At CHS, refugee students are ‘experts in their own experience’

Monitor staff
Published: 10/22/2016 10:59:43 PM

A clinical social worker at Concord High School, Anna-Marie DiPasquale spent last week in Estonia, advising educators there about how to integrate refugee students at school.

In a certain sense, the conference organizers invited the wrong person to make the 4,000-mile hike across the Atlantic to the University of Tartu, in Tartu, Estonia.

“Anything that happens at school, I ask (the students): What helps you? What makes you feel welcome?” DiPasquale said last week.

At Concord High, about 10 percent of the school’s 1,600 students are refugees. The New Americans, as they are called at CHS, have come from over 30 different countries – some fleeing war, others religious persecution. Some arrived in the United States 10 years ago, others only just last week.

And while meeting the needs of such a diverse population takes a variety of accomodations, DiPasquale said, figuring out what each student needs always starts with empowering them to ask for it.

Students are “experts in their own experience,” DiPasquale said, “they have a lot to offer, and one of the things they have to offer is telling us what works.”

Before leaving for eastern Europe, she asked the students to compile a list of the kinds of things teachers can do to make new arrivals feel more welcome.

Many had to do with accomodating language barriers – letting students that had been in the country longer translate for other students on occasion, or simply giving students extra time when answering questions in class.

Students often know the material, said Kailin Griffith, an intern with DiPasquale and MSW student at the University of New Hampshire. But translating the question and their answer when they’re working in their second, third, or even sixth language can sometimes mean a teacher has to be okay with allowing for a few seconds of awkward silence.

And while teachers shouldn’t try to become fluent in their students’ native tongues, DiPasquale’s students do encourage teachers to take an earnest interest.

Teachers should at least be able to point to their student’s home countries on a map, they wrote, know about basic cultural differences, and simply ask students to talk about their culture and home (without prying into potentially traumatic experiences.)

But quite a few of the students’ suggestions had do to with actively encouraging social integration. The students wrote that teachers should “assign groups” and “facilitate friendships.” When a new student arrives in class, teachers should make an effort to introduce them, they wrote, and shouldn’t seat students who speak the same language next to one another.

Christopher Herr, a social studies teacher at CHS, agrees. Skyping in to Estonia with DiPasquale and a room full of Estonian educators, Herr told the group the most important thing to keep in mind was that students “really need us to establish structures that bring them together.”

And that really applies to all students, he noted – refugees, traditional immigrants, or just someone that’s “a little bit socially disconnected.”

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