For the past 3 years I have gotten to work with a range of English Language Learners (ELLs). Not only do these students come in with a variety of different home languages, but they also bring their own unique story to my classroom. As an educator it is my job to give each of these students a voice to share their story. The main way I can do that is by helping them acquire English. The catch is, learning a new language takes years and a ton of hard work. I wanted to find a way to give my students a voice right now.
The Build Up
I had the opportunity to go to Montana for a sustainability conference a few summers ago and it was life changing. Not only for how I approached my work in the classroom, but also in the way I viewed every day life. I decided to live with purpose. Through out the course I was given several strategies to take back to my community to build awareness and help educate people on the sustainability struggles our world is facing today. One of my favorite parts of the conference was the presenters did not say we all need to stop driving cars, we need to only eat organic food and absolutely not meat, and no more toilets because of the water waste. Instead they gave practical solutions in areas that every single person can do. I will share those tips in a later blog.
What About Giving a Voice?
One of the strategies to help students put into words how they feel about the current state of our environment is to not actually make them say or write it down, but rather, to show it through pictures. This got me to thinking, what if I could do this with my ESL students. They can show me through pictures what matters most to them and their families. I did more research on this topic and a school district in Colorado had the same thought. Their approach was to have a select group of parents who were given cameras and asked to take pictures about their lives and cultures to share with the school. This was built into an adult literacy program to help the parents learn English along side their children.
I decided to take it a step further by giving the vision to the children. Let the students talk with their parents and decide what matters most to them. So I did just that and here are the steps. Disclaimer- I am going on year three of doing this and have changed steps drastically each year as I have seen what has and has not worked. I am looking forward to sharing how this years project goes.
I wrote out a project summary and rubric. The purpose of this project is for me to understand my students and their families better. Each student is required to take a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 20 photos that show what they value in life. I encouraged students to complete a portion of the photos with their parents and secretly hoped this could spark some meaningful conversations about heritage between the students and their families.
I went out and bought five digital cameras. My original plan was to get disposable cameras for the nostalgia of it, but then decided this was impractical. Now, these digital cameras are not fancy by any means. I purchased water proof/shock resistant Polaroid cameras for 45 dollars a piece. Handing these to my students was hilarious since none of them had used a camera before, they had only taken pictures with their phones. After a quick mini lesson on how to take pictures and delete the ones they did not like I sent them on their way. They had one week to take their pictures.
Once students turned the cameras back in I uploaded them to my computer and created shared google folders between myself and each student with his/her own photos. Now it was time for the students to write a summary or explanation of what the photo represented and why it was important to them. I provided sentence frames for my each of my students to help them get started. This step took the longest as each of them had around 15 pictures to write about. I would suggest planning a few weeks of allowing students to work on these. My class is a Seminar style class so they had to fit in working on these around other commitments.
Presentation- my favorite part! Each student had a choice of what format to use for the presentation. I suggested things such as a video/slideshow, a poster board/desk top presentation, and I provided clothes pins for them to clip the pictures up throughout the classroom. It was so much fun to see their creativity blossom during this part of the process. Each project was unique and truly a representation of their story.
This last step is optional as each of these stories is the students own story to tell if they chose to. I took a new job this year as an ESL designee a school district and I work in two specific buildings. Once my new group of students have finished the project this year I plan to have a family night at school to allow the students the opportunity to share what they have down with their families and any school employees who wish to participate. In previous years I have only done a small classroom presentation, but decided it was time to share their beautiful experiences with anyone who wants to be a part of it.
I will be writing another blog after this years projects are finished and share the pros and cons of this latest sequence of steps. For now I am happy to be doing everything I can to give all children a voice.