Learning a new language isn’t easy, but it’s especially tough if it’s the primary language spoken in the country you just moved to.
This is the challenge that faces students in the English as a Second Language (ESL) class at Dallas International School. Coming from French-speaking countries, these young Tigres spanning Kindergarten through fourth grade often know very little English. They’re able to communicate perfectly in French with their classmates, so they spend a good deal of their day following a normal schedule, but they also take time for ESL with their teacher, Andrea Ewert.
Ms. Ewert has taught ESL for 12 years, and before that she was an art teacher. While there is a specific academic curriculum that her ESL students follow, she has also merged her two teaching expertise into a new arts and culture project that has helped her students open up and learn in ways they never had before. The class just recently finished its third of five separate art projects that aim to “explore, celebrate and express” each student’s heritage, background and differences.
“First, they designed and drew a flag that shows the flags of the places they have lived,” Ms. Ewert said. “And then they did a watercolor of the landscape of their home country and one of Texas. We talked about the how the two places are different. They’re celebrating what they like about two places.”
Ms. Ewert said this idea is key to the entire ESL experience. Students are taught that neither country is better than the other, but rather, they’re different from each other. Students may like or dislike specific aspects of each place, but it’s the difference that’s worth examining and celebrating.
“As they’re working, they’re able to celebrate who they are and where they’re from,” Ms. Ewert said. “When they’re printing France and talking about it they’re celebrating even when they’re far away. It sort of pulls out feelings they have for the places as they’re working.”
The students also made a collage that represents both countries and will soon work on a clay pattern that does the same. The final project will be a memory quilt made up of cherished memories from their mother country.
These art projects aren’t solely for cultural enrichment, however. Through artwork, ESL students learn aspects of the English language that would be difficult to acquire through a textbook.
“What I’ve seen is they’re using a different kind of language to learn,” Ms. Ewert said. “There’s a social language there, not just an academic language. It really helps with their vocabulary.”
As the students progress in their English skills through the art projects and other aspects of the class, Ms. Ewert has observed the positive change it makes in their school experience.
“A big part of learning a new language is their attitude toward their experience,” she said. “Their self-esteem is also involved. They can’t do it well for a while and it’s hard. They know they don’t know as much English as other DIS students do. So doing a piece of artwork in here that is perfect helps them combat feelings of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t know as much as other people.’”
Ms. Ewert works hard to make her students feel special, not only through unique art projects, but in other ways, such as enlisting the help of more experienced students in teaching new students in the class, or taking everyone on a field trip to the Veterans Day parade to learn more about the American armed forces. It’s all part of helping the students feel welcome in their new home, while letting them love and remember their first home.
“Through art, I think it’s beautiful for kids to express themselves and find a voice,” she said. “In art, there is no right or wrong. It is just what they’ve experienced. I want to make their experience positive and I want them to feel good about the process and feel amazing to be bilingual and have two places to adapt to.”
The ESL art projects will be on display for community members to see near the end of the school year. Keep an eye out in the Globe to find out when and where the exhibition will take place!