(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
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?
Depending upon the numbers of refugees the United States military is able to evacuate from Afghanistan, many U.S. schools may be able to anticipate large numbers of those children to be enrolling soon.
This quickly put together series offers a few suggestions…
Today, Valentina Gonzalez, Tan Huynh, and Vivian Micolta Simmons have contributed responses.
Before we get to today’s guest contributors, here are a few ideas I’d like to offer based on 17 years of teaching English-language learners, many whom have been refugees from various conflicts, including, in recent years, from Afghanistan:
- First, and most importantly, teach through a “trauma-informed” lens. Elements of this kind of teaching can including emphasizing relationship-building activities (both teacher/student and student/student), being aware of potential “triggers,” like fire drills; and establishing and implementing predictable classroom routines.
- However, remember that most of us teachers are not trained counselors or mental health specialists. Work closely with your school counselor (if your site has one) or a community provider so that they can provide additional needed support to your student(s).
Provide online support in your students’ home languages to help them learn English. Providing these resources, and the time to use them, not only assists with English language acquisition, but also provides a space of some familiarity. There are a number of languages spoken in Afghanistan—the main ones students in my classes have spoken have been Pashto, Dari/Persian and, to a lesser extent, Turkmen/Turkish.
I have not been successful in finding many Pashto-language resources, but have recently heard some good things about this free ESL app designed to support Pashto speakers learning English.
Also, Google Translate works—to a certain extent—with both Pashto and Persian, so it can be a helpful tool when communicating with both students and family members.
- Please remember, and remind all your colleagues, that ELLs have the same intelligence that their non-ELL students have—-they just don’t speak proficient English yet (though they might speak multiple other languages)!
- In addition, please remember, and remind all your colleagues, that good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody. Most instructional strategies effective with ELLs can also be effective in making lessons more accessible to non-ELLs. Related resources can be found at The Best Sites For Learning Strategies To Teach ELL’s In Content Classes and at The Best Collections Of Instructional Strategies For ELLs.
You might also be interested in past columns appearing here on Teaching English-Language Learners, including:
Lastly, additional resources can be found at The Best Resources To Help Educators Teach ELL Newcomers.
Now, here are responses from today’s guests:
Valentina Gonzalez has more than 20 years of experience teaching and working with multilingual students from around the globe. Her personal experience as an immigrant from Yugoslavia and language learner fuel her desire to advocate for English learners and support teachers with the best research-based teaching methods. Her work’s primary focuses have been on literacy, culture, and language. Valentina is the co-author of Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5:
“Hi, Emily [name changed to protect the student’s identity], before we start this language assessment, let me just verify your personal information. What a cool birthday, Jan. 1, 2001!”
“That’s not my real birthday.”
“Ya, my birthday is in September. They give every refugee without paperwork that same birthday.” And with both arms spread out wide, she says loudly with eyes wide open, “WELCOME TO AMERICA!”
I will never forget that child, that moment, what she said or how.
We aren’t always aware of what our students have lived through or witnessed. Many children that have been forced to flee their country have suffered severe and devastating circumstances, some that are unthinkable. Children who are in classrooms after suffering loss of life, home, and belongings may carry with them trauma that we may never fully understand. In fact the stress that comes along with living through war and severe political turmoil can take a mental and emotional toll on learners. Some refugees suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by the extreme stress from the circumstances associated with dangerous situations (Yzquierdo, 2017).
It’s hard to imagine that a child might have witnessed horrible events that can traumatize them severely. On top of that, they are now in a new country that has a different culture and a different language. And are expected to learn content. Let’s keep these kids’ emotional state in our hearts and minds as we proceed.
What can we do in our classrooms to help?
Relationships, relationships, relationships. Build and sustain strong, healthy relationships between you and the student, you and the family, as well as among students. Most kids are not going to volunteer to say they are refugees. Many of them won’t know the term itself. It’s upon us to know about the kids we work with.
We learn the most by talking with them, asking questions, and creating spaces for open conversations. One of my favorite ways to do this is by sitting with students and having casual conversations. Over time, these casual conversations become very meaningful and students look forward to them. The more comfortable students feel with us and in our classrooms, the more they can learn and grow as students.
Community. No matter what subject you teach, always remember that you teach children first. Create a community in the classroom where all students feel valued for what they bring, seen for who they are, and heard as thinkers. A good way to start is by setting up routines and structures that provide students with space for sharing and a place to belong. Some teachers designate a sacred day/time for classroom community circles. These are times when students gather together and discuss important topics. Many teachers start or end the class period with a read-aloud. This offers the class a common text to discuss. Picking the right read-aloud can provide a way to help students build empathy as well as feel a sense of belonging.
