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January 22, 2015 | by Cindy Degand

Mather High School's Translation Club

Translation2.jpgImagine moving to a new country, where you don’t speak the language and the customs are unfamiliar, and then taking your first steps into a Chicago Public High School only a few days later. This is the experience for many of the students at Mather High School, some of whom have come to this country willingly, attracted by the promise of opportunity, and others who have come out of necessity, as refugees fleeing from war-torn countries.

25% of Mather’s student body receives ESL services and approximately 60 different languages are spoken by students.  Hence, the challenge of supporting students who are new to Mather and new to America, who don’t speak English, is a priority for Mather’s Administration and one that Umoja could help support through our partnership.  Umoja’s partnership with Mather over the last four years has helped give all students the skills they need to be successful in high school through Umoja’s curriculum supported by my own ten years of experience as a teacher.  The challenge, however, is that our materials are mostly in English and students at Mather needed their own school-specific, multilingual tools. Through my own time spent in Mather’s Advisory classes, I experienced the challenges that Mather teachers face in not being able to communicate important information to students who are eager to receive it, but can’t despite valiant efforts to overcome language barriers.  We knew Mather had this incredible resource in the school – its multilingual students. Thus, the Translation Club was born!

Mather’s Translation Club consists of six multilingual students and one Umoja facilitator (me!) who are supported by a dedicated assistant principal and many bilingual teachers. Their task was to create a “New Student Welcome Packet” that would be translated into as many languages as possible.  The first step was to imagine the experience of students new to Mather who don’t speak English and who might be unfamiliar with the American education system.  This was not a difficult task, as several of the students had this experience themselves and one had moved to America from China only two years ago not knowing any English.  Watching these young people reflect on their own experiences to make it easier for those coming behind them was powerful. During this activity, the students used words such as alone, lonely, nervous, overwhelmed, confused and scared to describe the range of emotions new students might possess.  

The next step was to identify the needs of these students.  The Translation Club identified matters such as how to open a combination lock, understanding the grading system based on letters, how to navigate spaces such as the cafeteria and the gym locker room, making sense of homecoming rituals, understanding basic school rules and policies, etc.  Most importantly, they decided what was needed most by new students was someone to rely on and they felt the packets they were creating should have contact information so students could find them via email or during division with any questions or concerns based on the languages in which they are fluent.

At this point, the hard work began.  Students worked in groups to write informational articles in English for each of the concerns they identified.  Mather staff reviewed this information and the students made revisions.  From there, the finalized 4-page English “New Student Welcome Packet” went home with students and they worked with their families to translate the information into five additional languages thus far: Arabic, Cantonese/Mandarin, Spanish, Urdu and Vietnamese.  To insure consistency, bilingual staff members were sought to review the translating done by students.  When it was discovered that there weren’t any Mather staff members who could read Vietnamese, one teacher volunteered to bring the packet to a Thanksgiving celebration to have it reviewed by a relative!  This was truly a collaborative endeavor!

At a recent celebration to recognize their efforts, students were asked to reflect on how their work will benefit Mather.  One student wrote, “This project will benefit the Mather community greatly.  Future Mather students won’t be as confused as I once was…It’ll also help make the students feel more welcome knowing someone did this for them, thinking of questions they might have and knowing that they are not alone.”

While this is a specific example of supporting students who do not speak English, Umoja’s larger work does this for ALL students. In our extensive curriculum there are entire units on “How to Do School”, customized for the unique needs of students at every grade level.  We know students come to high school with a variety of levels of knowledge and preparedness and it’s incredibly important to help students understand how to navigate high school and have the skills and knowledge to be successful. Just like these Mather students, not all young people come to high school with the “language” of school!