Narrating a new chapter

March 11, 2010, 8:46 a.m. | By Lily Alexander | 14 years, 3 months ago

ESOL students read to kindergarteners

Their heads rest comfortably on their small hands, their eyes fixed on the sight before them. But they are not entranced by bright colors flashing on television or videogame characters leaping across the screen. These kindergarteners are mesmerized by a picture book, whose colorful pages are turned by hands twice the size of a 5-year-old's.

Sophomore Alan Espinoza refines his English by reading to kids. Photo courtesy of Erica Horne.

Sophomore Lener Diaz sits in a miniature chair amid a room filled with posters, artwork and alphabet posters as he reads "Old Bear" by Kevin Henkes to two attentive kindergarteners. Diaz is one of 28 ESOL 2 students who went to Rolling Terrace Elementary School on Mar. 3 to read picture books to kindergarten and first grade classes. The students received 10 Student Service Learning (SSL) hours for the project, which began on Feb. 18 and culminated in the trip to Rolling Terrace. ESOL 2 teacher Katie Honerkamp, who coordinated the project, says that apart from gaining hours to fulfill the graduation requirement, the project was designed to actively engage her students in the material they were reading and expose them to the community around them. "So much of learning comes from an authentic experience; it's not always just in the classroom," she says. For these Blazers, stepping outside the confines of the classroom and giving back to the community facilitated an unusual exchange of learning between elementary, high school and college students.

This reading project was born out of a larger partnership between the Blair ESOL department and the Office of Student Life at Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus. For several years, the two have joined efforts in tackling several community service projects, including tutoring elementary school students, creating a community garden and participating in the Homeless Walk-a-Thon. In this particular reading project, Montgomery College students assisted the process, coming each class to help students master their books and develop techniques for reading out loud. Pam Meador, coordinator of the SSL Program for MCPS, says that the partnership is intended to bring Blair ESOL students and Montgomery College students - many of whom were ESOL students themselves - together through community service activities. "It's all been with the effort of trying to encourage students that are new to the U.S., for whom English is not their primary language, to stay in school and see a future in college," Meador says.

Mutual gratification

Honerkamp's classroom is filled with the din of students reading their picture books out loud. Some congregate in small groups to read, while others sit by themselves, articulating each word with care and practicing their animated hand gestures as they talk. "Say it with confidence!" Honerkamp cheers as she circles the classroom. "Show me some energy, my man!" she adds, giving one student an encouraging shake.

Although Honerkamp came up with the idea for the reading project over the summer at a community service workshop, coordinating with Rolling Terrace, getting the books and developing the partnership with Montgomery College students has taken time. On Feb. 18, with everything finalized, Honerkamp's students began to spend the last 30 minutes of each class reading their books out loud, under the guidance of Montgomery College students. Reading the same book multiple times let students practice repetition, as well as an opportunity to interact with the material in a meaningful way, Honerkamp says.

Sophomore Edlawit Yeshitila reads one-on-one with an elementary student.  Photo courtesy of Erica Horne.

The Montgomery College students helped make this learning experience all the more successful by offering students support with vocabulary, pronunciation and reading technique, says Laura Rothlisberger, special projects coordinator in the Office of Student Life at Montgomery College, who has helped to coordinate the project with Honerkamp. Rothlisberger says the college assistance added a new dynamic to the project, and helped support and encourage the Blair students throughout this new experience. "It added to the novelty of this type of classroom activity," she says.

As Diaz flips through his Kevin Henkes book, he says the Montgomery College students provided the needed attention and enthusiasm to help him with his book. "[They] tell me what I need to read and words I didn't know. They listen to me read. They put attention on me and my partner," Diaz says with a shy smile, as he explains that he had never heard the word "dreamy" before opening the book.

The gratification is not one-sided. Nioud Gebru, a student volunteer from Montgomery College, says that it was an incredible opportunity to see the Blair students develop throughout the reading project to the point where they no longer needed his assistance. "The mere feeling of satisfaction I had once they all finished reading their books without my help was amazing," Gebru says. Gebru adds that the practical reading skills aside, just being there for moral support proved to the Blair students that someone cared about their efforts.

'A beautiful story'

"If you listen to me, I'm going to tell you a beautiful story," sophomore Margueritte Hond says to two first grade Rolling Terrace students perched on either side of her. Across the classroom, sophomore Irbin Hernandez opens his book, "Can You Do It?" by Eric Carle and begins reading. "Can you bend your neck like this?" he says, mimicking a giraffe. The two children slowly bend their necks, exchanging smiles. "Can you raise your shoulders like this?" he says as he flips to the next page, mimicking a monkey. The children follow his lead, erupting in giggles and telling him to turn the next page, their faces now inches from the book.

Joanne Baker, a first grade teacher at Rolling Terrace, watches on from the back of the classroom as her students read with the Blair students. Her students have anxiously awaited the Blair students' arrival. "They've been buzzing about it all morning," Baker says. Her students look up to high schoolers, she says, and this project shows them that even high schoolers have fun with reading. "It shows them that reading is not only important, but can be fun and encourages them to continue reading in middle school, high school and beyond," Baker says.

Freshman Daniel Gonzalez reads at Rolling Terrace on March 3. Photo courtesy of Erica Horne.

At Rolling Terrace, the Blair students split up into two groups, one half reading to several kindergarten classes, and the other half reading to first grade classes. After reading their book to one group of children, the students circulated the classroom and read their book to a new group of kids. Honerkamp says that the elementary school students' undivided attention and respect made the Blair students more relaxed and confident in their abilities. "The children virtually erased the affective filters of my students and put them at ease," Honerkamp says. "My students read and had the attention of the children, which I think was empowering to them."

The elementary students were equally engaged in the material, and were given a chance to interact and ask questions as the Blair students read along, Honerkamp says. In one class, a kindergartener started reading along with Diaz, their voices eventually joining in unison.

As the Blair students leave one class and move to the next, several Blazers high-five their new small companions and depart with a satisfied smile. As Hernandez walks out of one classroom, he exclaims ecstatically, "They were paying attention and happy!"

Making their mark

As they prepare to leave Rolling Terrace, the Blair students appear exhausted, yet content. They have clearly made their mark - as they leave the classrooms, the elementary school students stare with admiration.

Honerkamp says that this project is just one example of how, when ESOL students are given the opportunity to reach out to the community, they excel. Sometimes the biggest obstacle for ESOL students is finding ways to help out in their community, she says. Honerkamp implemented this curriculum-based project in hopes that it would encourage students to value community service. The students have been required to keep a journal of their feelings and reactions throughout the process, which Honerkamp hopes has helped them to reflect on their service.

Meador says that the initiative between Montgomery College and the Blair ESOL department is just one example of how MCPS provides additional support to ESOL students - many of whom have just immigrated and are unfamiliar with the surrounding community - to fulfill the service-learning requirement for graduation. "They certainly are as able-bodied as anyone else and can reflect on how important their service is," Meador says. "Once they understand the requirement and how they can get involved they certainly make a wonderful contribution."

Although the reading has ended for the day - the books are packed up and the elementary school students and Blair students have parted ways - the project has been a memorable experience for both groups, and the Blair students are already anxious to know when they can go back.

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Lily Alexander. Loves El Salvador, James Franco, "Freaks and Geeks" (best show EVER), Mint chip ice cream, softball and field hockey. She is OBSESSED with gmail and adores "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights" (and aspires to dance with Diego Luna). More »

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