Baldwin Teacher Shares Immigrant Stories With ESL Students In Their Native Language

Feb 21, 2017

Recently, several of Renee Christman’s English as a second language students have asked her what the word “illegal” means.

Many of her students at Paynter Elementary School in Baldwin are refugees and she said they’re aware of President Donald Trump’s immigration orders and that their parents are concerned. Her students collectively speak eight languages and about 15 to 20 different languages are spoken in the Baldwin-Whitehall school district.

Christman and the director of the Whitehall Public Library, Paula Kelly, have been working on a series of children’s books for three years that are written in languages Christman’s students speak. The Saving Stories Project is an archive of tales written by local immigrants and refugees.

Christman and Kelly said they started in search of literature for students but turned it into a way to show value and appreciation for native languages.

They're working on a few more books, including stories from Dinka speakers from the Sudan and Pashto speakers from Afghanistan.

90.5 WESA's Sarah Schneider talked to Christman and Kelly. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

On starting the project:

Christman: As a teacher, I know that first language literacy helps when learning a second language and I've discovered that most of my refugee students do not have first language literacy, so they don't have those skills to transfer when they're learning English makes learning to read in their second language much harder. So I wanted to encourage them to read in their first language. I started looking for materials in some of the languages that we have, Korean, Nepali. There was not much available. No children's books. I looked in the Carnegie Library system, I'd look online on Amazon and really couldn't find much for them to read. So I thought it will be really easy we can just create our own stories and it was not as easy as I thought but that's what we have done. They did stories in the languages of our students to help with literacy.

Kelly: Renee and I knew each other as fellow immigrant and refugee supporters in our community and we just kind of put our heads together around this project and it was just such a natural fit to get a library involved as well. Renee talked about the fundamental language support when her children are learning English to have the native literacy foundation. But also we viewed it as an opportunity to archive family tales or oral tradition to capture those in a book so that they're not lost to future generations.

Students in Renee Christman's English as a second language class read one of the eight Saving Stories books at Paynter Elementary School.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

On ensuring students that their native language is important:

Christman: That was one of the most heartwarming part of this whole project is that the families and the students that I worked with really felt overwhelmed in a positive way. That I was a schoolteacher and Paula, as the librarian, honored and respected their language, their culture their stories so much so that we wanted to preserve them in written form so that the families really appreciated that. And I think that was a more acceptance and understanding and it led really has led to more open sharing with the families and the school.

On their favorite books in the collection:

Christman: The book that I really enjoy the most is that Nepali anthology because it's a collection of so many different types of writings there's autobiographies There's a poem, there's a song, there's quite a few different kinds of works. All within this one book. So it really gives us a glimpse into different cultural aspects of the Nepali people that are here in our district and your students seem very excited about the books they are.

Kelly: The Karen folktales made me wonder about the culture and just hwo we take for granted how easy our lives are here because they're quite dark. We can look at our fairy tales and they are all so dark a lot of the traditional tales, but you know similar themes children that lie to their parents get left in the woods. You know, things like there is no happily ever after. And that struck me both as being maybe a hair darker than some of the tales we told our children. But then if you look into our folkloric past, they're probably every bit as dark.