How a community engagement project enhances comprehension, engagement, and empowerment for new members in our city
“Before we ever put a pencil in a child’s hands, those hands should dig, climb, press, push, pull, squish, twist, and pinch a wide array of environments and a variety of materials.” -Amanda Morgan
When you think about refugees or immigrants entering our community from an array of backgrounds and circumstances, there are so many aspects to their successful resettlement to consider. While I won’t speak to every aspect of this process, or the politics of the immigration topic, I would like to provide a picture of how I represent the Manchester School District in welcoming and accelerating the education of newcomer students at such a pivotal time in their lives. I am an English as a second language teacher for 4th and 5th graders in the newcomer magnet program at Webster Elementary School. We pool students from across the city at two elementary schools for this specialized program to accelerate their English acquisition and prepare them for mainstream classrooms. The majority of my students are refugees from central Africa who have had interrupted prior education and often, limited literacy in their home language. I get the privilege of launching these students education careers, usually beginning with basic educational skills, such as how to hold a pencil, how to wash your hands, tracing a line, etc. In addition, many students come with significant social and emotional trauma and gaps that require intentionality to build safety and security. My role requires a careful balance of creating this safe and secure environment for my students and families while facilitating their English acquisition and accelerating their integration into our community.
In the classroom, this means bringing the community and culture alive for my new students in the most hands-on, authentic way possible. I use project-based learning as the primary method to engage my students in collaborative and empowering content instruction because it can be highly differentiated for each diverse learner. I strive to bring learning to my students, and students to their learning through unique and innovative adventures, both in and out of the classroom. Field trips and class visitors are two of the most practical tools for supporting this approach to learning. I try to engage my students with at least one field trip and one community visitor a month to scaffold and support their depth of understanding. Visitors have included professionals with a range of expertise, such as artists, environmentalists, chefs, police officers, fire fighters, authors, musicians, and builders. These community members have taught us first hand how they experience our community and world, allowing my students to take on that unique lense as they metaphorically push, pull, and squish for understanding.
My favorite field trip is a city walk associated with our project-based learning unit on community. First, we learn community vocabulary and make a scavenger hunt predicting what we will see in our community. Days before the trip, we use our chrome cast to conduct a google “walk” through some of the streets that we will be seeing later in the week. On the trip day, excited students exit the school with clipboards and ipads to document our community assets. We have pre-arranged stops at City Hall to meet Mayor Joyce Craig, a tour of the Palace Theatre, and an informative presentation about book borrowing from the Manchester Public Library. We make many momentary stops to take pictures and assess what we see in our surroundings. All day, I hear students exclaiming, “look, a fire station!”, “Ms, I see mechanic!” The students get to spend the day matching their understanding to their new English words. This is a beautiful negotiation for meaning and testing the sound and feel of the new words in their mouths and gaining the confidence to use the words correctly. The vocabulary and environment becomes tangible and touchable.
While developing English is the main goal for my students in my English as a second language classroom, something extra special happens during this community exploration adventure. People in the community notice our parade through town. The business owners, coffee sippers, walkers, yogis, police officers, firefighters, and many others stop and ask my students who we are, where we are from, and what are we doing. These interactions grow into small conversations that require my students to use their growing language and makes my students feel important. They see that they have a role in this city and a voice in this community. They are welcome here. Some students have never been welcomed anywhere before, but they are welcome here in Manchester. We are glad they are here.
Teaching with projects embedded in our city and enhanced with community experts has been educational impactful in so many positive ways. Students get hands-on and up close and personal with their new language and their new world. I have found this pedagogy to be the most authentic and cultural responsive for our new Americans. Instead of teaching about the apple, I am putting the apple in the students’ hands. I am inviting them to experience the apple in the most direct way, training them to wonder and ask questions,and letting them taste the flavor. I am creating powerful and special moments that have each student desiring to learn more.
Elizabeth Leone, M. Ed is an ESL teacher and a PBL coach at Webster Elementary School in the Manchester School District in New Hampshire.