by Catherine Glennon Murphy, Guest Blogger
The ELL teacher at every school plays many roles, and one of the most crucial is that of ambassador to new families. At Fiske Elementary School in Lexington, MA we have come together as a community to take an active approach in easing a newcomer’s transition to our school culture. Every newcomer who walks into our school receives a staff mentor and a peer leader who meet weekly to make connections within the community and to develop social language. This mentoring program enables staff mentors and peer leaders to share the role of ambassador with the ELL teacher. Our newcomers are engaged immediately in weekly meetings that help to lower their affective filter by playing games and acquiring social language.
The mentoring program currently consists of five committee members, thirteen staff mentors, eleven newcomers, and seven peer leaders. Recently, the Lexington Education Foundation made a generous donation to our program of iPads and interactive games. Our staff mentors also have a curriculum that they can refer to for topics to discuss, games to play and books to read. Each newcomer is given a mentor for his/her first year at Fiske. When they are ready, we encourage these newcomers to give back to the community by becoming peer leaders in our program. We now call our newcomers “future peer leaders” because once they complete a year or two of being mentored, they are given the opportunity to mentor a newcomer themselves.
Three times each year we engage the newcomer’s entire family through community meetings at our school. At these events we have a coffee time where mentors can meet the newcomer parents, and newcomer families can meet one another. We then offer families information relating to resources in our town, and we explain school protocols and expectations. The reason for these community meetings it two-fold: 1) to inform newcomer families about our school culture and 2) to create a sense of community for all stakeholders. At our most recent community meeting, we invited our school counselor to be our guest speaker. One of our newcomer parents had recently been deported and we came together as a community to send cards to the parent and to show our support to the family that remained in the United States. Upon hearing of this deportation news, and after speaking with the family, the mentor was one of the first people I reached out to for support. The mentor immediately adapted her schedule to meet more frequently with her newcomer and she helped us to create a community meeting that would ease the pain of this family.
A surprising effect of this program has been its effect on these mentors. Our mentors are all staff members who have volunteered to spend thirty minutes each week with a newcomer. Just last week, a mentor shared with me that her peer leader is reticent to talk in their sessions, and seems to be feeling awkward in the trio. When I explained that this peer leader needs a lot of wait time because he is translating everything in his head before he speaks, the mentor was amazed. She had not thought of this before and was thrilled to know her peer leader was not bored and wanted to leave the program. Another staff mentor, when matched with a young boy from Paris with no English, remarked that she was nervous and she wondered how she was going to communicate with him.This staff mentor relied on the game Hungry Hungry Hippo, Google Translate, and lots of smiles to get the through those first few weeks. The two now share a strong bond and they hope to be placed together for yet another year. Mentoring newcomers exposes teachers to the needs of students who are new to English. Because these teachers are there at the very beginning, they also are able to see the great gains their newcomers make in social language. These mentoring sessions provide our staff mentors with exposure to a new culture as well as the needs of a growing population in our community.
The newcomer parents are the backbone of our program because they make sure their children get to the weekly sessions, and they attend our community meetings. Each year we invite veteran newcomer parents to speak at our community meetings to share their stories and encourage new families to engage in our school community. In this way, our ELL parents are given a chance for their voice to be heard. This spring, we will bring two of these ELL parents to help us to share about our program at our presentation at the MATSOL conference. They will share their perspectives on how the mentoring program has affected the lives of their children. One of these parents is Shikma Kinsbruner, who arrived two years ago. In Shikma’s case, her two sons came from Israel with very little English. Her son,, Yhaly’s first days were filled with tears, and even an attempted escape whilst crying out for “Ima” (mother in Hebrew). It was something I have seen many times in my 25 years of teaching ESL and yet I still found it heartbreaking. Immediately I set out to find a mentor and he was matched with Mr. Spiller, our gym teacher. They hit it off and before long Yhaly was adjusting to his new life at Fiske. Now, Yhaly and his brother Ariel are peer leaders in our program and Shikma is a guest speaker at our community meetings. Their story is similar to many families who come through Fiske, and we are fortunate that they are willing to share it with others.
Catherine Murphy is an ELL specialist at Fiske Elementary School. Previously she taught at Framingham High School for ten years, where she developed a love of teaching newcomers. In addition to teaching at Fiske, Catherine is passionate about teacher education. She is a professional development provider in Lexington and teaches a course “Teaching with Academic Conversations” based on the work by Jeff Zwiers and Sara Hamerla. Along with an ELL colleague Lonamae Shand, she developed a book club and is currently leading teachers as they read Unlocking ELLs Potential by Diane Fenner and Sydney Snyder. Catherine taught the RETELL course for three years. In addition, she has taught ESL to adults at SCALE in Somerville and Bunker Hill Community College.
At this spring’s MATSOL conference, she will make a presentation entitled “Mentoring Newcomers: Reducing culture shock through Mentoring and Family Engagement”. She will be bringing two mothers who will share about how the mentoring program has helped ease their transition to life in the U.S. Catherine is passionate about mentoring and has been mentoring new teachers for 15 years. The Fiske mentoring committee will be holding their final community meeting this spring, and they will meet during the summer months to plan for yet another year of their mentoring program.
Fiske Elementary School
55 Adams Street
Lexington, MA 02420