Sharing immigration experiences to engage learners

Meet Margarita Carrere

We know that English language learners come from all types of backgrounds: geographic, social, economic, even cultural. We know some of them were born in this country, and some may have come from the southern tip of Chile. A question we sometimes forget to ask is how they got here. That's precisely what Margarita Carrere asked her 7 and 8 year olds to draw and write about. The stories are amazing:

  • My mom sent for me and we had to walk a lot. My little sister fell in a ditch and we had to get help for her.
  • My knees hurt and I got spines in my hands.
  • The man left us by a hill and told us to wait. He left with the car.
  • I came in TACA [an airline] plane.
  • Nobody told us to bring more clothes. I was cold when we had to walk for a long time in wet clothes after swimming in the river.
  • And all this so I could be with my parents. I love them a lot. I used to be sad on mother's day and father's day because I had to be alone and couldn't give them presents.
  • I came in a car.
  • The "migra" [immigration] caught us and they put is in jail, and then we just had to try again.
  • I left my grandpa and came to see my parents. He died because he was all alone.
  • They told me to stand and not make noise. The water was almost to my neck and after a while I could feel something moving by my feet. I was scared it was a crocodile!
  • And when we got to Mexico, we had to walk a lot. My legs hurt.

The majority of the students in Margarita's newcomer class are from El Salvador. Many endured quite an "adventure" to arrive in the U.S. Margarita makes sure her class is an oasis, a safe haven, where for a few hours a day these children can talk freely about their experiences in their own language to a teacher and classmates they can relate to. Sharing is an important part of the class, especially when there's a new student. By hearing the other children's "adventures" they don't mind telling their own, and sometimes Margarita can just see the weight lifting from their shoulders — making adjusting to a new country and school just a bit easier.

Often, sharing these stories orally or in writing can be the first step toward adjusting to the U.S. school system. Margarita can see further proof of the diversity of these ELLs in their drawings and way of writing. Some have never attended school before and their newfound writing skills are very shaky, others used to be the top student in their class and make nicely rounded a's and perfectly crossed t's.

In Margarita's experience, many of her students have come from rural backgrounds, and these students' stories talk about the shock of everything that is on television or of how much they miss riding their horses. Often, rural themes engage these children. One new arrival to Margarita's class had been silent for weeks, he'd often sit cross-armed and scowling, until the day when the class was reading a book about farm animals. His face suddenly lit up and he began talking non-stop about the pigs he had "back home," how his family had chickens and a cow.

Margarita found that most of her students benefit from sharing their experiences with the class, and that this helps them become more engaged learners. However, many students may have had traumatic experiences in their journey to the U.S. and either may not want to share them with the class, or perhaps have been specifically instructed by their parents not to share their experience with others.

Margarita Carrere has been teaching for over forty years; she has been at Raymond Elementary School in D.C. for 7 years. They have an ESL newcomer program where students are pulled-out for half the day and go through a 3-year transition before being fully inserted in the regular classes.

 

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Share My Lesson. For teachers, by teachers.

National Education Association. How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners.

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