By Lizzy Lupercio, City Year Sacramento AmeriCorps member '18, Rosa Parks K-8
Every morning that I walk onto the elementary blacktop, I know I can always count on seeing Ms. Chong, one of my fellow AmeriCorps members (ACM), and the same student playing basketball. I remember my first time watching them interact: the student handed Ms. Chong a basketball with a big smile on her face, and with minimal words exchanged they began to play basketball. As I frequently saw this student in the City Year room, I couldn’t help but notice her radiant smile and upbeat personality at all times. It was not until I attended a training on working with “newcomers” (students who have recently moved to the United States) that I discovered the significance of the relationship between Ms. Chong and her basketball buddy.
During the session led by Ms. Hull and Ms. Dusbiber, English Language Learner (ELL) experts, they emphasized that the foundation to creating a fruitful learning experience is through building positive relationships. The majority of our newcomer students arrive at Rosa Parks speaking little to no English. Studies show that it takes six to eight years to acquire a new language – and this is only under the best of circumstances. Ideally, teachers should take the time to build relationships with their students by consistently checking in on them every day.1 Unfortunately, when a teacher has to attend to the needs of 30+ students in the classroom, it is unlikely that newcomers will get the attention they need without additional support. This is where City Year is able to fill the gap between what the student needs and what the school is able to provide.
As ACMs we have the opportunity to work as mentors with students and build those relationships necessary for a positive learning environment. Ms. Hull used Ms. Chong’s story as an example of how building relationships with students can have a significant impact on the growth and success of newcomers. Ms. Chong’s basketball buddy, Aurora, arrived from Afghanistan in September only knowing how to say her name and parts of the English alphabet. Her native language, Pashto, is not spoken by any of the faculty on campus—meaning there is no adult on campus who can verbally communicate with her. Understandably, when Aurora first arrived, she was timid and shied away from participating in classroom activities. But with the help of Ms. Chong, it did not take long for Aurora to break out of her shell.
Since day one of Aurora’s arrival, Ms. Chong has made it her priority as a City Year AmeriCorps member to make sure Aurora gets the attention she needs. While Ms. Chong could not verbally communicate with her, she was able to interact with her by teaching her games such hopscotch and of course, basketball. In order to demonstrate interest in Aurora’s culture, Ms. Chong keeps a notebook with words Aurora has taught her in Pashto. Ms. Chong has even gone on YouTube to learn common words and phrases in Pashto in order to better communicate with her newcomer student. Over the past three months, Aurora’s confidence has blossomed rapidly. She now approaches other City Year ACMs and asks them their names. Aurora has even stated she feels sad when there are breaks because it means she won’t get to be at school. She is beginning to participate in activities with other students, and she walks through the halls with confidence and sass. Aurora’s incredible growth would not be where it is today without the positive learning environment Ms.Chong has created through her intentional relationship building and in partnership with Aurora’s other teachers, including ELL experts Ms. Hull and Ms. Dusbiber.
As ACMs we work with many newcomers like Aurora and prevent them from falling through the cracks. The relationships we build with our students are done only through being consistent, intentional and a constant source of support. From the relationships built, our newcomer students gain much more than just a friendly face to talk to. Strong relationships foster an environment in which students feel comfortable, safe and ready to learn.
1 Ferlazzo, Larry, and Katie Hull Sypnieski. The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English Language Learners of All Levels. Jossey-Bass, 2012.