Helping Districts Navigate Their Changing Populations

By Stephaney Jones-Vo, ESL/Diversity Consultant

Sudanese Author Inspires Indianola K-8 Staff

Abeny Kucha Tiir (middle) spoke to Indianola K-8 teachers about the struggles and triumphs she has endured in her life. She is shown with Mark Timmerman, principal, and Chelsea Peno, ESL teacher, at Emerson Elementary.

Abeny Kucha Tiir (middle) spoke to Indianola K-8 teachers about the struggles and triumphs she has endured in her life. She is shown with Mark Timmerman, principal, and Chelsea Peno, ESL teacher, at Emerson Elementary.

Emerson Elementary principal Mark Timmerman knows the number of English language learners (ELLs) in Indianola is growing and teachers are asking about how best to include them in their core instruction. So when ESL teacher Chelsea Peno suggested bringing in a speaker with a powerful story about overcoming tragedy in another land to make a new life in the U.S., Timmerman jumped on the opportunity.

Peno heard Abeny Kucha Tiir speak this fall at a Drake University/Heartland AEA English as a Second Language (ESL) partnership event and was moved by her story. Tiir, a survivor of war and trauma in Sudan who immigrated to the U.S., recently published the book Tears of a Mother, describing her journey from Sudan to the U.S. The district turned to Heartland AEA to collaborate on bringing Tiir’s powerful story to Indianola’s K-8 teachers.

Stephaney Jones-Vo, ESL/Diversity Consultant, helped bring Tiir to Indianola, and on November 7, Indianola’s K-8 staff learned of the challenges, dangers and eventual triumphs experienced by this survivor of war, suffering and unspeakable obstacles. Using personal examples and even sprinkling in humor, Tiir shared her incredible story with the teachers. Her book, a first-person account by a woman, represents a breakthrough from the more prevalent male accounts of the period, such as those of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Jones-Vo, who is also conducting a semester-long “Engaging All Students Using SIOP and Differentiation” course at Emerson Elementary, said, “Hearing first-person stories with the immediacy of details and emotions helps to build understanding of what refugees bring with them. Knowing that, we can empathize and better tailor what goes on in the classroom in terms of instruction and assessment. In addition, such a presentation informs educators of needs that persist in a community. For example, if there are food security issues, those needs will need to be met before real learning can take place.”

She went on to say, “Developing a compassionate understanding of students from other countries who are learning English is a prerequisite to meeting their needs in the classroom. As teachers left the auditorium on November 7 to participate in district parent-teacher conferences, some commented that it was a good way to begin the conferences, freshly focused on what really matters and united in a simple desire to make the world a better place.”

Indianola staff also had these comments about Tiir’s presentation to teachers:
“We have recently welcomed multiple Somalian refugee students at all grade levels to our school system,” principal Timmerman said. “This opportunity for our staff to hear of Abeny’s very difficult journey was very engaging and meaningful for our teachers. Her presentation shows how resilience can propel families through overwhelming struggle and heartbreak. It really helped us keep things in perspective in the world of education, yet, Abeny’s message was one of hope and the belief that education was a vehicle that helped her family succeed and thrive here in America.”

“The guest speaker was very engaging, and I know many times during her presentation you could have heard a pin drop,” Jo Mort, 5th grade teacher at Wilder Elementary, said. “Her life experiences are captivating and will leave imprints on our hearts. Thanks again for all the time you put into making this worthwhile.”

“It is difficult to understand the struggles refugee families face before coming to the United States,” ESL teacher Peno said. “Since nearly half of Indianola’s English language learners are refugee students, it is vital that we create an awareness of their experiences. Our K-8 staff was deeply moved by Abeny Kucha Tiir’s incredible story of faith, hope and determination. Her story will be remembered and her book, Tears of a Mother, will inspire all who have the opportunity to read it.”

Ames Elementary Teachers Immersed in PD About ELLs

Pictured are the men who spoke during a recent panel presentation provided at Ames High School during professional development for all six Ames elementary schools.

Pictured are the men who spoke during a recent panel presentation provided at Ames High School during professional development for all six Ames elementary schools.

Following a needs assessment based on the increasing English language learner (ELL) population in Ames elementary schools, Yonas Michael, Director of Alternative Learning Programs for the district, has led Ames teachers to learn more about this group of students. He approached Heartland AEA ELL/Diversity consultants, Stephaney Jones-Vo and Pat Latham, who designed and have been delivering the course “Engaging English Learners and Other Diverse Learners in the Iowa Core” for two schools at a time every Wednesday afternoon during teacher professional development time.

Focusing on the use of English as a Second Language (ESL)-specific data to inform both instruction and assessment, teachers are learning about the need to relate leveled resources to that data and to differentiate instruction and assessment based on what students can actually do linguistically. A focus of the course also includes collaboration as a means to expand capacity and meet the needs of the fastest growing demographic in Iowa schools, English language learners.

This fall the Heartland AEA consultants conducted two three-hour sessions, flip-flopping their session with a concurrent session made up of a panel of ESL parents who are also refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq and Sierra Leone. This informative panel shared personal stories and expanded understanding about the challenges faced by newcomers to Iowa who are recent refugees, such as the obvious language barrier and lack of opportunity to learn English, food security issues, lack of jobs, furniture needs, transportation and reduced length of time for medical support. Teachers were also invited to ask questions.

“Professional development designed to meet needs of English learners must be grounded in understanding underlying culture and a full range of individual student characteristics,” Jones-Vo said. “This is the foundation for applying differentiated strategies to instruction and assessment, while taking into consideration what students are actually equipped to comprehend and produce. Our goal is to fully engage ELLs in the Iowa Core while they learn English, thereby benefiting from the simultaneous development of English language development as well as Core content knowledge, skills and abilities.”

Following the presentation by the panel, many teachers asked how they could help support the communities represented by the panel. As a result of their interest, teachers brought voluntary donations of non-food stamp items (e.g., bath soap, shampoo, diapers, laundry detergent, dish soap) to their December PD sessions to share with newcomer communities in need.

“Elementary teachers in Ames were fortunate to participate in a professional development opportunity in which a panel of refugees spoke about the personal journey they and their family took to come to the United States,” Michael said. “The panelists offered important insights about what life as a refugee is like in the United States. The experience opened teachers’ eyes to specific strategies they can use to help students and families eliminate barriers, reduce stress and transition more smoothly into our schools.”

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