Set a larger table….

Set a Larger Table
by guest blogger Laurie Meberg

I had never felt more isolated in my life. My family had just moved to a town where we knew only one family. This was my first opportunity to live in a foreign town where I did not have a local community on which to rely. To make matters more isolating, I was a stay at home mom to two girls under the age of three while my husband set up his office in the town center. My shortcomings in the local language limited me further. Finally, I was used to blending into the chaos of an international city and had found myself in a small town where I stuck out more than I had in the city. While I saw the same people every time I went out of the house, they did not seem to recognize me.

My neighbors did not know what to make of this blonde-haired, fair-skinned family who had just moved into their building. They had heard through the grapevine that my husband would be teaching English lessons to take the place of our dear friends in the local language institute. While most of the neighbors and people in our community avoided us as they passed us by – watching us only out of the corners of their eyes – one family in particular took us in. My next-door neighbors and their five teenage daughters were life to me in that season.

MebergBlogWithin a week of our arrival, Muzyen and her family greeted us and welcomed us. When I came home from errands, they eagerly kept the kids while I shuttled groceries up the three flights of stairs. Muzyen understood my younger daughter’s nervous cries and stood singing to her in the hallway as they watched me work. When her daughters were home, one of the daughters would keep my girls entertained while I cleaned the house or cooked dinner – teaching them songs, hand-games, and stories.  When my family returned from outings and clomped and chattered our way up the stairs, Muzyen’s family would open the door to talk with us and visit with our little kids. Occasionally, on long afternoons, Muzyen would break up the monotony of my day by inviting me for tea. She offered sweet pastries and savory dishes as we fumbled through small-talk and conversation.

I learned through our visits that Muzyen’s husband had recently retired from a career in mining. In their early years of marriage, the couple lived far from their families while Muzyen’s husband worked long shifts in the mines. She spent those years home with little children having to find her own friends and support system but the early years had been very hard. She encouraged me by empathizing with my isolation and welcoming me into her life.

Holidays were the hardest days for me as a foreigner in a strange land. Surprisingly, our own holidays were not so hard. Rather than wallow in self-pity about missing our family, I would find creative ways to make traditional foods, decorate with what we could find, and teach the children about our holidays. While I missed celebrating with our extended family, I would visit with friends in other cities. I found that – rather than our own holidays – the local holidays were harder for me.

As a local holiday drew near, I noticed the community brimming with excitement as 02A12D2Geveryone prepared for a big event. The neighbors would clean their homes top to bottom – so thoroughly that they would even hang their carpets over the balconies to dry after hand-washing them. The community scoured the local markets and stores for specialty foods they would use for traditional meals, toys to give their children, and outfits to wear for the festivities. Furthermore, people stocked up their kitchens as shops would be closed for a few days.

While some ex-pats might take this as an opportunity to relax and stay home, I could not. Despite my introversion, I longed to be part of the festivities. I too wanted a reason to cook, clean, shop, and visit – anticipation that transformed the routine.

Al Fresco Dining, With Food Laid Out On TableMuzyen knew what it was to be an outsider. Because of that, she invited us to join her family’s festivities. One of the more intimate components of their celebrations was a breakfast to break their fast. Muzyen had already graciously included our family at a few of their iftar dinner meals. The breakfast marked the beginning of a three-day celebration. This was more of a family affair. Normally new friends or neighbors might visit on the third day, but in my observation not typically the first breakfast.

Muzyen taught me a lesson that day. She modeled for me how to be a neighbor and how to be a friend. There were not elaborate schemes or agendas hidden in her invitation – rather a simple invitation from one woman who had experienced isolation to another woman who was in the midst of it. She had no idea that some of her traditional foods were similar to those of my grandparents and she had no idea how honored I was to be included. She expanded her table, added four plates, and welcomed us in – not as strangers but as if we belonged.

I have applied this lesson many times in the past ten years. How hard is it for me to welcome a newcomer to our celebrations?  Being a newcomer is lonely. But to welcome a newcomer in speaks volumes.

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mebergLaurie Meberg has been working cross-culturally for seventeen years as a teacher, community developer, and refugee liaison. She learned two languages through immersion and tried to learn a third through friendships in a multicultural community. She has frequently helped emerging English speakers by being a conversation partner – mostly over cups of tea. She lives in Colorado with her husband and three children.
She can be found on instagram @ _lauries_stories_

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English Learner Portal    January 2018

Newcomer Programs and Puppies…

IMG_7275[1]So you are already wondering why newcomer programs and puppies would be in the same blog…Our family dog passed away recently and we were all pretty devastated.  After a week we did what everyone tells you NOT to do. We adopted a puppy.  I am so glad we did.  Little Ginny (pictured here) has brought new energy and a lot of smiles into our world. She runs through the yard as fast as possible, so excited to explore.  Think of that crazy puppy run, and that is how I felt this morning finally getting the opportunity to speak with Carol Salva in a voice chat!!  Carol and I have communicated via social media over the past few months, as she so graciously gave permission for us to use her book, Boosting Achievement, for one of our online book studies.  Carol invited me to be a guest on her Boosting Achievement pod cast this morning and I am still that puppy excited!  We had a IMG_6123great conversation about newcomer programs.  When Carol’s team finishes working their production magic and post the pod cast online, I will send you the link!

To go along with the pod cast, I wanted to share my experiences with planning and developing a newcomer center in our district. While I am no longer working in that office, I can share how it started.  In no way do I see this as the perfect plan.  What I hope, is that the big ideas are clear, and that the heart of what we were trying to accomplish comes through. Every district has different resources, guidelines, etc. that make each plan unique.

