As the school year ended last June, Gables staff was busy preparing for the third phase of Caribbean Connections, a program that aims to help Salem students and their families discover the untold stories and the hidden connections between Salem and the Caribbean.
There was so much ground to cover during the five weeks of programming, which was offered from June 29th through July 30th. However, in less than a week, 12 students had been recruited, field trips were falling into place, permission forms were being collected from parents, and — at every turn, new learnings about the students and their families were shaping the curriculum.
Caribbean Connections first came into being in 2012, thanks to a partnership with Essex National Heritage Commission, which had been awarded an ABI (America’s Best Idea) grant from the National Park Foundation. At that time, the program targeted middle school students in Salem, offering them a chance to learn, in Spanish, about their heritage and historic connections between Salem and the Caribbean.
Why was Spanish used in the program, and why were the students learning in Spanish? Capitalizing on the flexibility that an enrichment program affords, Caribbean Connections teachers were able to use the dual language, or two-way bilingual (TWB) approach, which permits teachers to use the students’ native language to facilitate their access to concepts and big ideas.
Even students with strong conversational English skills do not have the literacy base that allows them to process and comprehend written text and major concepts. This is evident when results are released for state tests such as MCAS, when the academic gap between Latino students and their English-speaking counterparts looms large.
By using the students’ native language to help them understand the more advanced vocabulary and academically rich content of the curriculum, teachers can more effectively build literacy skills in their students’ native language, which in turn enables students to more easily acquire literacy skills in their second (or third) language.
A substantial body of research has shown the dual language approach to be successful when well-executed.
This year, the Caribbean Connections program was offered to students in grades 2 through 5, and the class consisted primarily of Dominican and Haitian students. The interest on the part of Haitian parents for their children to learn Spanish was striking, given the current backdrop of tensions around immigration on the Caribbean island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
But in our little corner of the world, in the Settlement building, the students mingled — cautiously at first, but gradually with more confidence, as they came to know each other better. And students came not only from Salem, but also from Peabody and Danvers, having heard about the program through the Salem public school system and fellow classmates.
This year, staff from Essex Heritage and Salem Maritime National Historic Site again lent their time and talents to our programming, and the curriculum was enriched by field trips to the Industrial History Museum in Lowell and to St. Joseph’s Hall in Salem, where students were impressed by vivid stories about the lives of immigrant workers in the early 20th century.
Deeply moved about the plight of immigrant children in the early 1900s, second-grader Angelina Nelson wrote, “Kids are killed, they work 12 hours a day, families suffer for food, their lives are in evil hands. The parents and kids are suffering in their new lives.”
Teachers and students also dove deeply into a book called The Red Hair Comb, originally written in Spanish (La Peineta Colorada) by Fernando Picó. The topic of slavery in the Caribbean is central to the book, and students explored issues of race and slavery through a play that they created based on the book. The play was entitled “The March of the Fiery Crabs,” and clever costumes came together quickly with the help of Express Yourself instructor, Emily Goetschell.
Against the larger human drama that is now unfolding in the world, with stories reaching us daily about the plight of immigrants in Europe, the experiences of a small group of immigrant children in Salem, the City of Peace, are both poignant and hopeful.
With the help of our partners, Essex Heritage and Salem Maritime National Historic Site, we were also able to offer happy, transformative experiences to children and their parents. As a final field trip, kids, parents, and teachers took a boat trip out to Bakers Island in Salem harbor. This exhilarating experience motivated parents to call out in Spanish for the boat to go faster, and the action of the boat skimming on the water brought smiles to everyone onboard.
Back in the classroom on July 30th, the final day of the program, Chantalle Vargas, age 10, wrote:
“My favorite thing about Caribbean Connections is our field trip to Bakers Island. I loved going fast in the boat, and the water coming over to spray our faces.”
This post was written by Ryan Conary