Keep expectations high but support students. Students with refugee status may have experienced an interrupted education. But lack of opportunity is not equivalent to lack of ability. What’s important now is to provide them with every opportunity to grow and develop as learners and community members. Just like all learners in our classrooms, refugees will have learning needs. Some may qualify for ESL services, but others may not. Others may need tutoring or additional accommodations.
It’s hard for many of us to understand what a refugee family is experiencing. It’s difficult to grasp all that may have happened and is currently happening. Families who come with refugee status did not arrive here with all of their belongings. In fact, they likely came with very little and have limited resources. As educators we can proceed from a place of care and support. And if you are concerned about a child’s mental or emotional wellbeing, consult with school or district mental health personnel.
‘Create a Sense of Belonging’
Tan Huynh (@TanELLclassroom) is a career -eacher specializing in language acquisition. Tan has taught students from 5th to 12th grade in public schools, private boarding schools, and charter schools. Tan has also taught internationally in China, Laos, and Vietnam. He shares teaching strategies on his blog Empowering ELLs, and has provided professional development in China, Thailand, Singapore, Italy, and Canada:
As I look at the photos of the helicopter hovering above a rooftop to evacuate people from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, I am reminded of similar images taken in 1975 during the fall of Saigon. Only 11 years later, my family would crowd into a boat not made for ocean travel to flee Vietnam in the hopes of having a better life. As refugees, we found a better life with the help of teachers like you.
No doubt these children will be traumatized by their sudden and harrowing escape. They will be there physically in your class, but their hearts will be with the people they left behind in a country they once called home. So what can we do as educators?
We can do so much to welcome our Afghan students. They want nothing more than to know that in your classroom, they are welcomed, safe, and cared for. As they have just been ripped from their communities and social networks in Afghanistan, we can create that sense of belonging in our schools. Work with your students to brainstorm ways they can make the Afghan students feel welcomed and safe in class. Talk to your most empathetic students and ask if they can be buddies with an Afghan peer to show them around the school, to invite them to sit together during breaks and lunches, and to encourage them to join in on activities.
I know that teachers can create a sense of belonging one-on-one with students, but our students have an equal role in creating that welcoming space for the Afghan students. Their hearts will ache for the teachers and classmates they left behind, but through the way we welcome them, they might feel the same warmth from their new teachers and classmates, one smile at a time.
‘An Environment of Inclusion’
Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the U.S. for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in N.C.:
In light of the recent events in Afghanistan, different countries worldwide will start welcoming Afghan refugee students. But, unfortunately, these students come to a new country knowing little about the language and culture, which creates several challenges for them and their families.
It is challenging to help refugee families overcome all their challenges. Still, one thing is sure: As teachers, we can make everything that we can to provide a safe, nurturing environment for our newcomers in school. In addition, the school districts and leaders can help support newcomer students by implementing different strategies:
- Provide an environment of inclusion: Make sure to welcome students into a classroom that shows that everyone is appreciated. Teach about different cultural backgrounds and have conversations with everyone about respecting each other’s differences. Learn and use your students’ names, learn a couple of phrases in their native language (if possible), acknowledge essential cultural celebrations, and most of all, model and praise kindness. Everyone in the classroom contributes to a positive transition process for newcomer students.
- When possible, teach students about worldwide events: I understand this is a delicate topic, especially when discussing the over two-decade Afghanistan conflict. However, if it is at all possible, expose all students to information on the conflict to create a better understanding and break stereotypes (of course, it is important to discuss plans ahead of time with your Afghan students to ensure a discussion does not trigger additional trauma). This kind of discussion is not intended to increase feelings of pity or take sides but to make more conscious, empathetic, and compassionate minds. You might find some useful materials here or at Newsela.
- Rely on your ELL specialists: ESL teachers have countless strategies in their instructional arsenal to help ease newcomers’ transition into their new schools. Do not hesitate to ask for advice.
- Continue providing high-quality instruction: Newcomers come to the classrooms with limited English proficiency. However, do not lower your expectations in class with our newcomers. Instead, look for strategies and activities that can add to quality instruction: use lots of visuals, assign peer helpers, use sentence starters, model your teaching (I do, you do, we do), link new information to prior knowledge, modify assignments and education, use cooperative learning strategies, and have one-on-one conversations using the help of your district’s translator/parent liaison if at all possible. There are great pieces of advice on this Colorín Colorado article.
- Provide mental health support: Work hand-in-hand with your school counselors. They are the experts in the building who can help our students cope with post-traumatic stress and give mainstream teachers strategies to help lower students’ affective filter.
Thanks to Valentina, Tan, and Vivian for contributing their reflections.
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A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as Welcoming Classrooms Can Ease the Pain of Afghan Refugees