Storytelling reaches immigrant students

Sunday, September 30, 2001

CHICAGO -- When Rita Arias-Jirasek began telling her childhood story, only the Hispanic participants of the "Teaching With Storytelling" workshop nodded and smiled.

"My mother made me make so many tortillas, but I just wanted to go play with other kids so I made a big one and cut the smaller ones out with a cookie cutter," the workshop instructor said.

But as she continued to tell how her plan failed and all her tortillas began to balloon when they were cooked, the whole class -- 28 elementary school teachers and librarians working in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago -- burst into laughter.

Some teachers began to tell similar tortilla anecdotes while other non-Hispanic participants shared examples of their childhood mischievousness with the group.

"Stories are such vehicles for language and culture," Arias-Jirasek said. "We're talking about universal things that are so rich and so much fun."

For the fourth year, educators with different backgrounds but the same goal -- to help the growing number of Hispanic children in Chicago succeed in school -- gathered at the Chicago Historical Society for "Teaching through Storytelling," a two-week workshop sponsored by the Golden Apple Foundation, a Chicago-based education foundation that aims to promote teaching excellence.

"Storytelling is a means to engage kids to learning and a power of connection between teachers and students," said Penny Lundquist, director of the Golden Apple Academy, the foundation's training division. "We think that it'll be particularly helpful to students transitioning to a new culture."

According to the Chicago Public Schools, most of the Hispanic students, who account for 35 percent of the 435,470-student body, were born abroad. The number compares with 28 percent in 1990 and the projected 40 percent by 2005.

Teachers participating in the workshop learned the history of oral narration, with an emphasis on Mexican culture and history, and ways to bridge cultural differences.

"If you correct the (Hispanic) girls, they talk with their heads down and their eyes looking down," William Carr, a participant from a Chicago elementary school with a majority of Hispanic students, shared his experience. "Sometimes people hurt each other not because they want to hurt or offend anybody but just because they don't understand."

Through storytelling, educators will be able to reach not only younger children but also Hispanic high school students who "are not engaged in school from a much earlier time," Lundquist commented.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, 11.2 percent of Hispanic students in Illinois dropped out from high school, said the state Board of Education. The statewide average was 6.2 percent, the board said.

Lundquist said the Golden Apple Foundation will also seek expansion of the program to school districts in northern Illinois, where the number of Hispanic students is booming.

"Stories for these kids are more important because it validates them and gives them trust in the classroom," Arias-Jirasek commented. "It will pull them through (school) because they won't ask for your help if they don't trust you."

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