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Guest Post: What ELLs Taught Our School In A Week-Long Empathy Project

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Editor’s Note: My talented colleague Pam Buric led an extraordinarily successful – on a number of levels – project at our school this month. She agreed to write about it in this guest post. I’ve added a few comments and links that might be helpful if you’d like to do something similar at your school.

Pam Buric has been teaching at Luther Burbank High School for 18 years and has teaching English learners for most of that time. In addition to teaching, she is the lead teacher of a small learning community and the multilingual coordinator for the school site.

A few weeks ago, my EL students were given the opportunity to share their stories with the “mainstream” students at our school.  The idea was dropped in my lap by administration as a means to promote empathy, our school social-emotional learning focus for the month of March.  I was slightly annoyed by the short turn-around time, the fact that my seniors would have to postpone their work on senior projects, and that it was a great idea that wasn’t mine.  I took a deep breath, adjusted my attitude and embarked on one of the highlights of my teaching career.

 “…We are not rich.  My mom doesn’t have a job. What matters most is to have something to eat before going to school….I don’t care if I go to school with an empty stomach.  I can survive a day without meals.  But to my brother, I do care.  He’s just six years old and that’s too young to go to school starving.  I would go to my friends’ houses and ask them if they have any spare food for my brother.  They always help.  But asking someone for something is what I don’t like. I don’t want to owe people.  I don’t have anything to give back.”  — Erisa, Marshall Islands

The stories of the lives of my students are heart-wrenching, poignant, incomprehensible.  They are stories of the harshness of this world and the resiliency of the human spirit.  To observe these students, you would never know… They laugh, they tease each other, they come to school, they work…. On the outside, the seem to be “normal” kids, but they have lived bigger lives than most of us. Almost all of the students expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to receive an education that could lead to endless possibilities.

“Almost every child is involved with the gang…. At this time, if I was in El Salvador, maybe I will not exist anymore in this world…. It was hard coming here.  I had to cross three borders walking, sometimes in a car, but I had a lot of difficulties in Guatemala and in Mexico with immigration.  But this country gave me a lot of opportunities to go to school to prepare me if I want to be something…. I want to change everything to a better life for my family and make them proud of me.” — Ronald came to the US alone at the age of 14.

For one week, my students shared their stories during our class period.  We organized this in the library.  My students sat one-on-one with students from other classes for about seven minutes, then, they moved to another table and another group of students.  During the class period, they told their stories six or seven times. It was gruelling, and we were asking a lot from them.  Their vulnerability and transparency took an emotional toll, and by Friday, a few of them bowed out.  I couldn’t blame them.  Every day, they had been asked to relive tragic and painful memories, and express them in a language that is not the language of their hearts.

(Editor’s Note: Our colleague Nichole Scrivner prepared very useful note-taking sheets for listeners, as well as a prep sheet for teachers of the visiting listeners).

“There were some people who put poison gas around the school, and no one knew about it. After a few minutes, I smelled a really hurtful smell.  And I started feeling dizzy, and all the students were the same as me.  A few minutes after this happened, I was in a situation that I wasn’t able to see around me and I fainted.  When I opened my eyes, I was in the hospital with other students.  I started crying, and I felt really afraid.  My mom was there, and she hugged me.” — Maria, Afghanistan

The effect the students’ stories had on their listeners was profound.  As students and teachers interacted with my students, many wiped away tears as they listened.  The conversation didn’t stop with the ending of the story.  The listeners asked questions that lead to more questions that lead to connections to their own lives.  Everyone involved, storytellers and listeners, came away with a better understanding of the humans at our school.

After the students’ week of telling their stories to students who are not English learners, they had the opportunity to teach the beginning English learners how to write their own stories.  They enjoyed passing on what they had learned and helping the beginners to put their stories into English. After they told their stories to the beginners, my students helped the beginners with scaffolding in the form of sentence starters. After the beginners wrote their own stories, they had the opportunity to read them one-on-one to the students in my class in a rotation similar to the one we used in the library.  

(Editor’s Note: You can see all the stories written by the Beginners at our class blog. Here’s the graphic organizer they used to plan their stories.).

As the teacher of these courageous students, I was blown away.  I know that they participated so readily because I asked this of them.  They trusted me that their stories would be heard with respect and that they would be protected.  They trusted that the students who were listeners would be prepared for what they would hear.  They trusted that their stories would make a difference.  I am humbled by my students’ trust in me.

(Editor’s Note: I’m adding this post to The Best Resources On Helping To Build Empathy In The Classroom – Help Me Find More)

ADDENDUM: Here are all the personal stories written by Pam’s Intermediate students…

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Wow, I wonder if it would have had the same affect if they did a video of the kids and played it in the class? Is there something about being face to face with the people that affects emphathy?

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