Teaching Refugee Students: Challenges and Rewards
As part of our year-long series on New Hampshire's Immigration Story, we've looked at what it's like for a refugee to arrive in New Hampshire, speaking a different language, and having to learn new customs.
For young refugees who enroll in New Hampshire schools, the challenges can be even greater - and the same goes for teachers working with them.
Where do you start, when your student may be starting from a very basic level? Pull out a book and practice some words? Grab some multiplication tables and do drills? Hope there’s a “Social Studies for English learners” app in the Android market?
We talked with two educators who work directly with immigrant and refugee students. And their first tip is, students coming in with skills gaps may have a lot to learn, but find ways for them to teach what they do know – their culture, traditions and life experience. Anna Marie Dipasquale is a social worker with Lutheran Social Services, and she says her students at Concord High School do plenty of teaching.
“The geography teacher for example came to me and she was doing a chapter on Rwanda," Dipasquale explains. "And she said, Anna Marie, do you think we could get a student panel to come in and talk about their experiences. And it was so powerful. It inspires the American students to learn from the new American students, and the new American students feel empowered because people are interested in their story.”
And the more a student feels empowered at school, the more he or she is going to want to participate in school. Assuming, of course, he or she knows how to participate. And that brings us to another tip: sometimes teachers have to teach refugee students how school works.
June Tumblin has done this for decades, teaching English Learners, or EL students, at Manchester Central High School, the most diverse school in New Hampshire. Tumblin describes the learning curve for refugee students: “To step into a learning environment, a situation where they sit for 48 minutes, and in that time they’re taught math in English, and then they move from there to an ELL class and a gym class. And it’s not something that they’ve been accustomed to.”
So Tumblin ends up explaining for students – and, often, parents – about the daily schedule, and passing periods. School rules, report cards, the business of school. But neither she, nor Anna Marie Dipasquale is the only one doing the explaining.
“Your client isn’t just the child in front of you," Dipasquale says. "Your client should be the school district, the community. It should be all of these entities.”
So another tip: you need buy-in from the entire school community, especially including the administration. Both of these educators say when school principals are personally involved with their refugee students, it makes a big difference for these students and their peers. Dipasquale recalls the school’s reaction to an incident last fall, when several refugee families in Concord woke up to find hateful graffiti written on their houses.
“I had a group of ten kids in my office – ‘this is not us, what can we do? There’s a peace rally, can we go to this peace rally?'" Dipasquale recalls. "[We] got permission right away from the principal, who was incredibly supportive, and out on Facebook, ‘we’re going to a peace rally, go to Ms. Dipasquale’s office for a permission slip. And we put it together so quickly… so you’re absolutely right, it has to come from the top. And it does.”
Manchester has had its share of difficult issues regarding refugees, too – the city has been debating calls for a moratorium on new placements. And one of its residents faces criminal charges that she lied about her role in the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s to come to the US and obtain citizenship. June Tumblin’s tip is: don’t sugarcoat tough issues.
“We, again, let the students bring that to us if they need to," Tumblin says. "We also remind the students that – and they’re a better reminder than we are – that if there’s going to be someone who’s on trial for doing atrocities in a homeland that comes here, it doesn’t mean everybody who comes from that country is doing that. And they better than us know that not every immigrant coming in is going to be coming in with wonderful things, but that’s because they’re human.”
To recap the tips from our educators: empower students, refugees and non-refugees alike, to understand and participate in the full school community, and see that the community talks about diversity and culture, even, or maybe especially, when there’s a difficult issue . Oh, one last tip Anna Marie Dipasquale and June Tumblin offer: this takes time, and patience. But there is a payoff.
“The students – all students – report people seem friendlier in the hallway," Dipasquale says. "One student said to me, ‘I’ve never had American friends before, and now I have 15 or 20 of them on Facebook or something.’”
And Tumblin adds, of her refugee students at Manchester Central: “they’re in the chorus, they’re in the band… AP courses… part of our robotics team…. They’re everywhere, and that’s…. that’s really awesome.”