Brave Journeys: Going Beyond the Curriculum and School Walls

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Brave Journeys: Going Beyond the Curriculum and School Walls

Susanne Marcus

When we gather as K-12 ELL teachers, we often agree that the safest place for our immigrant students to open up is in our classrooms, the ELL classroom, the one full of others facing the same challenge or enemy-at-large. But it’s more than that. One obvious unspoken fact is that each of them has taken a deep journey far from loved ones only to arrive in a new place with new ways of communicating, eating, dressing, and being. Their stories often share common threads depending on where our ELLs hail from. Separation, loss, anger, disappointment, confusion, depression......floods of emotions that are usually too much to contain while trying to decipher the English noise around them.

As we develop bonds of trust between and amongst our students, stories unfold. In pieces, in moments, in flashbacks, bus rides, in conversations, trips, memories...

These bonds of trust are the foundations upon which our relationships are built. We experience these relationships most strongly in our ENL classes, whether they are stand-alone, collaborative, team-taught, or what. Many of us think that we have carte blanche on the strongest connections to our ELLs as ENL teachers.
And, in my 30-plus years of teaching experience, I have witnessed this as my reality.

Why is this so? Are we each inherently more caring people or what?
Why is this so? Are we each inherently more caring people or what? Our colleagues may erroneously believe it’s because we speak all the languages of our students. But. we know that you do not necessarily need to speak someone’s language to help them feel safe, to make a connection on some level.
Research on supporting students with trauma history or a high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score has determined that the single most powerful factor in youngsters’ resilience is a trusting, safe relationship with a caring adult. As ENL educators, we often share our vulnerabilities with our students, encourage them to take risks with their new language and more. ENL classrooms are safe, trusting environments. We expect this to be so. Over the years, I’ve come to acknowledge that any adult in a school setting or elsewhere can make a huge difference in a student’s life. What is critical is the trusting, safe relationship that is formed with that student. This is true for any individual, student or not, in a relationship.
In some districts, the ELL students’ stories are not prominently reflected or displayed on school bulletin boards outside the school’s ENL classroom or corridor. Often, the required readings in such schools do not include works that are easily relevant to the daily truths of our students. Nevertheless, our students are expected to make connections to these texts. In fact, ELA strategies may ask them to make “a person to text” connection or a “text to text” connection.” Years ago, in my bewilderment at a curriculum that included literary works so far removed from my Ells’ lives and prior experiences that finding a connection was tough even for me. So, I sought other materials to nurture connections they could make with written materials.
When I came across Brave Journeys, a riveting anthology of stories truly written by adolescents who could be my very own students, those who I admire and love, I knew this resource could be a key. These stories are authentic enough to evoke a reader to question whether she actually knew the writer! Whether or not she may, in fact, be the writer! This makes sense since immigrant students write the stories in our very own Long Island region of New York State. In fact, many districts in our region have integrated the book into their curriculum, reporting that it has enhanced school performance and social-emotional literacy in dramatic ways while helping their teachers and counselors to get to know their students.
If you think that since this anthology is only or mostly for Spanish speakers, it is not. In fact, the universal themes of the stories are relatable to our widely diverse ENL populations in all districts. Topics about pre-migration, migration, family separation, reunification, conflict, loss, trauma, and fitting in are universal and impact all ELLs. Some really exciting news is that the online study guide for Brave Journeys is now free!

You heard our excitement in our presentation at the 51st Annual NYSTESOL Conference, I’m sure. This study guide includes PDFs of each story in English and
Spanish, so for those schools with linguistically diverse populations, it makes sense to use only the English version of the stories. Take a look at all that is offered in this study guide, from videos of the student authors, reading their stories, to pre-and post-reading activities, to slide presentations to use with the stories, to reflections and tips on how the stories can be used in counseling settings, and more!

Now more than ever, emerging from a horrific pandemic, we need to know our students’ stories and past experiences. While we cannot easily start by asking students to share their stories openly, we can read these unique student-written stories of shared trauma, fear, family separation and reunification, and nostalgia — as well as dreams and hopes. Your students will likely be able to make a person-to-text connection to the author! Through the personal narratives in Brave Journeys, you can open the door to engage with students in safe conversations about stories they can easily relate to, and in time to their own lived experiences.
By the way, for those educators or administrators who do not work with ELLs, reading these narratives will bring them closer to the realities they may never have entertained. Realities about students’ families, about how they get through, how they continue to struggle despite seeming to be “fine,” and how difficult life can really be. Our colleagues and students who have not lived the struggles depicted in these stories truly need to read them. When educators and counselors have an idea of students’ stories of pain, loss, strength, and resilience, they develop greater empathy and hopefully want to know more about the journeys of their students, classmates, and colleagues. Told in authentic voices of raw honesty, often with missing details readers yearn for, the stories bring the human condition back up to the top of our pedagogical goals. Where it always belonged.

Susanne Marcus brings over 30 years experience in the field of TESOL to share. A two-term
past president of NYS TESOL, she recently retired as ENL teacher for the Great Neck Public
Schools, where she continues to offer PD, and teaches in their intensive summer ENL/SIFE
program. As a facilitator for NYSUT, Marcus writes and conducts ENL seminars for NYSUT’s
ELT. She has facilitated storytelling workshops for secondary students using strategies from
The Moth Storytelling Workshop and Herstory Writers Workshops. She is a literacy coach for
Fordham University’s Center for Educational Partnerships. Marcus holds degrees from CUNY
Queens College and Fordham University, is NYS-certified in ESL K-12, French and Spanish
7-12, and is a frequent presenter at national, state and local TESOL/BE Conferences.
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