Sitting in clusters of three, the Cortland Elementary School second-graders write things for which they are thankful onto “leaves” and “pumpkins” cut from red, orange and yellow construction paper.
Friends. Clothes. Cousins. Mama. Teacher. Food. Halloween.
Next, they squirt Tacky Glue onto their harvest-colored shapes and press them onto paper plates as they create Thanksgiving wreaths to share with their families.
“Halloween must be your favorite,” one project leader tells a smiling young girl. “You put it on every single one.”
Although it might seem like simply a fun craft for a November afternoon, the wreaths actually work to improve the vocabulary of these English language learners who enjoy visits every Wednesday from NIU students enrolled in Project ROAR.
ROAR (Reaching Out through Art and Reading) is offered by the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education but is an elective course – LTRE 231, Section 00001 – open to students in any and every major.
More teachers at Cortland want Project ROAR students in their classrooms, as do teachers at Founders Elementary School, and College of Education professor Chris Carger has room for twice the registration in her course.
Previous sections attracted business majors, history majors, nursing majors, sociology majors, Spanish majors and more. Most, though, are studying elementary and early childhood education.
“Our students love it because they feel like they’re getting to do what they want to do – teaching. Otherwise, they’re mostly taking gen-eds now,” Carger says. “I’m a big believer in giving our students hands-on experiences. They can find out if they like teaching before they’re in student-teaching.”
They also find encouragement to apply for the College of Education’s Project DREAMS, which includes among its goals to boost the number of highly qualified teachers who hold English as a Second Language and/or bilingual endorsement and to enhance the sensitivity and familiarity toward English language learners by K-12 administrators and auxiliary staff.
Current and former Project ROAR students, many of whom never had envisioned careers in bilingual classrooms, are happy to endorse the course. They meet each Monday with Carger to learn what’s planned for Wednesday and to develop lesson plans from the book she’s chosen.
“I love it,” says Jennifer Williams, a junior elementary education major who’s learning “patience, understanding, thinking on your feet. They can throw something at you that you weren’t expecting.”
Williams does not speak Spanish, but that’s not a problem. The Project ROAR visits count as the English section of the day for these second- and third-graders who live in homes where Spanish is spoken, and the children know English is expected.
“With the growth of English language learners, you’re going to have one in your classroom. It’s inevitable,” she says. “I’m getting hands-on experience in knowing that you have to take the English slowly. You have to give them a heads-up if you’re going to call on them.”
Diana Alday, Carger’s student assistant, remembers being “a nervous wreck” the first time she taught through Project ROAR. When the senior later stood in front of sixth-graders during her clinicals, that anxiety was absent.
“Being an elementary ed and Spanish major, it helped me solidify my intent to go into education and to focus on dual language,” says Alday, who will graduate next December with plans to seek work in what Carger calls “the only good job market” for teachers.
Alday took Carger’s course twice. “Each semester, I got a different perspective,” she says. “My second time, I had my own separate project. I came in on a different day. I did my own projects, my own read-alouds, my own assessment.”
Each traditional Project ROAR session begins with a read-aloud of a culturally relevant children’s book; on this gratitude-themed day, it was Pat Mora’s “Gracias ~ Thanks,” which won the prestigious Pura Belpré Award.
“I really like that the art projects keep connecting the children with the stories,” Carger says. “They have to use the vocabulary, which is more important to me than the quality of their artwork. This might be the only time of day they’re exposed to English.”
Cortland second-grade teacher Bobbi Stears has welcomed Project ROAR students into her ELL classroom for eight years.
When she hears her Spanish-speaking pupils say words such as “sprout” or “seedling,” she need not wonder where they heard those terms.
“This gives them an opportunity to learn and practice English, and the small groups are so important. They can have that one-on-one attention and actually be heard,” Stears says. “We’re holding these kids to a higher level of language, and they’re stepping up to the challenge.”