The Refugee Educators' Network, Inc. began as the Education Subcommittee of the Sacramento Area Refugee Forum in the early 1980s. Since then, REN members have developed a collection of books, videos, magazines, and artifacts, have sponsored 14 conferences, and have published books and 22 volumes of Context: Newcomers in California’s Classrooms.
With the support of the Central Valley Foundation, we developed a literacy kit for teaching the White Hmong language, with books that can printed and used for free, from any computer in the world.
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After the arrival of refugees from the former Soviet Union, REN turned its attention to supporting the communities in their efforts to provide mother tongue literacy instruction to their children. Heritage language programs for Ukrainian and Russian were the first, then Armenian (for a few years), and most recently, Spanish.
(For an overview of refugees and immigrants in Rancho Cordova, click here.)
The identification of essential reading vocabulary help new English learners focus on the the words that appear most frequently in any reading material. The first 1,000 words of the General Service List make up 75% or more of any reading material. We named these words "Threshold Vocabulary" and used them as a focus for learning.
On the first day of school, 1979, the principal of my school in Rancho Cordova called me over, and as I approached, I saw a clutch of scared Asian children hiding behind him. All the regular classroom teachers were standing on the blacktop, heading up orderly lines of 34 children, waiting for the morning bell to ring. As a resource teacher who worked with groups of struggling learners in a pull-out program, I didn't have 34 children assigned to me on that first day.
These six children, the principal informed me, would be in my first pull-out group. I'd teach them English. There I stood, in front of a little line of six children, wondering who they were.
It turned out that these kids were refugees from Vietnam, part of the forty or so families housed in one of our crumbling apartment houses by Catholic Social Services. They were all fifth-graders, and had been bussed from their home schools to our school.
I remember two of them clearly.
Duc and Hai. Duc, a wisp of a boy, wore a woman's flowered polyester blouse and a pair of cartoon-figured pajama bottoms, with plastic thong sandals on his feet.
I looked at his name and toyed with its pronunciation: Duck? Duke? When I asked him his name (What-is-your-name? Loudly and slowly.), he responded with a familiar initial consonant phoneme, /d/, followed by a vowel that reminded me of my high school French class struggles with the vowel in "bleu." Duc. The final consonant wasn't really there, more of a stop to the flow of sound, not a crisply released /k/ that is part of English. I realized there were sounds in this boy's language that couldn't be spelled in English, and that I wasn't sure how to say his name.
Hai's name was easier: not "hay'' but "hi," a friendly hello. Since I knew "mai tai," I could relate to his name. Later I would learn that both names had distinctive tonal patterns that would have to be memorized, since English had no way to represent the tones that were as much a part of their names as the vowels and consonants.
Duc and Hai, and the other four children whose names I've forgotten, provided me with the beginning of anthropology in the schools. We all thought at the time that the presence of non-English-speaking Asian children in our schools was a temporary situation, not worth the investment of time or energy to design a program. Most of the Asian students left the district six or seven years later, to be replaced by new refugee children from the former Soviet Union. Different names, different alphabets, different ways. Many of the questions turned out to be the same.
The program we didn't design emerged.
(by Judy Lewis, Context 150)