The Power of Story for ELLs and Newcomers: Identity and Empathy

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It’s the personal stories that are often lost in the conversations we have about immigrants and refugees. One personal story may seem insignificant; however, when the stories of nearly five million English Language Learners are absent from the education narrative in the United States, so is the context through which we can learn to know our students, to build empathy, and to truly understand what our students — especially newcomer students — need to be successful.

A Story Can Shift Practice

Emily Francis’ immigrant story is compelling standing on its own; however, it becomes even more powerful if we ask what this story — and the many others like it — can teach us about how we can best reach newcomer students and any student who doesn’t quite fit in.

Teacher working with two young girls at a table in a classroom.As you read about Emily’s experience, think about the similar struggles and barriers your students face in the classroom each day. Allow Emily’s story to illuminate some of the ways that educators can identify their students’ needs and support newcomers with a few simple pedagogical shifts.

More importantly, keep in mind how a growth mindset and asset-based way of thinking is required to see the gifts that every student brings, particularly those from other cultures, languages, and countries.

When we remember the power of stories from others unlike ourselves, we can put ourselves in their shoes, developing empathy for different perspectives and different paths in life. We can learn about the funds of knowledge our students and their families posess, or the rich backgrounds, skills, and assets diverse populations bring to school. We can move beyond the challenging socio-political rhetoric and focus on the realities in our classrooms — the realities of the world our immigrant students bring to us every day.

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My Immigrant Story : Sí Se Puede!

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I’ll never forget the last day I walked out of Martin Van Buren High School. The tears rolling down my cheeks weren’t happy tears as I once imagined. Instead, they were tears of sadness, disappointment, and frustration. I wasn’t going to graduate from high school.

I earned every credit required for graduation. I gave everything I had as a newcomer. I learned the language. All these efforts… and nothing to show for them.

Having a career and becoming a teacher now seemed like an impossible dream to achieve. The sense of failure was so strong within me. For the next six years, I suppressed everything I knew to be true about myself.

But in the end, my failures have been nothing more than a detour on the path to reaching my goals.

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My Immigrant Story: Embracing Education, Navigating Failure

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I love the time of year when parents proudly post and share their children’s prom and graduation pictures. It’s — without a doubt — an accomplishment worthy of celebration.

Emily graduation photoThis might not be the best graduation picture you’ve ever seen — it’s not even an original. But, it’s the only picture I have of my graduation day.

Here I am, in a cap and gown that I wasn’t permitted to wear after taking this picture. This picture, for so many years, represented a personal narrative of failure.

I encourage you to read about my personal journey from Guatemala to the United States. These posts provide some background on my early years, my journey to America, and ultimately, how I arrived at my graduation day.

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My Immigration Story: New Land, New Opportunity

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It was November of 1993 when we started packing the few items we had to join my mother in the United States.

My little sister and brother were lucky to make it to the U.S. in a month. Their father was able to bring them without any problems. They were able to spend Christmas with our mother and the family.

The journey from Guatemala to the U.S. was different for me and my two younger sisters. My mother made arrangements for coyote “smugglers” to bring us across the border. Mid-November the strangers came to collect us, but we trusted that they’d take us where we needed to go.

We were very fortunate that the group took good care of us during our travels. They gave us food to eat, a comfortable place to sleep, and we never needed anything. Still, we would wake up — day after day — wondering if that was the day we would finally reunite with our mother.

family in Guatemala

We traveled on land for several days. We rode cars, buses, trains, horses, and we also walked. We were desperate to see our mother. We weren’t allowed to communicate with her at all — or with anyone else.

Meanwhile, our mother lived in fear for two months — not knowing where we were or whether we were safe. My experience as an unaccompanied minor was very stressful. I was unsure, at times, about what was going to happen. Yet, it wasn’t even close to what others endure to make the journey to the United States. My sisters and I were very fortunate to have made the journey in safety.

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My Immigrant Story: Struggle, Solidarity, and Serendipity

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Forward

by Teaching Channel’s Vice President of Engagement, Paul Teske

Paul TeskeThis summer, I was humbled and energized by the diversity, compassion, and wisdom of the educators that we convened as part of the Fab Five ELL Squad and California District EL Network. The goal of our gathering was to deepen our understanding of how best to serve bi- and multi-literate students. With the generous support of the Helmsley and Stuart Foundations, we came together to share our challenges and collective wisdom.

