The Supreme Court used votes to speak; teachers and kids use art

  • Susie McQuade, a teacher from Goffstown, works on telling the story of her Scottish grandmother during the Picture Writing Workshop at Southern New Hampshire University on Tuesday. The workshop, meant to help educators bridge the gap to immigrants and refugees, came on the same day that a Supreme Court decision upheld President Donald Trump’s controversial ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Hooksett elementary teacher Jenna Hutchinson works on her picture writing project at Southern New Hampshire University on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Director Beth Olshansky from the Center for the Advancement of Art-Based Literacy puts up some of the work picture writing project at Southern New Hampshire University on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Teachers Mary Luckers (left) and Mbula Ratzlaff work on their picture writing projects in Beth Olshansky’s class at Southern New Hampshire University on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Beth Olshansky is the founder and director of the Center for the Advancement of Art-Based Literacy at the University of New Hampshire. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/26/2018 11:50:27 PM

The classroom on the college campus had teachers everywhere, doing things usually reserved for kids.

Paper and paint and sandpaper and crayons were the tools in this workshop, focused on showing educators how to coax, through artwork, refugees and immigrants from the shell created by language and cultural differences.

In this class – held around the time the Supreme Court sided with President Donald Trump’s decision to limit travel from several mostly Muslim nations – teachers learned to utilize collages and hand-printed drawings to open doors for those who have a lot to learn.

This class is Beth Olshansky’s baby. She’s the founder and director of the Center for the Advancement of Art-Based Literacy at the University of New Hampshire, but the class was at Southern New Hampshire University.

Her goal always is to take advantage of the unique relationship between art and writing, mix the languages of pictures and words, and instill confidence in foreign students, teaching them to extend a hand to new classmates and say, “How do you do? This is my background, this is who I am, this is where I’m from.”

Olshansky’s fingerprints were distinct and bright like a bowl of blue paint, with professionals seated at little tables, looking like kids in any American grade school, heads bowed, hard at work.

Over there, Jenna Hutchinson, who teaches grade-school kids in Hooksett, worked on a house in Ireland, the home in which her grandmother grew up poor, with dying crops.

Over there, Mindy Fitterman of Concord, who’d like to be a volunteer educator in the fall, built a tribute to her late grandmother, who never told the family that a dozen relatives had been murdered by the Nazis in 1942 Europe.

Move over there, and we had Susie McQuade, an English learning teacher in Goffstown, who drew a row of little one-room houses, like the kind her great grandmother lived in while growing up in Scotland, with one bathroom for the entire community.

And, best of all, at the front of the class hung a screen, where a four-minute video showed how the program helps these children communicate with American kids, through their drawings of little sailboats and giant ships nearing the Statue of Liberty after a long journey.

“They share stories on a personal level and present them to their new communities, show them who they are,” Olshansky said. “It’s called critical empathy, which is what we can use more of today.”

Olshansky then deliberately cleared her voice, twice, a sure sign that she was relaying her feelings about Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision without directly saying so.

That was the prevailing thought, one of the themes during the seminar, that national security is one thing, but turning away children who are running from barbaric, corrupt governments is quite another.

Asked to expand on the Supreme Court ruling, Olshansky said, “The decision is problematic. It’s alarming, and it goes against our entire system of welcoming people from all over the world.”

Olshansky looked the part of liberal educator, with long silver hair and a long flowing dress that would have worked well at a Grateful Dead show. Her concept, created over decades of in-class mentoring, is an “approach to literacy learning for at-risk learners and newcomers,” as she put it. “It’s a proven practice, with years of research, and it works because of its universality.”

She’s leading the weeklong program at SNHU, which attracted about 30 adults Tuesday.

Hutchinson is an English learning teacher who teaches refugees and immigrants, all of whom come from around the world. She said a great majority of her students are Muslim and that many have been feeling uneasy recently.

“There’s been negative talk of immigrants and labeling all Middle Eastern people as terrorists,” she said.

Hutchinson cited an example, an occurrence that happened when lower courts were rejecting Trump’s ban on Muslim travel. A girl, Hutchinson said, was told by a classmate that she would be sent back to Morocco.

The people in class Tuesday saw the Supreme Court’s decision as only adding fire to a movement initiated by the president.

“Some people are cheering this,” said teacher Dan Scheinman. “They don’t get it. They believe the garbage Trump is selling is the truth, and so they’re afraid of immigrants.”

Trump’s national security strategy, though, connects directly to one of his campaign promises, so no one should be surprised. And with unease increasing since 9/11 and continuing with the rise of ISIS, the president chose drastic measures to fight back, a decision that has split the country and dominated the headlines.

Olshansky’s program was created to open eyes to her point of view. McQuade loved it, telling me, “It’s cool to see how you get people with limited English skills to communicate about their experiences by writing narratives about themselves through pictures. Pictures drive the words.”

The video showing kids’ artwork told the story far better than any words ever could. Using paper cut into pieces, we saw women wearing headscarves with their hands raised in the air; an airplane flying with a face of a child in the window, tears running down the kid’s face; people on the move, their lives stuffed into pillows cases; other people traveling with lightning flashing above; and a suspension bridge draped in an American flag.

Neil Diamond provided the background music, singing “America.” When the light came back, Olshansky revealed that the movie had been made seven years ago.

“In light of today’s news,” she told the class, “this seems highly romantic.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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