Renee Christman, teacher of English as a Second Language at Paynter Elementary School, chats with fourth-grade students Anisha Subba, center, and Subekshya Tamang on Feb. 13. ESL students at Paynter, part of Baldwin Whitehall School District, their refugee family members, and other refugee community members, are involved in a bilingual book project called "Saving Stories" to preserve folktales, biographical, and other types of information from their native cultures.
Detail of Anisha Subba's illustration and story about her favorite holiday -- Dasi.
Detail of Subekshya Tamang's illustration and story about her favorite holiday -- Bhaitika.
Subekshya Tamang, left, and Anisha Subba, both fourth grade students at Panter Elementary School, display writings and illustrations about a favorite Nepali holiday.
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are identified in both English and in the Karen language.
By Kathy Samudovsky
When 62-year-old Hari Maya Timsina was young, she lived in a remote village in Bhutan, South Asia. She married early and gave birth to eight children. Only five survived.
From dawn to dusk, she worked in the fields, tending cattle and fetching firewood from the forest and water from the nearby river.
“Although I worked hard, we were happy but Bhutan Government forced us to leave the country in 1991,” she wrote. “Came to Nepal, lived on the banks of river with no food and shelter for several days. Later we started receiving ration and huts were made. It was a very difficult life.”
Now a resident of Whitehall, she wrote the above account of her refugee experience through an interpreter/translator as part of a native literacy and cultural preservation project called Saving Stories.
The community project aims to capture personal and cultural stories from the large concentrations of resettled refugees in Whitehall and Baldwin Borough before the experiences and memories of generations are lost.
With the help of interpreters/translators, the stories and other information are being documented in English and in the refugee’s native language with illustrations, said Renee Christman, an English as a Second Language teacher at Paynter Elementary School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.
The goal is to publish the bilingual materials in books for use by both young people and adults who are learning English and to promote multicultural understanding, she said. The books will be placed in school districts and local libraries.
Saving Stories is co-directed by Ms. Christman and Paula Kelly, director of Whitehall Public Library and a certified ESL literacy tutor with Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. Project partners include the literacy council; Whitehall and Baldwin public libraries; South Hills Interfaith Ministries; and the school district, which pays for the interpreters/translators.
Baldwin-Whitehall has the second-highest population of ESL students among Allegheny County’s public school districts, according to the state Department of Education. Pittsburgh Public Schools has the highest.
About 5 percent, or 246, of the district’s 4,141 students in K-12 are receiving ESL services, said Darlene DeFilippo, director of programs. The student body represents 31 languages from about 20 countries, she said.
Ms. Christman said the project idea was rooted in her young students’ struggles to learn how to read and write in English when virtually no printed materials in their language were available. She knew their families either never attained, or through the years lost, the ability to read in their first language, which is common among resettled refugees, she said.
“If you have that first language literacy, it’s a lot easier and faster to achieve literacy in your second language because those skills transfer, even when the alphabet is different,” Ms. Christman said.
She searched in libraries and on Amazon.com and found limited materials in Nepali, the official language of Nepal, or in Karen, which is spoken in the lower Burma region and on Thailand’s borders.
"So, I thought, ‘Why don’t we create our own?’ ” she said.
Ms. Christman and Ms. Kelly met at a school-related ESL function and after having “a conversation that blossomed,” the project was launched in fall 2013, Ms. Kelly said.
“As a librarian, I thought there was archival importance to these folks’ journeys and stories,” she said.
About 10 percent of the 700 students at Paynter are receiving ESL services; Ms. Christman teaches 30 of them.
Most of her students speak Nepali, and some also speak ethnic Karen. Their families are among populations forced out of their homelands in the early 1990s due to ethnic persecution. They were brought to the United States as part of a U.N. resettlement plan that started in 2008.
To date, the bulk of Saving Stories contributions — life histories, poetry, folk tales and songs — have come from the parents and grandparents of Ms. Christman’s students, high school art students, library patrons and community English language learners. Three Paynter students contributed, too.
Fourth-grade girls Subekshya Tamang, 11, and Anisha Subba, 10, both Nepali refugees, wrote short stories with illustrations. "It was fun writing about my holiday,” Subekshya said.
Fifth-grade American student Emma Turnbull, 11, helped with the artwork. “Drawing the pictures really made me understand how much work they had to do,” she said.
Ms. Christman said although her students are “achieving remarkably,” Saving Stories will not benefit them until the books are published.
“It’s my job to help students learn to read and write in English. But I strongly believe that I also have to help them navigate between their family’s culture and American culture. So, perhaps Saving Stories will help with both of those challenges,” she said.
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