By Michael Telek

Institute for Learning

It’s tough changing schools. There are new names that connect to unfamiliar faces, navigating a strange scenery, missing old friendships, and the countless other conundrums that arise in the classroom. On top of all that, these students are still growing, slowly molding into the young adults they will become, as they work to build their knowledge and intelligence.

Sounds like a lot to manage, right? Now imagine dealing with these struggles in a completely new country, surrounded by people that don’t look nor sound like you, in a culture you know very little about that does not reflect the one you know. That’s the reality for millions of multilingual learners who embark on an educational journey in the United States. 

Many students at Syracuse City Schools can relate. There are more than 80 languages being spoken by the 3,000-plus students who are acquiring English as an new language, which makes up 18% of the district’s population. Spanish, Arabic, Karenic, Nepali, and Somali make up the six most popular tongues. 

After recently receiving fresh funding, teachers within Syracuse’s English as a New Language (ENL) Department quickly realized they wanted to acquire books and resources that better reflected the diversified students who would read them.  

“Our teachers identified a need for books that our students could really connect to. Books where they saw themselves in the pages and they could connect to the stories. Luckily, there were lots and lots of titles that came up,” said Kristina Crehan, ENL Instructional Coach. 

With their sights set on a multicultural library, Crehan and fellow coach Erica Daniels knew they wanted the project to encompass the district’s strategic priorities: How can we better engage families? How can we employ more culturally responsive and sustaining instruction? How can we personalize learning for students? 

The two worked with teachers, and some students, for about three months on the library. “We’re not in every classroom. Because different teachers have read different books and they have different experiences, they have different needs. So, it was nice to be able to sort of make it a widespread collection based on that feedback,” said Crehan.

Once the books were in hand, the ENL team wanted to take it a step further by collaborating to create language development lessons that aligned with these multicultural texts. “It was really important to us that they didn’t just sit on the shelf—that we were providing teachers with avenues to actually engage kids with these texts,” said Daniels.

The library has been a huge success. Students are glued to the pages, so teachers are now wanting even more books to continue this progress. Crehan and Daniels say one teacher had a Somali refugee student who was a reluctant reader. That student’s interest in reading skyrocketed after receiving Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson’s When Stars Are Scattered, a graphic novel about growing up in a refugee camp.

“It’s a shift, right? Because these books are super representative of the students that we serve. We’ve always had that goal, but it hasn’t always necessarily been a reality,” said Daniels. “Now, you walk into our teachers’ classrooms and you see books where there are characters wearing hijabs and black and brown students or students from all over the globe and their stories are really represented.”

“Because these books are super representative of the students that we serve. We’ve always had that goal, but it hasn’t always necessarily been a reality…”

23 texts were sent to 17 schools, a mix of elementary and middle school, within the district. Both coaches agree this is a good start; however, this is only just the beginning. Syracuse has welcomed some 10,000 refugees in the last decade, so student demographics often ebb and flow, forcing the ENL staff to ensure that all the different linguistic and cultural groups are represented. “Our purpose with these books is not just to represent the students that we have, but also to provide insight into different cultures and different languages,” said Daniels.

Check out this week’s IFL Recommends for a list of books for readers of all ages that welcome, celebrate, and honor diversity in its many forms.