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Making Room for Jesus, the Vulnerable and Overlooked Newcomer in Our Classroom

By Katy Lichon, Ph.D.

Lichon Family in Jerusalem

As an educational linguist, I have the privilege of spending my days leading ACE’s English as a New Language and Catholic School Advantage academic programs, developing ways to best support and empower multicultural and multilingual learners in Catholic schools. This fall found my days turned upside down, as I moved to Jerusalem with my husband and three children (9, 4, and 2 years old). I suddenly found myself immersed in a new language​ and ​new culture, and​ ​in a historical and political setting that I had only read about. 

Lichons children in JerusalemLiving abroad is not new to me or to my husband, but these past experiences did not prepare us to be parents to young children enrolled in a school where they are learning in languages that we do not speak (Arabic and Hebrew). Nor did these experiences prepare us to navigate schools as “newcomers.” Quite honestly, I am not sure that much could have prepared me to travel to so many sacred holy sites with a 2-year-old, but alas, our salvation resides in the birth of a baby who probably had a tantrum in a temple once or twice . . . maybe. I like to think that Mother Mary sees me in these situations!

Our previous adventures and my own educational background left me woefully unprepared to cry in the school parking lot during the first few weeks of school as my brave children walked into classrooms where they had no friends, no words to share, and no way to share their talents and experiences. I was unprepared to be uninvolved in their schoolwork due to language barriers, and I was unprepared to allow the daily rhythms of living in a new place to overshadow reading at home. I was also profoundly surprised to witness my children’s resilience and patience—a lesson we gleaned from them as their parents. 

What seemed to stick with us the most were the encounters and events in which we felt welcomed—or unwelcomed—and how being seen and present made all of the difference. It was only when “room was made” for newcomers like us in the school, did we feel connected, confident, and welcomed.

We could each only bring one suitcase on our five-month trip, but I did not leave my language background behind in South Bend when we arrived (unlike the majority of my material possessions). Much to the chagrin of my family, I came prepared to observe Krashen’s stages of language acquisition, to categorize social language and academic language, to encourage my children to translanguage, and to bolster receptive and productive language acquisition. Cue the knowing laughter that a second-year teacher humbly enjoys when thinking back to their first ideations of being in the classroom! 

Instead, most days have ended with our family huddled around our small table enjoying delicious falafel and hummus, and listening to our children talk about their new teachers and how recess is different at their new school. Not even I found much use or energy for language learning strategies in these first few months. What seemed to stick with us the most were the encounters and events in which we felt welcomed—or unwelcomed—and how being seen and present made all of the difference. It was only when “room was made” for newcomers like us in the school, did we feel connected, confident, and welcomed.

Kids in Jerusalem

“Newcomers” refer to students and their families who have recently arrived in the U.S. or to a new country. Newcomers may represent migrant children, immigrant children, refugees, asylees, and unaccompanied youth. These students are often learning and balancing a lot in their new setting: social norms and interactions, linguistic differences and a new language, cultural practices and values, academic challenges, and the balancing of emotional needs and sense making (NCELA, 2017). They are often in the pre-productive stage or early production stage of language acquisition and rely heavily on gestures, routines, basic words and phrases to make sense of the language. Most importantly, they need a classroom that is bursting with radical hospitality. 

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus here in Bethlehem (and yes, I acknowledge how very cool this is!), I am continually drawn to the need for making room in our communities and schools for our neighbors, particularly our neighbors longing for a warm welcome. In the familiar Advent hymn “People Look East,” Eleanor Farjeon writes:

“Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today: 
Love, the guest, is on the way.”

The central role of hospitality shines through in these lines, as we are called to prepare our hearts and homes for the arrival of Jesus. We are reminded that by their intentional design, our homes are sacred spaces to live out love and true welcome. This Advent season, I want to encourage you to extend this radical hospitality within the four walls of your classroom, particularly as you welcome the newcomer in your midst.

