Teachers educating immigrant students need to know how to create safe and supportive learning environments for those children and their families. Knowing how to support them is a crucial skill for educators, not only for creating a healthy classroom environment, but also for ensuring that families are part of their child’s education. Here are five ways teachers and administrators can encourage learning, multilingualism, cultural appreciation and community engagement in and out of school.
1. Help students share their stories.
For almost a decade, Lesley alumna and fourth-grade teacher Maggie Mattson has created a way for her diverse class, even those not fluent in English, to share their histories.
“Students tell their stories in pictures before the words,” explains Mattson, a teacher at Hosmer School in Watertown, Massachusetts. “That’s a very different way of telling stories.”
Over five weeks, she and her students construct books about their countries of origin, why they emigrated, how they came to America, and what their lives are like now. After providing context by reading a number of picture books about the immigration experience, the students use various art forms — from marbling paper to collage — to tell their stories visually. Once it’s time to add words, she and her students review vocabulary, and students ask their families for additional details.
Despite the depth of introspection students undergo in the process of recalling life-changing experiences, Mattson has found it healing rather than traumatic for them.
“We don’t make them tell anything they don’t want to tell,” she says.
The projects culminate in an exhibit that families are invited to attend. This, too, is a unifying event for the Hosmer School community, in which 32 languages are spoken.
The ultimate message, says Mattson, is “how wonderful art is and how that can connect the families to their stories, and how we can all celebrate.”
2. Encourage multilingualism and parental engagement.
Even before their children were born, Assistant Professor Michael Shabaash Kemeh and his wife committed to raising their children in their native Ghanaian culture. They started communicating with them at home and elsewhere in their native language from infancy, and nurtured multilingual development through traditional games, stories, songs, dances and books written in their language.
When their daughters started school, Kemeh made a consistent effort to ensure their Ghanaian language and culture were not a hindrance to learning English, but were acknowledged and even celebrated. He did “show and tell” visits to his daughters’ classrooms and worked with students on plays based on folk tales from Ghana and Brazil to further enrich the multilingual and cultural growth of his daughters.
“Educators should embrace, honor and promote multilingualism in schools,” says Kemeh. Ensuring that immigrant children can speak their home language fluently, and teaching them respect for their cultural heritage, “helps them to develop psychologically and also socially,” he says.
Kemeh met with teachers to make sure his daughters integrated with other students and engaged in class. “Partner with the school. Talk with the principal,” Kemeh urges.
He and his wife also made sure their children spent time with native English speakers, including adopted American grandparents, and their church, where English was the lingua franca.
“If you want to have kids become multilingual, you can’t play that role alone,” Kemeh said.
3. Expand beyond the traditional parent-teacher conference.
Educators must be aware of the challenges immigrant children face, from isolation from peers, to deficiencies in lesson comprehension, and the language barriers that make it harder for families to advocate for their children.
Assistant Professor Margaret Burns says that the standard opportunities for family involvement, such as parent-teacher conferences and parent-teacher organizations, often fall short in supporting immigrant families for whom such practices are not cultural norms.
“Those forms of involvement are culturally biased toward white, middle-class families and do not align with the cultural practices of families from other social groups and countries,” says Burns.