Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

At Our Dual-Language School, New Immigrants Blossom Into Leaders

September 26, 2019

1000w 2018 Jackson Chris Bessonette with students

By Chris Bessonette (WY '18)

Chris Bessonette teaches second grade at Munger Mountain Elementary School, a dual-language immersion school in Jackson. This article first appeared in Education Post.


It’s the first week of the 2018-19 year in my second grade classroom at Munger Mountain Elementary School, and one girl sits apart from the rest of the class. For privacy, let’s call her Rosa (not her real name). She is not only new to Munger Mountain—she is new to Wyoming and the United States. A few weeks ago, she arrived from Guatemala. As her mother and father applied for asylum at the border, she was separated from them. Ultimately, her mother returned to Guatemala, but Rosa’s father waited for her, and together they continued on to Wyoming, where she joined my class.

Immigration is impacting schools across the United States, including mine. Last year we welcomed more than a dozen migrant students to our K-5 program. Last fall alone, I had three recent arrivals in my second grade class.

Two-way dual language immersion schools like Munger Mountain are uniquely equipped to welcome Spanish-speaking immigrants, as 50% of our instructional day is in Spanish. More than half our staff speaks the language, including our principal, assistant principal and one of our two school counselors. We also have several English and Spanish language interventionists.

Half our student body speaks Spanish at home, while the other half is learning Spanish at school. This creates opportunities for all students to excel academically from the first day. Language is not a barrier on the playground, which supports building cross-cultural friendships. More importantly, migrant students are seen as knowledgeable contributors to the learning environment, without having to change who they are or wait for English language proficiency.

So what do we do when a new migrant student arrives with limited English and an unknown story?

The first thing is to let all kids and families know they are safe and welcome in our schools, and that students are legally entitled to a public education—regardless of immigration status.

Then we get to work.

Do we treat migrant students differently? Yes and no.

Why yes? Many students have difficult immigration experiences, and some experience severe trauma. Arriving in a new place, hundreds or thousands of miles from home, families often struggle to communicate and find stability in their lives. Uncertainty leads to stress, which children can carry with them into their schools. These students deserve an extra eye and additional love and support.

During the beginning of the year, Rosa often became overwhelmed in the English room, and I would excuse her to the “Peace Chair.” Her need for mental breaks was vastly greater than that of other students. I encouraged her to take as many breaks as she needed.

For some new students, of course, the last thing they want is to be treated differently, which makes the educator’s path seem less clear. But remember, our job is to support the social, emotional and academic needs of all kids. As we get to know each of our students and grow to understand individual needs, we should be prepared to advocate for migrants the same way we would with anyone else. This is equity: giving all kids what they need. Rosa remained in our language-rich classroom as much as possible. Expectations, academic or otherwise, were not lowered for her.

In the case of child migrants, student needs might include support with language, social and emotional health, food and housing. Classroom teachers might recommend students work with specialists and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, in addition to providing small group or one-on-one instruction in our classrooms.

We can also communicate with school counselors to support the needs of students and families within and beyond school. For example, Munger Mountain provides Friday food bags to families with food insecurity (migrants or otherwise). We also have a food pantry available to any student so they can collect food as they head home for the weekend. Our school social worker connects families with community services to seek solutions to housing challenges, too. And when student needs go unmet in our schools, we as educators should seek to increase our own skill sets to better help all students.

If you expect to welcome migrant children into your classroom this school year, consider these three simple steps for supporting them:

  • First, learn how to pronounce each child’s name correctly, without alterations. Names are powerful links to identify and honoring them can make a student feel valued.

  • Second, determine the degree of formal schooling and academic success each student brings with them in their first language. Take Rosa: When we wrote personal narratives in English, Rosa was able to complete a simple story. But in Spanish, she produced a vibrant story with complex sentences, a hook and a compelling closing. Rosa clearly understood how to write a great story, just not in English—yet.

  • Third, support English language development. It helps all students, not just language learners. Visuals, sentence stems, vocabulary and connections to a child’s home language are a start.

One word of caution: Educators need to be wary of assumptions. Each family and each child will have taken a unique, multifaceted journey, with different reasons for traveling to the United States. These stories should be respected as powerful and intimate, whether they entail hardship and trauma or not. These stories belong to the people who lived them. Educators should focus on supporting the lives these students and families are currently living, rather asking them to rehash their past—especially if it’s for our benefit.

Rosa is flourishing. Thanks to her schooling in Guatemala, Rosa was the most proficient reader and writer in our Spanish class. Her academic abilities raised the bar for many of our second grade students. Experiencing academic success and social acceptance allowed her confidence to grow and likely eased the transition into a new school, town and culture.

At the end of the last school year, Rosa was no longer a quiet, distant student. She was a student leader who advocated for herself and was looked up to by her peers. She may still have a lot of English to learn, but she bridged the culture gap at school while maintaining her heritage language. Our dual-language environment helped her find the social, emotional and academic success we wish for all of our students, migrant or not.

Find more ideas to support immigrant and English Language Learning students at Colorín Colorado: https://www.colorincolorado.org/

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