Engaging Multilingual Students: An Educator’s Guide

Written by PJ Gubatina Policarpio

As the new school year officially starts here in New York, I am reminded of the thousands of students in the city, who will eventually descend upon our museums, science centers, botanical gardens, libraries, historical societies, and many other informal places of learning. As always, I am inspired by these young learners who bring a richness of experiences, languages, cultural identities, curiosities, and imagination that make our institutions come to life. In my own practice, I often wonder how I can tap into the wealth of characters and personalities each student brings to the table to create a truly engaging and equitable learning environment for all.

As school programs educator at Queens Museum, I was amazed by the diversity of the students that were coming into the museum; reflecting the demographic of the borough (one of the most diverse in the country!). It was more than I had ever experienced working in other museums/cultural institutions in New York. Based on my own observations and conversations with teachers, I realized that in a class of 35 students there might be knowledge of at least 10 languages whether spoken by the students or by their families at home. Census data shows that close to half of Queens residents (47.8%) are born outside of the US and more than 50% speak a language other than English at home.  Some estimate show that there are more than 150 languages spoken in Queens.

In many ways, I saw myself in these students. As an immigrant, I also come from a multilingual and multicultural home. I consider myself part of generation 1.5, coming to America when I was 13 years old. These students inspired me to reflect on how I can further challenge my teaching. How can my own immigrant background inform my teaching? What are some of the effective teaching strategies I’ve learned the field? And how could I combine this sensitivity and the strategies to engage multilingual students and their peers in the group. So for a couple of months last year, I explored and used many different strategies in our Panorama of the City of New York exhibition, the crown jewel of the Queens Museum’s collection and our most requested school groups tour. The result was an “Educators Guide” which I compiled and illustrated by Megan Leppla. The guide was originally presented for school programs at Queens Museum and am sharing here as a resource for other educators.

  1. 1Check-in with the Teacher.

The classroom teacher should know their students best.  Prior to their visit or right before the tour, check in to see what the teacher’s goals are for the museum visit, what curriculum connections the class is making or want to make, and if there are any special needs or considerations. This is a great time for me to ask if there are other languages spoken or used in the classroom. I also let the teachers know that I welcome and encourage moments to translate key words, questions, concepts, and/or ideas to reach the most students.  This is a great way to collaborate and engage the teacher during their visit.

  1. 2Use active cues to get students attention.

Teaching with the Panorama can be challenging because of many factors, including its size, impressive detail, and a moving model airplane touching down and taking off at LaGuardia Airport! So it’s important to use creative and active ways to gather students’ attention. Check with the teacher to see if they already have strategies in place in the classroom. Some of my favorites include:

Clapping: I like rhythmic clapping because it involves both sound and movement. Make sure that this does not distract other groups.

Sign: First, I introduce the sign language for the word “Focus” and then I reinforce this gesture when I need a student’s attention.

  1. 3Give students equitable opportunities to participate.

Allow students to engage with the Panorama in other non-verbal ways or without being the focus of everyone’s attention. I like to have low-stakes, low-pressure activities for all students to participate in. For example, as students walk into the Panorama, I ask them to think of a word that describes how they are feeling. Then, I ask students to write down the word on an index card. To share I ask students to look at each other’s cards. Students can then be grouped into similar words or ideas for further conversation.

  1. 4Encourage partner talk.

Students often have lots of great observations, ideas, or thoughts but may be uncomfortable with sharing in a new space or in large groups. Give students space to express these observations and ideas comfortably with a friend. You can ask open-ended questions such as: How is this borough different or the same from the last borough we looked at?

  1. 5Affirm students’ background such as knowledge of other languages.

When I hear students speak or use languages other than English, it’s an opportunity for me to relate it back to the Panorama.  I ask questions like: What’s another word we use for “bridge”?” In Spanish? Russian? Farsi? Tagalog? And more. I like to ask: What are some of the languages we speak, hear or read in the classroom? At home? In Queens? In NYC? This allows students to share their own knowledge inside the museum.

  1. 6Activate students’ relevant prior experiences.

In Queens, when students point out LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airport, it is a great opportunity to talk about their own experiences of migration, movements, and travel. Here, I start our conversation with: What are airplanes used for? They are used for people to travel and move between two places. Then I follow up with: What are some of the places you or your family members have traveled to? Santo Domingo, Mexico, Pakistan! In this way, students are sharing their personal experiences with movements on their own terms. By reframing this question, students can freely share their own experience without necessarily answering: “Where are you from?” This is a great way for students to learn more and teach each other.

