In January 2010 one of the deadliest earthquakes in recent history hit Haiti, killing nearly 316,000 people. In its aftermath school districts across the United States felt a shift in their population as refugees sought safety in states surrounded by land. My classroom was not exception. For the second part of that year I had eight ELL students ranging from nearly proficient and ready to test out of services to those who did not know a single word. The ELL teacher and myself had a great relationship and worked tirelessly to help these students access their education through images, objects, and when possible, a translator. But at the end of the day (and year), I locked my classroom doors harboring a lot of guilt at not doing more. It just felt like they were under-served on so many levels.
I took this ache inside me into the Greater Kansas City Writing Project Summer Institute, researching it further as my burning question to my teacher inquiry project. During this transformative time my eyes were opened to the unending ways we can tell our stories. Yes. That’s where I had failed them. I was too focused on objectives and assessments, not their humanity or their voyage or their words in their native tongue.
So, when you know better you do better, and the next year I did. It was far from perfect, but our classroom embraced wordless picture books and created many ourselves to broaden our horizons on what authoring a text and sharing information really means.
If Mirror had been published in 2010 it would have led this classroom work. Jeannie Baker effortlessly compares the life a family in Australia to that of one who lives in Morocco, North Africa. The spines of the book are on the left and right side of the cover. The middle remains open, so the reader can flip each page, looking side-by-side to make connections and observations about family and daily life in these two vastly different cultures.
Naturally, as you read this text you connect these two cultures to your own. Synthesis in an incredibly rich and profound way.
As I continue to navigate ways in which we can reach our ELL students more humanly to give a voice to their experiences, rather than sitting in the corners of classrooms silent and confused, I know literature is the answer. Because literature is more than being able to read and comprehend the words on a page. Literature is stories, information, knowledge. We all have that to share. We just have to find a way.