#5 The State of Affairs in This State

In reading more closely into this issue as it pertains to Vermont, I was struck both by the instances of behavior and prejudice that seem to belong to another time and yet are perpetuated, and by the incredible and meaningful work that many people are doing to make life in Vermont, specifically in the institute of Vermont education, more comfortable and inclusive for New Americans and English Language Learners.

One woman, Isra Kassim, who is Somali Bantu, came from a refugee camp in Kenya as 2006, and entered high school as a freshman, remembers “overhearing the staff make disparaging remarks about her refugee community.” They would tell her that she was “different,” exempt from these remarks, but praising a thoughtful and intelligent student for diverging from her perceived background is inherently offensive. There are other instances of bigotry and hatred, overt or covert, occurring in schools and the communities, both of which are relevant as schools are really concentrated extensions of a community.

Understanding this, it is essential to explore the steps being taken to counteract these exclusive practices. Burlington and Winooski, with the highest numbers of ELL students, are the only two districts that have hired full teams of linguistic liaisons, though some have similar positions or a liaisons for a single language as the need dictates. However, the liaisons in those two districts are serving a much bigger and more unifying purpose than simply translating to families; they have become essential figures in helping New Americans connect to and understand Vermont communities, and the presence of people with whom both New Americans and more acclimated Americans can identify is important. Much of this work, it seems, requires people well versed in both Vermont norms and the norms of the immigrants’ country of origin; one of the largest and most easily solved issues originally facing Burlington South Vietnamese liaison Son Do was the fact that many New American parents had different expectations of what a relationship between themselves and the school would look like — “Families expect teachers to be the main instructors, while American teachers expect parents to be involved.” Cultural liaisons are able to communicate clearly with parents about all the steps that need to be taken and the meetings and events that need to be attended, but they also take care of matters if a child doesn’t have transportation or is sick, and they give cultural presentations to educate schools about the background and needs of the New American students and families. In the case of Son Do, he has become a lot more than an employee of the school. Families understand his unique position and the merits it presents and ask him to help them navigate life in the U.S., not just as it relates to education, but he doesn’t refuse these requests, and has certainly been immeasurably useful to the success of many families in which the parents work so hard to be able to support their children that they don’t have time to take classes and learn English.

Another incredible example of people working to make change within schools is the Refugee Outreach Club, Inc., which was started fairly recently by a CVU student and has since spread to other schools. They aim to help students get “involved in the international community with service locally and globally,” and one of the ways in which they have done so is by volunteering, through the Heritage Learning Program, to tutor Burundian students.

I think that both of these approaches to the issue share a factor which is essential to the cause, especially here: community. Linguistic and cultural liaisons are so incredibly effective because they share common experience with New American families and are able to provide a trustworthy, understanding pivotal figure. Note also that this doesn’t involve group seminars or lectures on how to understand the Vermont education system, it happens on a personal level and through conversation. This is also true when students are tutoring students; there is a connection between similarly-aged people and a general understanding of goodwill. Vermont communities, because of their close-knit connections, can be hard to penetrate, especially for people who don’t know English in this primarily monolingual society. However, this problem also provides a solution, and I think that this comes in the form of community-based efforts that attempt to understand the experience and perspective of everyone involved. These approaches unite people, and a lot of this has to do with education that goes both ways— part of the liaisons’ job is to educate the school community about the New Americans and their culture, and this simply has to happen in order to create a culture of mutual understanding. Otherwise, we risk further division.

This has left me intrigued about everything I researched, and I’m starting to think about the people I could possibly reach out to later in the year. I really like the idea of speaking to the liaisons and the students and families they work with, and I think that the Refugee Outreach Club could be a valuable resource, especially since they are rooted in student culture.

Citations:

Sari, Kymelya. “Translating School to Immigrant Parents.” Seven Days. Da Capo Publishing, Inc., 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

“About.” Refugee Outreach Club Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Sari, Kymelya. “Leading Ladies: New American Women in Vermont.” Seven Days. Da Capo Publishing, Inc., 9 Mar. 2016. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

 

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Clara Lew-Smith

4 Responses to “#5 The State of Affairs in This State

  • Clara:
    Not only do you have great anecdotes here but you also have done some great research about the groups that are attempting to bridge this huge gap in our educational system. Nicely done on that front!

    You mention that “There are other instances of bigotry and hatred, overt or covert, occurring in schools and the communities, both of which are relevant as schools are really concentrated extensions of a community.” This is a powerful statement. You then go on to show some of the people who experience difficulties and then some of the groups who are attempting to counteract the bigotry. However, as a teacher for 13 years and a student for a lot longer than that, I always found presentations — whether in school auditoriums or one-day field trips — as important but inadequate. In other words, I always felt that a lot of the students failed to internalize the objectives of presentations/speakers/assemblies and automatically reverted back to their default ways of thinking the next day.

    I mention this because I think you have a unique opportunity here to try to make real, systemic change — and my recommendation is that you try to make it through the curriculum. How are educators exposing students to a WIDE variety of voices and experiences? What do our curricula look like? Are we putting students in a position to not only see the world from a different perspective but also to experience these different perspectives?

    I’ve mentioned this before but will mention it again. This is an awesome topic, and you’re doing some wonderful initial thinking on the topic.

  • Dianne Baroz
    7 months ago

    Clara,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your latest post and how you are digging deeper into your topic. You’ve researched two ways which are aiding the ELL transitions in school communities. The cultural liaisons have the most direct impact for the family but not the overall school community. The tutoring is a wonderful way for students to have contact with ELL students but really is limited to only those students that do the volunteering.

    I went back and reread some of your earlier posts and one thing that jumped out at me was when you spoke about how ELL and immigrants usually are seen as a problem when they can be seen as an asset. Is there a way to work collectively on a broad effort to show the benefits that ELL families bring to a school community?

    Thanks for bringing up such a relevant and important issue. As more refugees begin settling in Vermont, this topic will be brought to the forefront. What type of impact could you see your social action group making?

    Best,
    Dianne

  • Clara,

    I’d just like to start off by pointing out how well you write. You always seem to capture me in your writing while discussing an important topic. As I was reading about the interpreters and their importance in the community, I couldn’t help but think about the possibility of having more interpreters in our state. Yes, we do have a state with a small population and very little diversity, but we need interpreters to ease the transition of immigration from a foreign country. I’m wondering if the solution to this problem lies within the refugees that have already found haven in Vermont. I bet the refugees would be interested in helping new refugees acclimate to the new environment.

    I’m interested to hear more about your ideas as you continue with your research!
    Justin

  • Hi Clara,
    Loved this write up! I particularly loved when you included the expectations of the new American parents. You said they didn’t expect the teachers to be more than just an instructor and that the parents expected they wouldn’t have a lot to do with their child’s education. You also said that the liaison’s job is to inform the parent about the process our education has and to guide them through it. A few questions that I have is what would happen without these liaisons? How do they impact the education and community involvement of the child and family? What do new American families think about these liaisons? Have they helped their child and if so what is their comparison between having a liaison and not having one? I think that you have a pretty sound plan of where you want to go with this topic and I can’t wait to see the outcome.

    Elsa

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