The Internationals Network for Public School blog is published every Wednesday. This, our first post, is by our Executive Director, Claire E. Sylvan. For the next five months, teachers, students, leaders, and alumni of Internationals will examine our five core principles. The topic for February 2010 will be Heterogeneity and Collaboration.
Internationals Network for Public Schools is entering the blogosphere! We have over a quarter century of success in educating recently-arrived immigrant teens in small, intellectually challenging schools which provide a supportive environment for adolescents from around the globe. Now we have decided to share our work by developing a broad, virtual conversation about our approach to educating English Language Learners that will also allow us to learn from the work of others throughout the United States and the world who are educating immigrant youth.
Internationals Network works to foster a heterogeneous, collaborative community which builds on the strengths of all its members. Across our network of twelve schools in both New York City and California, we have students from more than 90 countries who speak over 55 languages. In most of our schools, between thirty and fifty countries are represented and fifteen to thirty languages are spoken. Our students arrive in our schools with a variety of life and educational experiences. Some come from countries at war; some are seeking better economic situations; some have little or no formal schooling; some are well educated in their native language; some are unaccompanied by adults; some have been separated from their parents for years; some have had difficult immigration journeys or stays in refugee camps; some have waited for years for visas. No matter how different their immigration stories, however, they all have two things in common: they are all new to the United States and they are all new learners of English.
To the best of our knowledge, all other schools try to separate these adolescents into groups based on their English proficiency or how long they have been in the United States or how much prior schooling they have or what their native language is in order to make homogeneous groups. We ask, can you really have a homogeneous group with more than one individual in it, and we conclude the answer is no. We strive to make our classes and schools as diverse as possible, reflecting broad and ample research that demonstrates that diverse groups make the best decisions, and are “smarter” than homogeneous groups, even of the “smartest” people. To capitalize on the diversity in our schools and classes, and to prepare students for life in a diverse, democratic society and world, our students work in small, heterogeneous, collaborative groups on intellectually challenging projects created by their teacher for heterogeneous classes that average 25-28 students. Thus, our first core principle is to leverage heterogeneity through collaboration.
How can students who don’t speak the same language work together on projects? While there is a great deal of complexity to designing these kinds of educational experiences, there is also simplicity: we make the projects and activities experiential in order to create opportunities for both language and cognitive learning. In our classes, students may build a bridge or engage in a science experiment or design an ideal world with a small group of their peers as they learn the content, skills, and language of various academic disciplines. Students also participate in an internship at least once in their high school careers. Experiential learning is the second key to the Internationals Approach.
Our schools actively integrate language development into all learning, not by focusing on atomistic, isolated knowledge of a point of grammar or syntax or vocabulary but by engaging students in meaningful projects where they are supported and support each other in learning language by using that language to understand interesting ideas, make meaning of the world, and collaboratively generate products that are publicly shared in their community and beyond. All faculty in our schools understand that they are responsible for both language and cognitive development, our third core principle.
Faculty members are given the opportunity and responsibility for developing students’ linguistic and cognitive skills fully. Small, heterogeneous, interdisciplinary teams of faculty, who share the responsibility for educating specific cohorts of students, have the time and opportunity to design the learning experiences for small groups of students. They also have the responsibility for the outcomes and successes of their students. Teams have regularly scheduled time to discuss, plan instruction for, and review the successes, progress and challenges of their students. Students in our schools meet and exceed state standards, but the decisions on how to make that possible are made by their teachers who design and tailor instructional activities, interventions and supports to real students in real time. Similarly, our schools, which are sited in different neighborhoods, communities, and states, share common characteristics and are based on common principles, but are expected to tailor the Internationals Approach to their local communities and be responsible to those communities for successfully educating their immigrant youth. In this way, localized autonomy is coupled with responsibility for student progress, development and outcomes.
Finally, we consciously choose to work together as adults in the same manner in which we design our educational approach for our students. Understanding that children (and others) learn from what you do, not what you say, and that to really learn and be able to implement something, you must experience it, we purposely design our school communities and network so that the way in which the adults work and learn is a mirror for how we expect the adolescents to learn and vice versa. Thus, our fifth principle, one learning model for all.
Do you face challenges in working with newly arrived immigrant adolescents who are struggling to learn English, learn high school academics and adapt to a new culture and country? This is the triple task we have been privileged to engage in for over a quarter of a century, helping to create school communities that open doors to the American Dream for the newest arrivals to the United States. If you work in an Internationals high school or another model, if you are a teacher or a school administrator, a district or state leader, if you are seeking solutions and are interested in sharing your own experiences, this blog is meant as a place for you to both learn from our work and to share your own so that together we can ensure that every immigrant adolescent has the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and strengths to our democratic society. We invite you to share your thoughts and questions in the comments section of this blog and we look forward to posting a new entry about the Internationals Approach every Wednesday.
As a side note, world attention is now riveted on Haiti. In New York City we have faculty, staff and students who have lost one or multiple family members as well as childhood homes. The deep pain in our communities has been met with the immediate support of faculty and students coming together in the Internationals spirit, as students from many countries and our entire school communities support our Haitian friends and colleagues by engaging in student and faculty designed projects to raise money and provide other supports for those affected within our community. As our students who speak multiple languages join in a common community and cause, they teach us all how the world can become a better place for all where diversity is cherished and learning is built on existing strengths and rooted in shared experiences.
Claire Sylvan, Executive Director, Internationals Network for Public Schools