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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Educators Must ‘Walk Alongside Afghans and Support Them'

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 31, 2021 8 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

It’s possible that a number of schools might be welcoming Afghan refugee students soon. How can teachers/schools/districts best support them?

In Part One, Valentina Gonzalez, Tan Huynh, and Vivian Micolta Simmons contributed responses.

Today, Pamela Broussard, Claudia Leon, and Silvina Jover share their advice.

‘Our schools can be a welcome refuge’

Pamela Broussard is an award-winning New Arrival Center teacher, trainer, and speaker. She lived in Afghanistan for seven years and has been working closely the last few weeks with Afghans who have been fleeing their country . If your district or school needs help with new arrivals or your Afghan population, she can be reached @LeadingElls:

Whether the Afghan families in your community arrived many years ago or just left, Afghans around the world are experiencing deep anguish as they watch and wonder what will happen to their beloved country, family, and friends. As educators, we have a sacred opportunity to walk alongside them and support them. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind on that journey.

  1. Afghanistan consists of multiple ethnic groups, languages, and lifestyles. Like members of any nation, Afghans are diverse and may or may not relate to the other Afghans in your school. While these seven points are offer ideas for how to support refugee students, letting each person speak for him or herself is important.
  2. Connect families to local refugee resettlement agencies and/or social workers in your school or area. Most Afghans fled with a day or two notice. leaving everything behind. Many may need practical and professional support.
  3. The Afghan culture is one that values a collective society where relationships come before tasks. Taking the time to personally connect first before giving assignments or paperwork to adults, lets any students, including refugees, know you value them.
  4. Expect families and students to process their trauma in their own way and at their own pace. Be an empathetic, listening ear but also honor quietness. Knowing their country has been overtaken by the Taliban is devastating. Tears may flow. Numbness, quietness, and disengagement may happen. Anger may build inside. Let your students and families know it is OK to have all those feelings.
  5. In Afghanistan, gender roles are well-defined and understood even at a very young age. You may have different ideas or opinions on these roles, but while someone is grieving it is not the time to engage in such discussions. Instead, understand that men might do most of the talking because they are more used to leading in business and family affairs. Men and boys do not discuss their wife, sisters, or daughters with other men., In class, girls may not feel comfortable discussing or working with boys. Again, this is not the time to try to “do things the way we do it here.” It is the time to create a supportive atmosphere to recover from trauma. Google Translate or Google Assistant can assist teachers to communicate with their new students.
  6. Do not force Afghan students to prove their allegiance to only one place. Regardless of bombs, threats, or natural disasters, most refugees long for and miss home. Honor that. Don’t make them feel they must only display gratitude for being here. Refugees will miss all of what “home” represents to them. In time, refugees will appreciate many different things in the United States, but it is OK to love their own country, too.

Remember that these families have lost homes, possessions, businesses, family, friends, and, their country at a moment’s notice. Our schools can be a welcome refuge where healing can begin and joy can return.


Help Them ‘Feel Safe, Understood, & Welcomed’

Claudia Leon teaches ENL and ELA at Bay Shore Middle School, N.Y.:

As soon as I heard that Afghan families were being evacuated from Afghanistan, I understood that one or more of these children might end up in my English as a new language class. As an ENL teacher, what can I do to prepare for these children? What can any teacher do to prepare to welcome them? Below are some ideas I would like to share. You’ll note that my focus is not entirely on how to tweak your curriculum, but rather how to create a classroom environment that will encourage refugee students to feel safe, understood, and welcomed.

Helping these children feel validated will help them learn to trust you and the students around them. Refugee students need to be seen and acknowledged. They may be placed in a classroom of 30 students, and it is crucial that they not be allowed to fall through the cracks. This can be done by incorporating something from the Afghan culture, history, and/or language into your classroom and/or lessons. For example, an English or social studies teacher can incorporate a map of Afghanistan into lessons, or they can analyze or write about Afghan art. Perhaps a math or science teacher can learn about an Afghan mathematician or scientist. Imagine how comforting it would be for a refugee student to see that his or her country, language, and culture is so important to the teacher that he or she made incorporated it into a lesson.

Another way that teachers can prepare for Afghan refugees is to reach out to any staff who might speak Pashto or Dari. Ask if these staff members could serve as a mentor, mediator, or a tutor. While translation apps are very helpful (and, in many situations, the only options available), nothing compares to speaking face-to-face with someone fluent in your native language.

In order to help your Afghan students be successful in your classroom, you might consider creating anchor charts (a poster on the wall with readily accessible instructional content or strategies) or word walls that can serve as year-long resources. There are many translation apps—even though they might not always be perfect —that can help teachers translate word walls, target vocabulary, and classroom rules into Pashto or Dari. (Make sure you find out which language your Afghan students speak before you translate your material—ask them or have them show you on Google Translate.)

Getting to know the culture, history, and geography of Afghanistan can go a long way to creating a positive relationship with your students. Seek reliable websites, blogs, or podcasts and accurateinformation about Afghanistan. As teachers, we must educate ourselves so that we can make our students feel respected, valued, and appreciated.


‘Funds Of Knowledge’

Silvina Jover is a bilingual social studies teacher in Las Vegas. Originally from Uruguay, she has been an educator and advocate for immigrant students and their families in the United States for the past seven years:

First and foremost, we need to understand that academics should occupy a second place when students and families arrive in the United States. Remember: “Brains in pain cannot learn.”

The socio-emotional well-being of students must be at the forefront of all efforts by districts, schools, and educators. The education team also needs to be mindful of the cultural differences between the student’s country of origin and the United States and act accordingly. It is undeniable that “culture shock” is very real and experienced by the lack of familiarity with the new operational habits, traditions, language, and other elements of U.S. communities.

Ideally, districts would have schools designated for newcomers where they could be serviced in smaller environments by a team of professionals; for example, education buildings that officiate as a transitional space to first address the student’s trauma. This space would be encompassed with school psychologists, cultural specialists, bilingual/bicultural teachers, language acquisition experts, and family outreach specialists. The creation of a legal aid office to assist with the stress of paperwork related to immigration matters could prove to be extremely beneficial to families new to the country. Nevertheless, the reality in most districts is different and not all needed resources are available.

Educators can replicate this model in their own classrooms by understanding how to support students who experience trauma, as well as being aware of the possibility that the student arrives in this country having had interruptions in their formal education. This is particularly important for students who are placed in the secondary school level. Ultimately, creating a school environment that not only accepts and accommodates other cultures, but also understands them, should be one of the main goals of every school.

Embracing the new students’ culture and creating spaces for them to demonstrate and share their “funds of knowledge” in their classrooms and school environments should be a key asset-based strategy that is at the core of teachers’ practices.


Thanks to Pamela, Claudia, and Silvina for contributing their reflections.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected, or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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