Two small groups of students as internationally diverse as one could imagine sit in Room 200 of Buffalo Public School 6, each reading along with a UB undergraduate student. Without exception, every student at the two small, low tables concentrates on each sentence, but is still able to laugh and comment on the reading.
Amanda Lomber, a UB sophomore majoring in business administration, slowly takes the sixth-graders — including children born in Syria, Thailand and Somalia, as well as three from Eritrea — through a biography of Alexander the Great. Her method enhances the ways the children experience what could be just an ordinary reference book.
When Alexander conquers each city “one by one,” Lomber calls this his “long road trip.”
She expands the book’s explanation of Alexander minting coins in his own image. At least in part, she tells the students, he did it because he thought he was divine. “So they were not only honoring him, but they were also a little scared of him,” she says.
He thought he was “top dog, the top guy,” she tells them, and then listens as some spontaneous giggling breaks out at her table.
“I said top dog, not hot dog,” Lomber ad libs. “You guys are funny.”
On the other side of Mrs. Kotnis’ English as a New Language class sit five other sixth-graders, wide-eyed, attentive students from Somalia, Syria, Iraq and the Congo. Once again, the group unanimously tunes in to their literacy trainer/mentor, Juan Carlos Candelaria, a UB freshman majoring in chemistry with an education minor. This time, Candelaria’s “read aloud” technique he learned at UB focuses on Leonardo da Vinci.
“His father wanted to send him to the best schools, a good school,” says Candelaria. “This is a good school, right here.”
If there is a utopia for getting UB’s expertise and expert involvement into the classroom, Room 200 is it. The room is clean, orderly, bright, colorful, engaging — just like the hallways of the East Side school also known as the Buffalo Elementary School of Technology. It’s calm, and the personal connection administrators from UB’s Graduate School of Education and the Buffalo Public Schools envisioned when they set up the program is on full display.
Lomber missed a session earlier in the week because she was sick. Her students wanted to know what happened. Where was she?
She didn’t feel well, she told them, “so instead of coming and making everyone sick, I stayed home.”
“I love working with them,” says Lomber, who says she wanted something in her UB coursework that went beyond the standard university classroom setting. But the difference her presence clearly makes in these children’s ability to read a new language pulls her to Room 2oo just as much as her personal objectives.
“I feel the experience goes far beyond reading to a few kids,” she says. “It helps them communicate with other people who have language barriers. Yes, we’re reading a book, but you get the group engaged in it. You make conversation, which is almost as important as them being able to read the book.
“I like to think that we are helping each other out.”
Talking about broad problems in a board room is one thing. Watching those best intentions gain a life of their own is quite another. The GSE’s latest experiential learning experience has succeeded — and in some cases exceeded — administrators’ hopes.
Officially called LAI 410: Literacy, Access and Equity: Embracing Diversity to Enrich Our Community, the GSE course has become a model satisfying at least two urgent institutional challenges: one faced by the BPS and the other by GSE.
First, the BPS understood the need to address early literacy. Schools such as PS 6 have huge immigrant student populations (PS 6 children speak 21 different languages aside from English). They need adults to act as literacy workers to read to them.
GSE sought to identify undergraduates interested in becoming teachers and wanted some kind of pipeline for future teachers. And, Dean Suzanne Rosenblith points out, UB can be more helpful than just providing adults to read to children.
“Literacy is foundational to academic, social, economic and civic success,” Rosenblith says. “I am so pleased that UB is able to play a part in helping to support these students as they strengthen their literacy skills. Further, this is a great opportunity to expose bright, talented and engaged students to careers in teaching. When universities are able to partner with school districts in ways that are mutually beneficial, everyone stands to gain.”
The project is the brainchild of BPS Superintendent Kriner Cash, UB officials say. Cash approached Rosenblith last fall suggesting a program with UB undergraduates to somehow assist English language learners’ reading development. Both are pleased with the results.
“The UB students get credit in their education minor, as we are building a prepared pipeline for teachers in the region” says Randy Yerrick, associate dean for outreach. “But more importantly, they meet children who are very enthused about school.
“The children they meet at PS 6 are extraordinary. Their families are involved in the process — all the wonderful things that don’t come to mind first when we think about a struggling urban school,” Yerrick says. (Principal) Karen Piotrowski has built such a wonderful community of teachers, parents and partners to help meet the needs of diverse children”
Adding to this environment that encourages mentoring and personal connections is the way the GSE prepares its literacy trainers.
“We’re hoping to give our students an enriching experience,” says Christiana Kfouri, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Learning and Instruction, and instructor of LAI 410. “Most of the students are multidisciplinary. They’re not from an educational background. We have students from social work and medical backgrounds, the humanities. They have different ideas of what they are looking to give back to the community.”
The UB students’ preparation included a cultural awareness aspect that encouraged them to reflect on their own culture. Often that process gave them a better consciousness and appreciation of the children they were serving.
“For part of the course, the UB students were required to reflect on their own culture,” says Kfouri, who calls the course requirement a cultural narrative. “So you really get to know the students on another level.
“They are encouraged to understand more about themselves, but also those they are helping.”
Sometimes, the connection among these UB students and the elementary students is especially close. Prudence Dennis is a junior psychology major considering a GSE teaching degree. Dennis was born in the Ivory Coast and earned her U.S. citizenship in November through the naturalization process. She doesn’t have to look far to remember what it was like to struggle with the English language, and act shy or laugh to disguise an inability to understand.
“I read and help the eighth-graders,” she says. “Looking at them reminds me of when I was in their position — when I was scared and didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t understand the reading materials.
“But here I am reading to them and seeing how they are confused. And I can relate because at some point that was me.
“I can make them understand that it’s OK,” Dennis says. “They don’t tell me they don’t understand when I am explaining something to them. They laugh, and I used to do that, too. So I take a different approach. I draw things so they can connect and try to draw from their experiences from their country so they can better relate to what I am teaching.”
LAI 410 hits all the bases. By getting these UB students into the classroom working with refugee children, their interest in teaching grows. And the young international students — from kindergarten through eighth grade — benefit from these new role models.
Shauna McMahon, English as a New Language coach at PS 6, remembers a time when eighth-grade students were reading about civil rights and the American civil rights movement. The elementary students were “mesmerized” she says, both with the material and the UB literacy trainers.
“They can see themselves being these UB students,” says McMahon. “It was beautiful. It was so meaningful for our kids to be so engaged.”
As if this isn’t enough, Kfouri says LAI 410 is poised to accomplish another lofty goal: It’s about to become a pilot program.
“We want to do it in more schools. We’re going to expand,” she says. “School 6 is very happy with the program. It turned out to be successful, even beyond what we all expected.”