Abraham Falk-Rood in his classroom at Rudsdale Newcomer High School in Oakland.
Abraham Falk-Rood in his classroom at Rudsdale Newcomer High School in Oakland.

Q&A: He teaches immigrant teens who live on their own

Abraham Falk-Rood, 32, teaches English at Rudsdale Newcomer High School in Oakland. All of his students are immigrants ages 16 to 19, many of whom crossed the border as unaccompanied minors and are given help navigating the immigration system here. The school is designed to meet their unique needs: Nearly all hold jobs and speak limited or no English. Most come from Central American countries and speak Spanish or Mam, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. There’s no homework, school goes for five hours starting around 9:15 a.m., and “wraparound” support services are rendered, such as emotional and social support from an on-site social worker, career counseling and vocational training. “We are always looking for volunteers to help in the classroom,” notes Falk-Rood, who grew up in Berkeley and lives in Oakland.

J.: Tell us about your students.

Abraham Falk-Rood: Almost all of them work full time. They work in construction, as house cleaners, dishwashers, servers, cooks, in factories and grocery stores. One hundred percent of my students are newcomers, so all of them are learning English. Some have only been in the U.S. a few months, whereas others might have been here three years, so their English levels vary. But they’re all still learning. They work so hard, and they go to school and study. Many of them send money home.

Why do you teach at Rudsdale?

I’m sure any Oakland public school is dealing with students who have great needs, but with these kids, you feel you can have a really big impact in their lives. I love working with them. It’s like being half teacher, half social worker.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Just the mechanics of teaching, trying to be the best English teacher possible. I happen to be a goofy, fun teacher, and always try to find something useful and interesting for them. My students are really motivated to be here as long as they think the time is useful.

What was it like during the coronavirus shutdown?

It was nuts. During the pandemic, students lost their jobs, so they had very acute needs — for housing, for food, paying their [immigration] lawyers … We were driving from house to house, delivering food, helping to pay their phone bills … It was emergency status. We held virtual classes. A lot of students dropped out or they’d tune out, and some students flourished.

You also teach music at Rudsdale.

I teach guitar, and it’s very cute. We have 12 guitars at school. I gave guitars to some students and we also lend them out. The kids love heavy metal and rock.

Do you give private lessons too?

I used to. My dad plays classical guitar and taught me to play as a kid. We play duets.

Your father, Steven Rood, is an attorney and poet. Your mother, Marcia Falk, is an author, painter and poet who taught creative writing to college students. Do you have an artistic side?

I love reading and poetry. When I was younger, I also did visual art.

Judaism plays a large role in your mother’s professional life as a Judaic scholar and former university instructor of Jewish studies, English and Hebrew literature. Are you religious?

Judaism is kind of important to me. This year I’m the only Jew working at my school and I do notice that. I’m not at all religious, but I feel connected to Judaism. I also feel that there’s something in Judaism about trying to help other people. It gives me motivation.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.