Summer Immersion

Children of refugees improve their English at ASC summer camp

The children of refugees fleeing their country are leaving behind one stressful situation but embarking on another—adjusting to a different country, culture and language.

When refugee families arrive in the U.S., their children often enroll in public schools that lack the training and resources to help quickly bolster their English fluency and literacy.

“The schools don’t know what to do with them,” said Toby Emert, associate professor of education at Agnes Scott College. “So in a lot of cases, the children end up sitting in classrooms for which they are not prepared, doing the best they can with very little support. That’s not to say the schools are not empathetic or sympathetic to their situation—they are. I think it’s just that the culture of the schools is changing so quickly that the schools have not figured out how to respond,” he said.

Refugee children face many challenges outside of their academic studies as they adjust to their new homes. In 2006, Luma Mufleh, a native of Jordan living in Clarkston, Ga., created an organization called The Fugees Family to support a group of students—age 8 to 19—whose families are refugees from more than 25 countries, including Sudan, Liberia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cuba, Bosnia and Iraq. Mufleh uses the children's love of soccer (and the group’s very successful soccer team) to get them involved but also requires that they work just as hard on their academics and personal responsibility.

So having fun—while working hard—is a core tenet of the Fugees’ philosophy.

Agnes Scott began partnering with the Fugees in the summer of 2009. The group needed a program to help students continue improving their literacy and English fluency during the summer months, and Emert, who directs the summer literacy program, was confident that the college could help.

He and a group of other education faculty and students at the college designed a summer literacy program to immerse the students in English, through not only traditional literature but also through music, film and other media that use the English language. The goal was to boost the students’ English fluency overall and increase their comfort with English and American culture.

The summer literacy program, now in its fifth year, doesn’t approach teaching the Fugees in the remedial way that many literacy programs do, Emert said, but is instead much more similar to programs designed for gifted students. The Fugees are given a difficult but fun task, such as creating a video to explain a concept in English, and are expected to rise to the challenge. And they often do.

“When offered a challenge and the right kind of support, these students can produce highly successful learning artifacts, like a videos or demonstrations,” Emert said. “We try to embed literacy skills—reading, listening, speaking and viewing—in a sophisticated rather than remedial curriculum, and as a result of their engagement with the camp’s activities, the students increase their literacy.”

This summer, the class sharpened their English skills through musical theater (performing songs from Grease, Hairspray and The Lion King), while also exploring traditional texts (reading level-appropriate books, etc.).  In summer 2011, students worked to create videos to explain in English a thing or situation that, at first, confused them in the U.S., such as an escalator, to someone living in another country.

With several years of teaching and observation under their belts, it’s clear that the program is having a very positive impact on the Fugees’ overall confidence and competency with English, Emert said.

“The first summer was a total experiment. We had no idea if it would be a good partnership,” said Emert. “But the first summer went well and we now have enough data from the past few summers to suggest that we have a successful program that could be a national curriculum model for teaching students with similar literacy challenges.”