ESL students will tell stories of challenge and triumph at family celebration

By Jo MathisAAPS District News Editor

What’s better than writing your own rap song about a way you’ve faced a challenge and triumphed over it?

Performing it for an appreciative audience, that’s what.

And that’s what will happen on Thursday, July 23, at the 2015 SESLA Family Celebration—“Stories of Challenge and Triumph.”

Held from 6:15 to 8 p.m. at The Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington, the evening is a way to celebrate students’ work in the Summer English as a Second Language (SESLA) Academy.

Visitors will be able to view student video, poetry, and music projects, and tour the Neutral Zone.

Catherine Reischl checks on the work of students in the Summer ESL Academy. She and Debi Khasnabis, clinical assistant professor at U-M, are co-leaders of the program.

The Summer ESL Academy is in its fifth year as a collaborative effort between Ann Arbor Public Schools’ ESL teachers and the University of Michigan School of Education. The three-week program is held at Scarlett Middle School, and is open to ESL students from Carpenter, Mitchell, Allen, Pittsfield, Dicken, Burns Park, Pattengill, Tappan and Scarlett who are entering fourth through eighth grades.  (All others go to another program at Clague.)

The academy is intended to prevent summer slide and keep kids engaged in learning in an interactive setting.

The students will perform for the audience personal stories of challenge or triumph.

“The level of engagement has been spectacular,” said Catherine Reischl, coordinator of the Mitchell Scarlett Teaching and Learning Collaborative, the partnership between AAPS and the U-M School of Education. “They’ve created raps and videos. They’ve created these amazing poems about memories and real challenges in their lives. We believe it’s really important for kids to know that their personal stories are important to other people and that we’re willing to listen. And that if they learn to tell those stories in ways that other people can hear and understand, they’ll feel more involved in the school setting, and build relationships.”

The academy is a Title Three federally funded program for English learners that complement the ESL instruction students receive throughout the school year.

The 90 students have been taught by eight (mostly AAPS) ESL teachers and 18 U-M interns. This tight teacher-student ratio provides an intense learning experience, said Reischl.

Students recording their raps in the sound studio at the Neutral Zone
Students recording their raps in the sound studio at the Neutral Zone

“Our central orientation in this program is what we call culturally-responsive, project-based teaching,” said Reischl, who is also a University of Michigan clinical associate professor. “We try to draw on the resources of families and community members and really make a link between home and school. We also do literacy activities that have real audiences and real purposes.”

She said the academy is a great example of what can happen when two institutions collaborate, and when they then work with a community organization such as Neutral Zone, a teen center in downtown Ann Arbor.

“We wanted to make sure our Scarlett families and the elementary families we’re drawing from here knew about Neutral Zone as a resource, and that they’re planning on getting their kids involved once they get to high school,” she said.

“We want our families to know what’s available downtown, and also on the University of Michigan campus.”

Last week, the kids visited the Neutral Zone on three mornings, for some expert tutoring.

Burns Park fifth grader Jumana Ebrahim said she loved going to Neutral Zone, where she learned more about writing music.

“It’s like you’re making a real rap song, and I’m kind of nervous about performing it,” she said, smiling. “It’s hard to find perfect rhyming words and keeping up the beat.”

Grace Obungu-Clark, a Carpenter fifth grader, can’t wait to get up on stage and perform. She’s also eager to go to Neutral Zone when she’s a teenager so she can delve more deeply into the arts. “I want to be a famous singer when I grow up,” she said.

Scarlett Middle School Principal Gerald Vazquez said the summer academy lets students who struggle with language acquisition feel as if the school is theirs.

“And there’s a level of grace and confidence that’s afforded them to be learners, to make mistakes, to take great strides,” he said. “They’re in a very caring environments within their classrooms and social settings that’s very different from what the school year looks like for them.”

There are fewer opportunities for them in the school year to feel they’re school leaders, he said.

“Cathy and her team are so thoughtful, not only about having good learning and teaching transpire, “ he said, “but they also want it to be an experience that doesn’t look like school, but where meaningful learning just like school is happening in a very rich way for kids.”

As the academy’s resident artist for poetry, Coert Ambrosino has taken students through all stages of the writing process.

“I think it’s been a beautiful program in the sense that everybody working toward common goals around kids telling their stories, giving kids opportunities to share those stories, and showing the importance of them,” he said, adding that students become decision-makers in the process. “I’m excited for kids to share on Thursday night. I think it’s going to be a great celebration where families recognize not only the art products they’ve created, but also the academic work we’ve been doing, and the take-aways the kids will bring with them to next year.”


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