“Make your classrooms as fair as you are able,
Trim the bulletin board and clean the lunch table
Teachers, look east and plan today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.” 

Remember, the newcomer stage will not last forever. Over time and with the help of your gracious hospitality, newcomers will transition seamlessly into the diverse tapestry that is your school and our universal Church. Making room for Jesus this Advent is as close as working thoughtfully on your own classrooms. 
As you prepare for Christmas, I invite you to consider ways to prepare yourself, prepare your classroom, and prepare your school for newcomers. Below I am sharing three tips—or harkening the Three Kings, three gifts—that you can utilize to thoughtfully welcome your newcomer families and students.
I thank God for the blessing and challenge of being a newcomer to the Holy Land. Merry Christmas from Bethlehem, and remember, “Love, the guest, is on the way!"  

Preparing for Newcomers

Prepare Yourself as an Educator

  • Practice saying your student’s name correctly and share the names of the other students with the newcomer.
    My own children have struggled with pronouncing their new friends’ names and it would be wonderful to have a way to know this information as a parent. 
  • Read and learn about the student’s home culture and language, locate the student’s home country and city on a map, and print images of key cultural and historical role models that the student can relate to.
    My 4th grader was delighted to share about hurricanes in science class since she has grandparents in Houston, and she came home asking for pictures of herself in the snow since this is a rare phenomenon in East Jerusalem.
  • Learn five phrases in the student’s home language.
    It is a heartwarming feeling to be greeted in the parking lot with a few warm and familiar phrases in English, and I know my students appreciated their teachers knowing words like restroom and lunch in English. Albeit not academic vocabulary, these words are important as a student enters your classroom for the first time in a new language.


Prepare Your Classroom

  • Create a welcome basket with games, crayons, books in the student’s home language, a photo sheet of the students in the class with their names labeled, and a familiar item (flag, snack, or book).
    My preschool student often needed to “take a pause” from Arabic, and his teacher had a few books in English that he could enjoy before rejoining the class.
  • Make language learning easy and accessible by purchasing a picture dictionary, obtaining flashcards with images, labeling key items in the classroom (door, chair, window), having a translation device ready to go and loaded with English apps, and if possible, establishing a buddy to assist in the classroom.
    My 4th grader appreciated having an iPad available to type words into Google Translate for her own understanding, as well as to communicate with her teacher.
  • Establish clear routines by making a visual schedule of the day or class changes, as well as modeling all routines (lining up, lunch, packing up, fire drills, etc.)
    Days can be long for newcomers and knowing that after lunch comes math, social studies, and then home is helpful and can curb some anxieties.


Prepare Your School

  • Partner your new families with a mentor from the school. Ideally, the mentor shares a common language with the family, but if not, a warm and thoughtful face to communicate with is welcomed. The mentor should connect with the family before school events, conferences, back to school nights, holiday programs, fundraisers, field trips, etc., and walk the family through daily tasks.
    As a parent, I have often been embarrassed about what type of lunches to pack, nervous when asked to send in items from home, and downright hesitant to send my child on a field trip. Having a friend at the school to walk me through these often basic and new routines is a blessing.
  • Keep language barriers low by making all school materials accessible through translations and images.
    I was thrilled to view my son’s school supplies list with images attached! Despite language barriers, I knew what type of lunchbox was needed, what type of folders, pencils, etc. I think that visual supports should be extended to school uniforms, carline maps, and various communications from the school.
  • Finally, don’t overlook the many gifts that your families bring! All families possess funds of knowledge and your newcomers will have language gifts and experiences that can enhance your school. "Seize opportunities to leverage these gifts by extending invitations!" 
    Our family certainly welcomes an invitation to provide meals, share musical gifts, and to share a bit of ourselves with the school community.

If you're interested in diving deeper into best practices for welcoming the newcomer and for serving culturally and linguistically diverse students, we invite you to explore the wide array of opportunities offered through our English as a New Language program. And check out our library of free resources to learn more tips like the ones above. 


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