I’m sure many school systems experienced the same struggles we did a few years back when the number of incoming high school age English learners really took off.  As a young people from various refugee programs and immigrants from Central America, particularly unaccompanied youth, poured into our schools, we worried that we were unprepared to support these students both academically and emotionally.

In 2014, our school district assembled what we called a “Think Tank,” a group of people who came together voluntarily to discuss this particular student group and to brainstorm a solid plan for addressing their needs.  This group included members from the English Language Acquisition Office, teachers, school counselors, high school administrators, pupil personnel workers, career education, and alternative education workers. We looked at student data and used our combined expertise to come up with the most effective plan for both our school system and these students. I consider working with this group – student centered and creative -to be one of my most rewarding career experiences.  Never had I experienced this many people, from a number of schools and offices, coming together with such a level of collaboration to address a common concern and mission to support students.

The “Think Tank” met for 2 years, developing various proposals and presenting options20161208_145133 to the school district’s leadership.  In the spring of 2016, we finally had an approved plan with a budget attached! I loved the plan, as it truly demonstrated the heart of the “Think Tank” and my values as a leader – student centered and collaborative.

The Newcomer Program started with a proposal for up to 40 students at one high school.  Those students were all officially 9th graders (by credit count), though they ranged in age from 17-20.  (Our 14-16 year old 9th graders entered the traditional high school program with ESL support.) We also targeted students who had significantly interrupted or minimal education and literacy before arriving to our school.  Our goal was to build this program over the school year so it could be replicated at other locations in the future.

So here are the basic structures of the Newcomer Program plan…..

10:20 a.m. – Student Arrival – We had found that many students were working late hours and struggled to make it to (or be awake in) the 7:20 a.m. traditional 1st period class.  This led us to create a different schedule for our target group.

10:30 – Lunch – We began our students’ day by making sure they were fed and ready to learn.  This time also allowed for community building and for them to interact with students outside of the Newcomer Program.

science811:00 – First Class (traditional school 3rd period) – ESOL 1 – Students began their day in ESOL class with a hands-on, project based learning curriculum that allowed for language and content development to happen simultaneously.  ESOL 1 also counted as 1 English credit towards graduation requirements, as it was our goal to get as many students as possible to graduation, as quickly as possible.

Monthly social/emotional support lessons were also built into this class period.  A bilingual school counselor and bilingual social worker from the International Student Services Office (ISSO) led the monthly social/emotional support lessons.  We also had the support of the Hispanic liaison officer from the Annapolis Police Department, who often led the lesson for our young men or joined the full group.  These visiting professionals were trained in the “Joven Noble” (males) and “Xinachtli” (females) cultural healing curricula from the National Compadres Network and utilized those teachings within their monthly sessions.

Catherine's african mask12:30 p.m. – Second Class – Elective Credit – Foundations of Art, 3D Art, Team Sports – This class satisfied a graduation requirement and allowed students time to build their social language in a more relaxed atmosphere.  During this class period, students were integrated with other students who were not part of the Newcomer Program.  (NOTE:  Teachers for the first and second classes were paid through regular high school teaching positions as part of their duty day.)

2:00 p.m.   Break

(NOTE:  Because our Newcomer Program 3rd and 4th class period had not previously existed at the high school, as traditional students were dismissed at 2:00 p.m., teachers for these classes were paid through a combination of Evening High School funding and Title III supplemental support.  The Newcomer Program became a small group within the existing Evening High School Program, allowing us to maximize existing staffing.)

2:15 p.m. – Third Class – Science –The science course was co-taught by a certified science20161208_145019 teacher and a certified ESOL teacher.  We selected a science course from our high school Program of Studies that was the most hands-on.  This course also fulfilled a graduation requirement.

3:00 – Fourth Class – Elective – Some students choose to participate in the Culinary Arts foods4program which is part of the school system’s Career and Technology Education Program. This course already existed in the Evening High School.  A certified ESOL teacher was added for support. The Culinary Arts program was quite popular, as many students were working in restaurants and understood the benefit of working  towards a  ServSafe Certification.  Other students participated in the “Stretch Your Wellness” course where they practiced yoga and followed a health/physical education curriculum.  Some students also participated in Spanish I, which was focused on developing literacy skills for native speakers.yoga3

4:30 – Dismissal and Bus Transportation – Bus transportation was provided to various locations around Annapolis through a partnership with the school system’s magnet programs that ran after school hours.

We ended the year with approximately an 85% completion rate. This was SIGNIFICANTLY higher than what we had experienced with older newcomers in the traditional school program.  Here is what I learned in the process of watching the Newcomer Program staff embrace the students and their own leadership:

  • If you take teachers who have a passion for what they do, and give them some structure and creative freedom, they come out with amazing results!
  • A well-planned first year of schooling in the United States, with adults who understand the power of relationships, provides a solid foundation for future success.
  • Students need options that respect the numerous challenges and responsibilities they juggle daily. Alternative schedules, transportation, career skills, first language literacy, acculturation, and relationships are all crucial elements.

As the program continues to morph and grow, I’d love to see a continued focus on collaboration – truly it takes a village to have success.  Conversations with our local community college focused on expanding the career training options are promising.  An agreement between the Department of Labor and State Department of Education now allows the school to teach GED preparation courses for students who fit a specific profile, greatly benefiting those older students who just don’t have time to graduate. Exploring options with the school system’s External Diploma program will also provide a variety of options for students to earn a diploma.

More than anything, our students need options and our commitment to provide the best possible foundation.  With that, they are usually more than willing to do the rest!

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