  1. 7Make room for student questions.

As educators, we often get excited about teaching and sharing knowledge and information that we sometimes forget to stop and ask students if they have any questions or need any language clarifications. Once during a visit with a 2nd Grade group, I kept using the word “gallery” to describe the spaces we were moving in until finally one brave student stopped and asked “What does “gallery” mean?” A-ha!

  1. 8Reinforce vocabulary students are learning in the classroom.

Check to see if there are any concepts or vocabulary from the classroom that you can bring into the visit. Teachers often use the Panorama as a way to learn about rural, urban, and suburban communities. I like to emphasize this classroom connection by asking students to define these terms using the Panorama. I ask students questions like: How can we identify the different communities? Where do you see an “urban” community here? What does “rural” look like? What makes this “suburban”?

  1. 9Engage students actively through multi-sensory activities.

See: Try extended looking. I like to challenge students by asking them to look closely at the Panorama for an extended time, about 2-3 minutes without comments, questions or raising their hands.

Sketch: Use a Telescope! Students can observe closely by sketching a detail (building, bridge, statue!) they find most interesting in the Panorama.

Hear: Create a Soundscape! Each student can make a sound or noise that they might hear or imagine in the space. Direct the soundscape symphony with a meter!

Feel: How does it feel? Have students touch and feel building blocks, models, and other touch objects.

Move: Students can pose like their favorite skyscraper in Manhattan or decide like the Statue of Liberty what their pose might be if they were a statue or monument.

  1. 10Have fun!

The museum is a great place for all students to learn, discover, and come together as a community. What makes the Panorama special is that it gives all of us a singular view of our city. We all have a piece of NYC in us, together with 8 million others, that makes it special no matter where we or our families come from.

I welcome fellow educators to share or reflect on their own strategies that allow students fair opportunities to engage and participate during school group visits.

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Header image: “Queens Museum of Art | The Panorama of the City of New York | tight overview from west of lower Manhattan, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges, etc.” Photo by Chris Devers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

5 thoughts on “Engaging Multilingual Students: An Educator’s Guide”

  1. I am SO appreciative of this!! I love and appreciate all of yours and others writings on here, but this really hit me at a perfect time, as Atlanta is – like every city and town everywhere – a growing city with increasingly diverse audiences. Such an exciting time for us – and a perfect guide for us museum educators! Invaluable. Thank you.

    Kate

    Kate McLeod
    Head of School and Teacher Services
    High Museum of Art

  2. A great resource! Love the sketches especially.

    I think the most important point you raise is acknowledging and valuing students’ native languages. I always tell my ESOL groups that their English is better than my (fill in the blank, Chinese, etc) and demonstrate that by asking them to teach me a few phrases. It involves risk-taking to speak in a new language and I like to acknowledge that.

    I might add to your list: Ask evaluative questions, e.g. Which of these two artists do you think better captured NYC, and why? Sharing a personal opinion can motivate more students to talk and debates can be fun. I especially like this among adults. I remember teaching an ESOL adult class at Brooklyn Museum, and the class made up of primarily Eastern European and African immigrants decided that Bierstadt bested Monet, and that Monet’s work appeared unfinished. That’s a lot of English practice to be able to debate those features.

    1. Thank you Barbara!

      I agree! It really is about valuing and acknowledging the many languages (and identities!) that our students bring to our institutions. For me, I’m always thinking of ways to make this personal philosophy effectively integrate into my teaching practice. I want my students to be at their most comfortable so that they are ready and can engage and participate. I noticed that this often happens during the transition period, in between objects, when students make observations or talk about other artworks or the space and sometimes in the language that they are most comfortable in. I want that feeling throughout their museum visit!

      The worst thing for me would be for students to go home and feel that their language/s and cultural identities don’t belong in spaces like museums.

  3. Thanks for this post. I really believe in the power of multilingual students experiencing something together while bringing their own perspective and insight. While it can be a very positive experience in most cases, sometimes students will offer comments or remarks that are–I don’t want to say racist–but not PC or somewhat offensive. What would be a beneficial and positive way to react to this situation, while encouraging them to continue participating?

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