With the support of Sarah Ottow from Confianza, each member of the ELL Squad had a project with distinct goals for better understanding their puzzles of practice. Our Fab Five ELL Squad will be sharing their useful work in the upcoming months.

Emily Francis of Cabburas County Schools, North Carolina, is our next ELL Fab Five Squadster up to bat. Emily provides joy and depth to her work with elementary students — it’s a passion that has recently been noticed by People Magazine and Ellen DeGeneres. Her focus is on building a safe and inclusive environment for students AND families, since this provides the foundation for all things academic.

Emigrating to the U.S. from Guatemala as a child, Emily’s personal story illustrates the mixed feelings and experiences of hope and, conversely, educational alienation of many newcomers to the U.S., and it also supplies us with inspiration of how one’s experience can deeply inform one’s work that, in turn, nurtures the academic and personal lives of bi-literate and multi-literate students.

Stories such as hers often get lost in the broad conversations about immigrants and refugees; however, knowing the stories provides a context from which we can build compassion and understanding. And as educators, the stories help us understand our students better. We know you’ll enjoy Emily’s work and words as much as we do.

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Ella Fitzgerald quoteTo be honest, I’m not sure to what Ella Fitzgerald was referring when she said these words. To me, where I came from counts — a lot! But since I moved to the United States from Guatemala, I’ve been sharply focused on the future.

Guatemala

I was born in Guatemala and lived there for 15 years. I’m the oldest of five children — four girls and a boy.

My mother was a single mother who worked day and night to provide for her children as best she could. I didn’t live with my mother until I was seven years old; instead, I stayed with family members or sitters since my mother often had to work.

Life was very difficult for me and my siblings during our childhood. We all encountered verbal and physical abuse, not to mention all the domestic chores we were expected to do on a daily basis.

As the oldest child, it was my job to care for my sisters and brother while our mother was working. I was also responsible for cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and the like. I wasn’t the best cook back then, and I’m sure my sisters will never forget the first time I made them scrambled eggs — I didn’t know I was supposed to let the eggs “gel” and cook before I served them… so they were a little runny.

I went to school when I could — when my mom was home. But I moved from school to school, from teacher to teacher often. All in all, there might have been one or two school years when I completed an entire year at the same school.

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Glowing and Growing Through Self-Assessment

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Forward

by Teaching Channel’s Vice President of Engagement, Paul Teske

Paul TeskeThis summer, I was humbled and energized by the diversity, compassion, and wisdom of the educators that we convened as part of the Fab Five ELL Squad and California District EL Network. The goal in our gathering was to deepen our understanding of how best to serve bi- and multi-literate students. With the generous support of the Helmsley and Stuart Foundations, we came together to share our challenges and collective wisdom.

With the support of Sarah Ottow from Confianza, each member of the ELL Squad had a project with distinct goals for better understanding their puzzles of practice. Our Fab Five ELL Squad will be sharing their useful work in the upcoming months.

Damaris Gutierrez is first up in our Fab Five ELL series of blog posts. Damaris is from Northside ISD in San Antonio, Texas, where she served as the teacher of elementary refugee students in a sheltered instruction environment. In her project, she focused on reading instruction, culturally responsive teaching, and assessment.

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As a newcomer ESL teacher to refugee students in an elementary setting, my classroom was self-contained and I taught language through content in a sheltered instruction environment.

The thought of teaching self-reflection terrified me.

I just didn’t know how to do this with my students.

But self-reflection and assessment is a requirement of the SIOP Model I use with my English Language Learners (ELLs). I remember reading this requirement and thinking — how? How can I get my beginner ELLs, who have limited or no prior schooling experience, to reflect on their language development and content knowledge in English?

Throughout the process of becoming a National Board Certified Teacher, I’ve had to assess my own teaching practices, plan to improve my instruction and act on those plans, view my own teaching, and reflect on my teacher actions and student learning. But teaching my students to self-assess their own learning really challenged my ideas about what they were capable of doing.

Self-reflection would first challenge me to think beyond my current expectations and then inspire me to explore new teaching practices. Read more