Linden ESL learners building confidence all summer long

Photo courtesy of Linden Public Schools More than 150 ESL learners studied all summer long so as not to fall behind, building their confidence as well as their English vocabulary.
Photo courtesy of Linden Public Schools
More than 150 ESL learners studied all summer long so as not to fall behind, building their confidence as well as their English vocabulary.

LINDEN, NJ — For those students who are English language learners, the summer months can be long and intimidating, said Alphonsina Paternostro, the Supervisor of World Language and ESL programs in Linden. These students might not practice reading, writing or speaking English at home, and in some cases, they can’t complete their summer reading projects as a result.

That’s why the Linden School District, which has an extensive ESL program to suit its diverse population, set up its Summer ESL Enrichment Program more than a decade ago, said Paternostro: So that students of all ages, from kindergarten to high school, can learn in the classroom rather than do nothing at home.

“The program has been going on for at least 12 years,” said Paternostro. “Because the summer months are very difficult for young people that come in and don’t speak the language, to not do anything for them. As part of our requirements from the Department of Education, we need to provide them with extra support, and we have established here the summer program. We offer courses for the little ones, at the elementary level, and also the high school students.”

The Summer ESL Enrichment program originally started, according to Paternostro, because Linden’s second-language population was falling behind during the summer. Now, during a typical summer, more than 150 students read and write, work on projects and gain a better understanding of English together, a language which is “hard to write, even for English speakers,” said ESL teacher Dani Orlien Armstead.

And while the program serves as an educational tool for the kids, added Orlien Armstead, it’s also meant to be a fun program. The elementary students at Linden School No. 9, for example, built miniature oceans out of shoeboxes, visited the Liberty Science Center and tackled fresh new vocabulary challenges, building crucial confidence along the way.

“By the end of the program, their vocabulary has grown. They’re using words they’ve never used before, and they’re excited about it,” said Orlien Armstead. “I think it’s a month of growth for their confidence, too, because they get proud — ‘a month ago, I didn’t know this.’ I love it. The students are challenged, but they’re also excited by it.”

The program, which ran four days a week from Monday, July 6 through Thursday, July 30, also has a yearly theme to inspire the students. This year it was the ocean, and the elementary school students were resourceful — “everything in our environment has a purpose,” said Orlien Armstead — to put together ocean-related crafts and projects. In one activity, the students made rain and clouds, while in another they built ecosystems out of shoe boxes.

“The highlights, of course, are special projects that the teachers do,” said Paternostro. “So at the end of the first week, we might touch upon two things, maybe three, and we have the teachers work with the students in immersing them in authentic projects, so that it’s fun, and at the same time a learning experience for them.”

Meanwhile, the high schoolers took a trip out of the classroom, crossing the Hudson River. For many them, it was the first time they’d ever been in New York.

“The high school students, we took them to see the Freedom Tower in New York, which was amazing for these young people to come from another country and to see their faces light up to be in New York,” said Paternostro. “We have quite a diversity, our largest number is the Hispanic population, but we also have a large number of Haitian Creole-speaking students, Polish students and Portuguese students, and in recent years we have seen a growth in the number of students who speak Arabic.”

In addition to general help breaking the language barrier, the students spend a lot of time on their summer reading projects, added Orlien Armstead, so they don’t fall behind before the school year starts. Without the program, said Orlien Armstead, ESL students sometimes won’t read their books, because they don’t know how and their parents cannot help them.

This is all because of the work behind Linden’s award-winning ESL program, which is a point of pride for the district, said Paternostro. It needs to be, in order to cater to the community, added Paternostro.

Last year, more than 1,300 students within the district spoke another language other than English, including 34 different languages. Sometimes, “it feels like teaching the UN,” said Orlien Armstead. But for all of the students, whatever primary language they speak, the summer can be a crucial time in their development, added Orlien Armstead. That’s why this program, by preparing students for another school year, is like a way of giving back to the community.

“Our ESL population is increasing, and not only in Linden, it’s throughout the United States. So the question is how do we meet the needs of the growing ESL population? I think Linden is doing a good thing, by continuing the learning process in the summer, by having programs like the ESL enrichment program,” said Orlien Armstead. “The more successful students we have, on this planet and in this city, the better it is we are and the brighter our future looks.”