Oregon Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages
The RISE Program: Addressing the social emotional impact on students that have experienced interrupted formal education (SIFE)
Written and submitted by Patrick Ahern
We had finished reviewing the simple present verb tense and some common adverbs of frequency, and it was time to begin our daily RISE meeting. I stood in a circle with smiling high school students from all over the world. Negin Naraghi, the RISE facilitator and director, chose a student to be the leader and we invited the student waiting in the hall back into the room. The leader began a disco movement that everybody in the circle mimicked. The student that had been waiting in the hallway, Rich (not his real name), stood in the middle of the circle and whipped his head around trying to locate the leader. All of the sudden, we simultaneously started running in place. Baffled, Rich spun around to see if he could catch the leader, the one who clandestinely initiated running in place. We were all laughing and collectively enjoying ourselves as we followed the leader through multiple motions or movements. By the time Rich spotted the leader, we had gone through several different motions and probably looked like the most off kilter, diverse dance group you will ever see! What was happening and what happened to the English lessons?
What is RISE?
As part of my practicum experience on my way to earning my Masters in TESOL, I had decided to volunteer and teach at David Douglas High School in Portland, Oregon during their summer school program. David Douglas works in conjunction with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) to serve a diverse community of immigrants and refugees in the high school. Under the larger umbrella of IRCO, RISE (Refugee and Immigrant Student Empowerment) is unique because it provides a space for refugee and immigrant students to access a caring support system on site at the high school. While there are several organizations across the country that provide services for immigrant and refugee families, RISE is especially impactful. When students attend RISE, they not only gain access to tutoring but also conversation practice and a community that links students together in an uncommon bond among such a diverse group.
RISE began small, serving only level one and level two EL students with academic support. At that time, its primary focus was providing in-class support and after school tutoring twice per week. It was operating with funds provided by a two-year grant, and it looked like it might not survive beyond those two years. Afterall, the school was already providing extra support and tutoring through the educational assistants, and there did not seem to be a great need for additional support. It was then that Naraghi came on board. Based on her own investigation from her dissertation on what immigrant and refugee students found helpful as they transitioned to life in an American high school, she slowly started making changes. She found that when after school tutoring had been provided in the past with the sole purpose to help with homework or to deliver additional language lessons, it had garnered little success. Attendance was inconsistent and the numbers were not high enough to sustain RISE. It was not until Naraghi began to shift the focus of RISE from a strict tutoring model to a model that addressed the social emotional needs of the students along with their academic needs. She explained that before they got to anything academic, they focused on relationship building, routine building, and community. Once the program had made this shift, attendance began to grow and became more consistent. The school district saw the benefit of solidifying a relationship with RISE to continue serving the immigrant and refugee population with a more holistic approach.
Students at RISE that have experienced interrupted formal education (SIFE) or limited and interrupted formal education (SLIFE) not only have to overcome obstacles of a new country, but they also find themselves starting at the beginning or near the beginning of their educational journey. As preservice teachers or grad students like myself were discussing how to teach vocabulary and grammar, the social emotional well-being of the students often was overlooked. How can we educate and prepare SIFE students when their head is likely spinning due to a life altering transition to formal education in the United States? We did not often discuss how to build community and relationships with our students that crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries. Many of the vocabulary and grammar lessons might very well be lost on those students that have nothing that they can connect to the lesson from their experience in their native country. The premise of RISE is to begin with what the students bring with them to the United States and then to learn with them how they can be successful in high school. This starts with relationship, routine, and community.
Practical Application for Teachers
Relationship: Building relationships with students takes time and investment in the students. EL teachers have the unique opportunity to build these relationships with SIFE students that regular education teachers might not. RISE tutors and facilitators create bonds with students by engaging the students in meaningful, enjoyable conversation practice and games. The conversation and games are frequently centered around the students’ lives, and they are purposeful in the sense that they are designed to create student to student connections along with student to teacher connections.
EL teachers can create a similar classroom environment that implements meaningful instruction that connects to the students’ experiences through structured conversation and games. A simple competition that asks students to remember and express the likes and dislikes of their peers can be a motivating way for students to use their language skills, have fun, and build relationships with their peers and teachers.
