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Glenwood Springs Middle School seventh-grade student Dayri Roman fought back some tears when telling her story of fleeing gangs in her native Honduras before a room full of educators from around the United States last month.
But the audience was supportive, encouraging her and two of her GSMS classmates to continue on, so that they, as teachers, principals and superintendents, could better understand and bring the immigrant student perspective back into their own schools.
By sharing their stories, Roman said she and other immigrant students can look to the future and their goals, and move on from the past.
“I was super nervous to talk, but at the end I felt better,” she said of the presentation experience. “They made me feel comfortable.”
She spoke some in English but mostly in Spanish, translated by her English Language Learner reading and writing teacher, Lucia Campbell, for this interview.
In Honduras, while she was in elementary school, her father was made to give money to the gangs, and then when he couldn’t he was forced to flee, initially leaving his family behind.
But then their house was robbed, and Dayri and her mother decided to head north.
They were in Mexico for a year, and eventually her mother asked her to make the crossing alone, and said that she would soon follow.
“I was very nervous about the idea of having to live in Mexico, and then having to cross by myself,” she said. “I had never been away from my mom until then.”
Eventually, the family reunited and is living in the valley. Dayri attended GSES and Campbell said she has made amazing progress with her English in the two years she has been here. She wants to be a bilingual doctor someday.
The invite to the EL National Conference was a major recognition for GSMS and its sister EL Education school in the Roaring Fork School District, Glenwood Springs Elementary.
Roman, along with fellow GSMS seventh graders Jael Leon and Alicia Aviles were selected to present at the EL National Conference in Chicago in early December on the school’s “Life Changing Stories” work in recent years with the Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit organization VOICES.
The project encourages immigrant students to share their stories, which they’ve done through essays, visual journals, podcasts, live speaking events and radio interviews.
For that work, which began in 2019 and resumed in 2021 following the pandemic disruptions, the school earned EL Model of Excellence honors and was invited to speak at the annual EL Conference.
EL stands for expeditionary learning, an education model adopted by the two district schools — and aspects of which are used in all Roaring Fork District schools — where studies center around projects, or “expeditions,” that cross into all of the academic disciplines.
Campbell, who also spoke at this year’s conference, admits she was hesitant about GSMS becoming an official EL school six years ago, and worried how that might impact students who are just learning English.
What she learned in attending EL training workshops was that it was the perfect platform for her students to shine.
“That ended up being the best training in my career, and out of that came the idea of how sharing our stories can help, and that there’s no shame in that immigrant experience,” she said.
“When we share our stories we get to know each other better, and we can humanize the immigrant experience.”
VOICES works with the students, providing community experts to help with their story projects and to find different ways for those stories to be shared.
GSMS Principal Joel Hathaway and sixth-grade science teacher Autumn Rivera, the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year, also attended the EL Conference, as did a delegation of district and Glenwood Elementary School representatives.
“It was great to see our students be leaders at such a grand scale,” Hathaway said, acknowledging district leadership for making the student trip possible. “Our kids were teaching teachers from all over the country about how to become better teachers, and giving them ideas.”
Hathaway and Rivera presented separately at the conference about the school’s efforts to build student character and a culture of belonging through the EL practice known as “crew.”
Though some of the schools represented at the conference don’t have a large population of immigrant students, as the Roaring Fork District does, many of them do have underserved populations, Hathaway noted.
“So the teachers from these other places were able to see this whole story as a way to help those students feel a part of their school and be more successful academically.”
Roman’s story is particularly emotional, but Leon and Aviles had their struggles, as well.
Leon said he was nervous speaking before a group of adults about his journey from Mexico and his new life in the United States.
“I talked about how my emotions changed, because over there I had all my family and then when I got here, it was like a brand new start,” he said. “When I first entered the school, unfortunately I got bullied and some kids told me to go back to my country.”
“It was a sad, bottom part of my life,” he said.
One day, some other students came over and joined him at the lunch table, and they eventually became good friends.
“Finally I had someone to hang out with and talk to instead of being alone,” Leon said. “I also learned not to listen to people who say bad stuff, and don’t give them the attention they want.”
He said he appreciated that the audience at the EL Conference listened intently and encouraged him.
“At the end they all got up and clapped and I got a fist bump from one of the guys who was next to me,” Leon said.
Leon said he wants to be a professional basketball player when he grows up. Or, if not, “I would like to work on construction like my dad.”
Aviles was born in Glenwood Springs, but her family was split when she was quite young, with her father in Mexico and her mother in Glenwood with her during her early childhood.
When her mother became pregnant, she had to send Alicia to be with her dad and grandmother in Mexico, which led to a family struggle when she wanted Alicia to return.
“It was a big trauma in her life,” Campbell said of the Aviles’ story. “She didn’t want to leave her grandma, and she didn’t really know her mom by that time.
“But once she got here, she was so happy to see her mom’s home for the first time and to meet her brother,” Campbell said.
Alicia wants to be a singer when she grows up, or maybe a professional soccer player.
The students said they also enjoyed seeing Chicago for the first time, especially at Christmas-time with the decorations and lights. They also enjoyed the Bean Park, a popular tourist attraction with its bean-shaped sculpture.
Stories can shape a community, Campbell said.
“It just unifies us naturally as you get to know each other,” she said. “The kids were asked to share whether they have seen changes in our school, because our guiding question is, ‘can sharing our stories change the stereotype that’s seen in the communities?’”
“Alicia shared that she could see more compassion in people after hearing what they’ve gone through, and can relate more to you.”
Campbell has been a teacher for 27 years, and was nominated and selected in 2021 as an EL Education Klingenstein Teacher Award finalist and Glenwood Springs Homegrown Hero.
“I am mostly proud of my students and their work,” she said. “They put their heart and soul into their authentic story, especially when they presented at the EL National Conference.”
GSMS will be running its third edition of Life Changing Stories from Feb. 10 through the middle of March, including a celebration of learning at the school on March 23 where students and families join together for a potluck and share treasured dishes from their countries.
Also attending the EL National Conference this year were Roaring Fork Schools Chief Academic Officer Stacey Park and Instructional Facilitator Heather Howe, along with Glenwood Elementary School representatives, Principal Jess Schwarz, Assistant Principal Lora Smith, third-grade teacher Carolyn Glasgow, special education teacher Holly Goscha, language teacher Sarah Jonker, and fourth-grade teacher Julie Allen, who was another of the formal presenters.
Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at email@example.com or at 970-384-9160.
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