The Watertown schools started an effort to not only include students learning English as their second tongue in school, but to celebrate their first language and their culture. And the Bilingualism is a Gift campaign has been a hit.
Two instructors have spearheaded the effort: Hosmer English Language Learner teacher Lauren Harrison and Maryann MacDougall, team leader of the Speech and Language program the Watertown Public Schools preschool program. The pair told the School Committee Tuesday nigh that they have received high marks not just from people in Watertown, but from educators across the United States and around the globe.
In the fall, the Bilingualism is a Gift (or BiG) campaign started with a poster put up around the Watertown Schools. It also went to pediatricians and other places around Watertown.
The message is that it is not just OK for students to speak their native language at home, but they should be encouraged to do so, said MacDougall. That message was very welcoming for parents of students in the English Language Learner (formerly English as a Second Language) program.
The campaign impacts many students. Thirty-two percent of students in the Watertown schools come from homes where English is not the first language.
School Committee member Kendra Foley said she has seen the success of the BiG campaign.
“This is a wonderful thing,” Foley said. “As a parent at Hosmer I have heard from parents that they feel welcome.”
Foley wondered how to get more parents of bilingual students involved in the schools.
MacDougall said there is more effort being made to increase the visibility of students’ home culture in the classrooms, including having bilingual read alouds and having cans and boxes of food from their country to have something familiar in the classroom.
Some teachers have picked up a few words of their students’ native tongue, too, Harrison said.
“As-Salaam Alaikum,” Harrison said, speaking the traditional Arabic greeting.
“They light up when you say it,” MacDougall added.
Others who speak another language have been encouraged to speak with children. MacDougall recently saw a cafeteria worker speaking Italian with one of the students.
School Committee member Eileen Hsu-Balzer recommended that the school libraries and even the Watertown Free Public Library provide books in children’s home language.
Harrison and others from Watertown went to the WIDA conference in Las Vegas to present their project, and it was very well received. They have also shared the poster on Facebook and Twitter, and MacDougall wrote a blog on the BiG program for the ASHA Leader Blog and it has been Liked and shared on social media by people around the nation, as well as in France, Italy, Turkey and Sweden.
When they sent information about the BiG program to Ofelia Garcia of City University of New York Graduate Center they found out how the program is.
“She said the only other place she has heard of this sort of program was in Wales,” Harrison said.
Harrison and MacDougall hope to present the program at a statewide conference this year to spread the word further about what Watertown has been doing to celebrate bilingualism.