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FUTURE TEACHERS, DIVERSITY, AND EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

January 15, 2010

NR10007

Fifty-one UMFK education students and four education faculty members took in an experiential expedition to Portland, Maine schools last semester to witness -- first-hand -- the diversity of students enrolled in Maine’s largest school system. It was an experience that opened many eyes, and that few participants will soon forget.

The UMFK students visited Presumpscot Elementary School; Lyman Moore Middle School; Lincoln Middle School; King Middle School; Deering High School; and Portland High School.
 
According to the Portland Public Schools’ website: “Each learner, whether child or adult, is seen as a new hope for the world; a unique, unfolding promise. Maine's largest and most diverse school district dedicates itself to assuring that all students are learning for their future.
 
“The Portland Public Schools educates 6,950 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and approximately 4,500 adult learners. Its facilities range from a one-room schoolhouse on an island in Casco Bay, to the nation's second-oldest public high school and a state-of-the-art elementary school on the downtown peninsula.”
 
The Portland school system enrolls 300 new refugee or immigrant children each year.  The system currently has more than 1,800 minority students speaking between 50 and 60 languages. At Portland High School alone, students hail from 41 countries and speak 26 different languages.
 
The UMFK Education students attended classes for one day in Portland, often traveling to different classes, and in many cases “shadowing” an individual immigrant or minority student for the day.
 
Upon their return to Fort Kent, the students wrote entries about their experiences in Portland in their class journals. Below are selected excerpts from the students’ journal entries.
 
“The class was made up of seventeen students, of which only three of them were Caucasian. This is a clear example of how diverse Portland, Maine has become. Another interesting fact about the classroom was that eight different languages were spoken.” 
Stew Whitney, Halifax NS 
 
“We learn about diversity, multiculturalism, and accommodating or modifying for students with different learning abilities everyday; but seeing it in action was more helpful than any video, reading, or case study we could ever do.” Elizabeth Foster, New Minas, NS
 
“There were a variety of ethnicities at King Middle School. Several students were of African and Asian decent; so much so, that race seems to go unnoticed at the school. King has some of the poorest children in the city, and is located near much of the lower-income housing in Portland; but you wouldn’t know it to visit the school.” 
Andy Ramsay, Summerside, PEI
 
“I am going to begin by saying that the trip to Portland was brilliant! It was an all-around amazing experience. To be able to experience such a diverse school is most likely something that I will not be able to experience in Cape Breton. It was eye-opening, interesting, informative, and fun. I really and thoroughly enjoyed the experience…” 
Laura Boutilier, Glace Bay, NS
 
“In my high school it was only Caucasians and the handful of Mi’kmaq students. I was expecting to feel very uncomfortable with the diversity of students. But, oddly enough, I was perfectly fine with everything.” Aaron Davison, New Glasgow, NS
 
“This was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Being from a small town in Canada and seeing the way a school was run in a big city was really interesting. On top of this, to have so many diverse students in one school was amazing. One thing that really struck me as a shock was when we walked into the cafeteria for lunch. We were the minority in the room; the students were staring at us because we were different than them.” Chris Campbell, Glace Bay, NS
 
“The first class observed was quite diverse featuring a number of Somali and Iraqi students. The teacher was Ghana and displayed a real concern for his students’ reading comprehension…It is reaffirming as a prospective teacher to see such enthusiasm and well-meaning within the realm of education.” Andy McDonald, Dover, NL
  
“The true importance of the trip to Portland High was revealed by two distinctive factors. The first factor was revealed in one-on-one time I spent with a young lady who was from Burma, and had only been in the country for three weeks; she amazed me with her eagerness to learn and reaction to her successes. The second factor was the feeling I walked away with after such an experience; this feeling reassured me that I was truly making the right decision to be a teacher and proved to motivate me towards my future goals.” Jayson Fitzpatrick, Halifax, NS
 
“The students of Portland High come from 41 countries and speak 26 different languages. Some of the students have not had any previous schooling in their home country. The school currently provides services that help all children become students…The class was comprised of mostly Sudanese, Somali, Iraqi, and Burmese students. The class was taught by a woman who was an Afghan refugee who left Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. She came to Portland, Maine 26 years earlier, and attended school there. She was so grateful for the experience that she was given and was happy to give back to the community.” Jessica Janecek, Sedona, AZ
 
“The most impressive and touching thing that I saw was the relationships between the students and the eagerness to not just learn but to help their fellow classmates learn…it really seemed like a community rather than just a school, which is so impressive in a school that is so unbelievably diverse and with students that come from such varying backgrounds and different experiences. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to see this type of learning and this kind of environment first-hand, rather than just reading about it in a book.” 
Shannon McNally, Dartmouth, NS
 
“Somalia, Kenya, Vietnam, Haiti, Jamaica, and Iraq were just a few of the countries that the students were from in the classrooms that I attended. While some the students’ English was very broken, they didn’t give up if there was something they didn’t understand. Rather, they would spell out the words, and in most cases, and then eventually get the words correct. I think that was the part that impressed me the most – the students’ tenacity. Despite being very difficult for them, they never gave up.” Francine Durnford, Creston, NL 
 
“I observed a beginner English Language Learners classroom for 6th graders and found myself just sitting and studying the faces of 15 different students. The diversity among the class was incredible, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. During my observation I thought about the fact that I had never experienced any interaction with anyone from these different nationalities. Even more mind boggling was the notion that I had no idea of which ethnic group these children belonged to. I was oblivious to the fact that many, although they appeared similar, were in fact of very different cultures.” Jenny Daigle, New Canada, ME
 
“I was able to work one-on-one with a young teenaged African girl and helped her with a worksheet. The young girl made it a rewarding experience because she was very appreciative of me helping her. It was fascinating how quickly she was picking up the English language after only being in the United States for a short period of time.” 
Kyle Laffin, Little Bras D’or, NS
 
“In one of the English Language Learners classes that I sat in on, I was absolutely amazed to see that one teacher was able to facilitate a class with approximately 11 or 12 students who all spoke a different language than the next…Those students had been in Portland for a while and were able to communicate with us and each other, using English, but just somewhat broken, and needed coaching for certain words. To think of how a class full of students goes from speaking all different languages to being able to understand and speak with each other in one language really astounded me. It is obviously a huge effort on both the teachers’ and the students’ parts.” Joanne Boutilier, Brooklyn, NS
 
“It is one thing to read about the types of scenarios and experiences that others have in environments like the one we saw in Portland, but it is a whole different experience to see it for ourselves. It gives a new perspective and insight into a lot of things that we talk about in this class, as well as our other classes.” Nathan Knight, Ripley, ME
 
“I was paired with an eighth grade girl named Maryann. She is such a sweet, considerate girl whose family had come from Somalia…She was very kind and welcoming, however. Although I felt nervous about the day in general, she eased many apprehensions once I met her. I quickly discovered why Maryann many many of her classmates seemed much wiser than I would have expected eighth graders to be…Each of the children in this classroom spoke more languages that I do, and…they had experienced much more in their young lives than I might ever experience… So many of the children attending Lincoln Middle School represent the durability of the individual and the strength of the human spirit.” Carolyn Prest, Mooseland, NS