Voices on the Learning and Words of Wisdom

Here are multiple perspectives and reflections on what we did.

FROM DANA (ELL Teacher):

When many students leave their native countries to come to school in Millburn, NJ, there are many things to go through their minds: Do I know enough of the language to get by in school? Will I be able to communicate with my teachers? Will I get good grades? Will I be able to meet my parents’ expectations in school? Will I acclimate to the new culture? Will people accept my culture? Will I like American food? Will people think my food is weird? Will I have anything in common with people?

As an ELL (English Language Learning) teacher in Millburn, NJ, my job is to make sure these students feel comfortable in their new environment, and have the best academic experience possible. After all, many families come to the town specifically for the schools. In my ELL classroom, I always make it a point to get to know students personally, and advocate for them with teachers in mainstream classes.

One thing I always notice is that students eventually feel very comfortable in the ELL classroom, but not in the larger settings of content classes. Many times, ELL students feel different than students who have grown up here. Let’s face it, ELL teachers sometimes feel different than all the other teachers in the school. They are usually one person departments with no other ELL teacher to collaborate with.

I was lucky enough to form a unique relationship with my school librarian, who thrives on collaboration. Together with Rachael Harrington, professional storyteller, we developed a year long project called ” Our Story”, that  makes the ELL students realize that people are more the same than different. It makes them realize that their food is loved by many people, and not weird at all. Through oral storytelling and integration of multiple digital tools students come out of their shells and perform a cultural story, using their speaking and listening skills to interview a partner, reading and critical thinking skills to conduct research, and writing skills to express their ideas. All of this culminates in an International Festival involving parents, students, faculty and school administrators.

The collaboration between ELL teacher, librarian, students and families is an invaluable tool that makes these students, families and teachers feel a part of the community.
FROM RACHAEL (our storyteller):

Working with ELL students as a storyteller is inspiring because I am always reminded that language is more nuanced than just the words we read or speak. Computers and robots can say words, but there is a soul and depth to human communication that can happen in a look, the raising of an eyebrow, or a tip of the head. These are some of the things I like to think about when collaborating to create storytelling workshops in ELL classrooms.

An idea that I specifically like to work with is that each and every student, regardless of current English proficiency, is a natural storyteller with sparks of creativity and a specific, unique voice. When I begin working with a group, I play theater and storytelling games that require little to no language. This gets students loosened up, but it also allows them to begin building confidence in expressing themselves. From there, we can dive into further story explorations that integrate tales from cultures represented in the classroom, personal narrative experiences, and vocabulary building. The most important thing for me, though, is that the students walk away from the workshop knowing that stories have a life outside of rote words.


FROM JASMINE (A student):

Telling a story in front of so many people gave me the confidence of expressing myself. It’s one of the most important barriers of a second language. I’m really proud of myself that I took that step.

The … project was a very interesting way to learn the culture of a different country.


FROM JASMINE’s MOM (apologies for the grammar but I wanted to leave it in the exact words of Jasmine’s mom):

Jasmine and I, as international student and parent, benefit a lot from the project as the following:

For the first time in Jasmine’s life she could speak English publicly thanks to the storytelling, which was a great start point for her to face the school life in a foreign country. Also, Jasmine felt comfortable and good when other classmates and teacher appreciated the stories of her home country.

As a mother, I appreciate the International Night very much because I knew the teachers and classmates of my daughter. Then, I have more common topics with my daughter than before. Also, I made friends here. We parents could share our experience with kids, and then we could help the kids more than before. And, parents becoming friends helped the kids closer to each other.

In China we always say, “Good start point means half of success.” The project is the good start point for Jasmine.

FROM LaDawna (the librarian):

As Jasmine’s mom so eloquently said… “Good start point means half of success” To me this sums up the WHOLE reason why we should do Guided Inquiry Design. GID is deep and rich and is way more than giving an assignment, providing a list, or making a rubric. The rewards are great. The rewards are in the deep collaborative work that is done by the team, the rewards are in the excitement you see from the students, the rewards are in seeing learning take place in a personal way. For librarians I think it is what we always yearn for, to have access to students, to be an integral part of the design process, to be included in the creation and sharing phase. So many times a research project is done in the library, and never do you get a glimpse inside the learning that took place because the essay is read by the content teacher, or the poster is designed and turned in for the teacher to grade, and you always wonder….”did what I contribute really impact the student learning?” That is not what happens in GID….I get to be an essential partner in the process.

LaDawna Harrington

MHS Librarian

Millburn, NJ

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