Maeve Hitzenbuhler empowered English language learners to share their migration journeys through drawing and writing. Students authored books, which they shared with both their school and their community. Maeve’s National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project is titled Invisible to Visible.
Could you tell us about the students you teach?
Our school district’s demographics have changed drastically in the past several years. Eight years ago we had 50 English language learner (ELL) students. Now we have close to 1,000 current and former English learners and many dual-language and bilingual students throughout the district.
There are 37 languages spoken in our district, ranging from Spanish to Laotian. Many students arrive with their families, some arrive as unaccompanied minors, and still others come from migrant detention centers. Some are ecological migrants, like students escaping hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico. They all bring many ways of looking at the world, which enriches our district.
What was your inspiration for your Invisible to Visible project?
A number of years ago I worked with some of the Lost Boys of Sudan. They had been in war, but they had never been in school. I found an arts-based writing program called Picturing Writing from the University of New Hampshire. The boys drew pictures from the story of their lives and wrote from the pictures, rather than from their heads. I can’t even tell you how much this improved their writing. This experience inspired my project with my students at Westborough.
And what did your more recent project involve?
The initial goal was to improve the writing of our ELLs through a project on migration stories. We had students draw and paint their journeys: what happened in their home countries that caused them to leave, their travel experience, and what it was like for them arriving in the U.S.
Sometimes writing about trauma is difficult, but drawing about it is often much easier for kids. For example, one student drew a firing squad he could see from his apartment window in his first country. Another child painted a beheading he witnessed.
When it came time to write, we had all kinds of ESL strategies in place to support students as they developed vocabulary and worked on syntax. They created books from their stories and shared them throughout the school and with the wider community.
We wanted to make our students and their families visible and better understood in town. Because of these stories, the community knows these kids and is more receptive to their families’ needs. The stories created a community network that is happy to embrace and support our students.
Could you share an anecdote from this project that stands out in your mind?
At the beginning of the school year, we had an eighth-grade student who was non-verbal in English as well as Spanish, his native language. He showed awareness during class and did homework, but he was just not willing to speak. He started drawing the trials he went through—including drinking his own urine—while trying to stay alive crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Through art, he began to open up. At first, he would only speak in small groups. Eventually, he read his book on stage to the entire eighth grade. He never stopped talking thereafter.
What did your students teach YOU during the course of this project?
After they made their books, many kids said they felt like they could move forward now that things were on the table. I learn from my students every day through their integrity and acceptance. I am amazed by their tenacity in learning English and their ability to understand changing environments. They help us understand geopolitical issues. Every year, I’m just blown away by what they teach us.
What advice do you have for other educators who have ELL students in their classroom?
Learning English is not the most important thing. It’s important academically, but it’s not the most important thing we need to do with students as they come into our schools. They’re going to learn English, but we also want them to be whole human beings. We want them to have the sense that they are going to be OK. To really understand students, we need their voices; we need them to tell about themselves in a way they wouldn’t normally.
Having your ELLs share their stories will invigorate your school community and help them integrate. Your students are part of what makes the United States a unique country. Understanding the hearts of the kids who come to us is pivotal, not only to their acculturation into American society but also to really allowing them to teach us. I think they often teach us much more than we teach them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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