Family engagement is another piece that can be important to building relationships with SIFE students. The students and their families are likely to have experienced trauma throughout their lives. It is important to have the resources or staff available to communicate with families in a variety of languages to make sure the families can get the help they need in a safe environment. Parents and caretakers can sometimes share background information that enables teachers and school staff to have a better understanding of what the students need. This understanding also helps create a deeper connection to the students and fosters the social emotional well-being of the students.
Routine: Life for SIFE students can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. When they enter the doors to the school building every day, they begin to become accustomed to the stability that comes with a predictable routine. Creating predictable routines provides a sense of calm and security that is essential to meeting the social emotional needs of SIFE students. When students enter RISE, they are expected to participate in the conversation practice or game for the first ten to twenty minutes before beginning tutoring. There are no exceptions. Providing this routine builds structure and predictability that helps to keep students coming back to RISE.
In the ESL classroom, this can be done with academic routines as well as conversational and relationship building routines. Starting every class with a simple greeting or check in is a simple way to begin every class. It is during this time that teachers have the opportunity to engage students in authentic conversations, and it creates a routine that will facilitate a safe space for interaction to occur. In addition to daily routines, establishing a weekly routine that students can look forward to is a helpful motivating factor. Playing language games or incorporating art at the end of the week is an especially effective strategy to engaging students.
Community: SIFE students arrive in the United States without much of a sense of belonging. The classroom community during the school day can be hard to connect with at first, and it is helpful to provide a space where immigrant and refugee students can draw on one another’s shared experiences. Even if it is only the shared experience of learning English as a second language, students can find support in this commonality. At RISE, students have the opportunity to be part of a community that becomes a large part of their high school experience. Not only students but also educators and volunteer tutors quickly realize that the RISE community is special. Both Meg Dale and Stephanie Ramella began volunteering as tutors at RISE only to become program coordinators. ESL teachers and school administration have also contributed to the prosperity of the RISE community and are an integral part of its sustainability. Furthermore, the values and beliefs that are the foundation of RISE have followed me throughout my teaching practice and inspired me to strive to create community in my own classroom.
Creating a community in the ESL classroom will take time and leadership to build trust between teachers and peers. Teachers and facilitators should set clear expectations and norms that establish a community built on respect. Each individual needs to know that they are safe to make mistakes and that they will be supported while they are in the classroom. Students need to know how to operate respectfully with appropriate academic discourse. Language on how to clarify, ask questions, build on others’ ideas, and disagree/agree should be explicitly taught to not only build language capacity but also to create a community that respects the beliefs and ideas of others. Teachers should model this and guide students toward appropriate academic discourse, so it becomes part of the classroom culture. Finally, inviting volunteers and/or educational assistants to be part of the community and take part in the academic discourse sets a positive example for the students. I believe that the education of any one student is not the responsibility of the teacher alone but of the entire community made up of the individual students, teachers, peers, and volunteers.
Relationship building, routine, and community are the backbone of RISE and a crucial part of ESL programs that serve the SIFE population. Although it is undoubtedly necessary for ESL teachers to be passionate and knowledgeable about language and language teaching, without meeting the students’ social emotional needs we are missing the mark. SIFE students have found a community in RISE that has empowered them with a sense of agency that they bring with them to face the everyday challenges inside and outside of the classroom. My experience at RISE and David Douglas High School has inspired me to incorporate and attend to the aspects that support social emotional wellness of especially SIFE students but also all students that I work with.
First, I would like to thank RISE and especially Jen Healey, ESL teacher at David Douglas High School, for allowing me to take part in their 2016 summer program. Jen helped me to see the value of both strong ESL teaching and community building. It takes a village. My experience working with the students, teaching lessons and participating in conversation club is never far from my heart and mind. Also, a big thank you to Meg Dale, Negin Naraghi, and Stephanie Ramella for allowing me to interview them through Zoom and sharing a video and wonderful pictures of the RISE community. Finally, I would like to thank Greer Mancuso and the Collaborative Action Research (CAR) team that helped gather research and share experiences of working with SIFE students. Visit the links below to find out more information, and if you are interested in volunteering or learning more about RISE or IRCO click here.
RISE video made by the students and staff at RISE
SLIFE/SIFE resources put together by Greer Mancuso and the CAR team
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