, math and other curricular areas.
In recent years, Brookes has had a key role in fundraising for the Linda Markstein Scholarship.
“Linda was a colleague of mine—a wonderful teacher who was a member of the small group who launched our Department back in the 1970s,” she says.
“She’d started a scholarship for ESL students before she died, and I’ve been working with her daughters to raise enough money to make it a permanent scholarship.”
Although she is retiring, Brookes will continue to offer her expertise and assistance on curriculum development projects. “I’m excited that I’ll continue to spend time on campus,” she says. She also hopes to start her own scholarship fund and to do some traveling. But in many ways, she adds, “my future remains somewhat unknown.”
For someone with Brookes’ curiosity and sense of adventure, that could be a very appealing prospect.