Letitia Zwickert is currently a Social Studies Teacher at Naperville Central High School in Illinois, where she has taught International Relations, Ethnic Minorities in America, and World Cultures since 2008. In 2016, she served as the first K-12 educator to have ever been selected as a Fulbright-Schuman Scholar. In that role, she researched migrant and minority student integration and success in Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. She also presently serves as the K-12 Education Advisor to the International Outreach Council at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Recently, she also initiated the state-wide Illinois project, Building Inclusive Societies: A Local & Global Dialogue Series, that brings together students to have timely discussions about “pressing global issues that have no borders.”
To read more about Zwickert’s experiences as a Fulbright-Schuman Scholar and her ongoing work towards promoting inclusion in education, you can check out her blog, and her recent article in Education Week on being an engaged teacher.
What initially drew you to doing work in education? Did you always know that you wanted to be a high school teacher?
I did not always know I wanted to be a teacher. This is a second career for me, and it took time to move me to a place of discontentment, where I knew there was more to life and I wanted to be doing something more significant with my energy. I was drawn to teaching because of this desire.
How would you describe your own teaching philosophy—specifically in the context of teaching classes such as “Ethnic Minorities in America” to high school students?
My philosophy is to stay engaged as an educator, motivate your students through real experiences and facilitate connection to the world. Specifically, for Ethnic Minorities, I focus on bringing in people who can better represent a specific minority than I can–to offer personal stories to make experiences real and offer important opportunities for dialogue. I am a big believer in working and researching to gain content knowledge, and then using projects for experiential experience. One example would be a Skype project I collaborated with for my Minorities class with a friend who is Navajo and a teacher on a reservation. The exchange between her students and mine was exceptionally rewarding for everyone involved.
Much of your work now is focused on promoting “inclusion” in education. What does inclusion look like to you, and how might schools take proactive steps towards becoming more inclusive in today’s day and age?
I’m a BMW Responsible Leader and work with the Transatlantic Core Group, jointly developed by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the BMW Foundation. In both of these roles I work to promote inclusion. Additionally, of course, I do this in my classroom, my school and my local community. For example, last year I developed a local and global dialogue series around the theme of creating inclusive societies. Inclusion, for me, is bringing everyone “to the table,” allowing everyone a voice, and making sure necessary support exist to help those who need additional resources or guidance. Teachers and schools need to hold more open, frank conversations within their student body, among their staff, and with their community. They should be dialogue that are meant to share information and find solutions for local needs. Inclusion allows for everyone to benefit from the richness of the diversity of a space. A wonderful starting point is the place everyone calls home, and how all members of that home and certain, similar hopes and dreams.
Shifting to thinking about the work you did in Europe as a Fulbright-Schuman Fellow, what was your experience like as the first K-12 teacher in that role? How did your experiences in the classroom inform the way that you approached this work?
To everyone I have met who has asked, What is it like being a Fulbright-Schuman Scholar?, I have answered this way—it’s like having Super Powers. It is the power to connect with influential people you may not have thought possible, to illuminate understanding for those positioned to broaden the impact of your work, to share visions of solutions to current problems and try to develop answers with those who can affect change. The impact of becoming a Fulbright-Schuman is only limited by you, because the Super Powers are real.
My Super Powers helped me soar beyond the classroom and set up meetings with state and EU officials, travel to cities outside of my research focus to compare experiences and engage in local dialogue about integration, enjoy conversations with policy makers, exchange with creative leaders, befriend global visionaries, talk about the very essence of what it means to do important work with those I have long admired, and so much more.
I came to Europe to pursue a mission I created for myself—discover the best practices in minority and migrant integration in education in Luxembourg, Belgium and France to share with fellow countrymen, fellow Europeans, and back home in the US. My goal of sharing solutions to the problem (without borders) of integration and help students and societies gain richer returns—economically and socially—is larger than me. I have met so many people trying to serve this same goal from all over the world while acting as Fulbright-Schuman Scholar. The richness of real exchange surrounding meaningful ideas has moved all of us to a new place. I hope I’ve helped give context and illuminate the story of those less advantaged, and highlight solutions to creating an educational path to greater social connections and improved futures. In the end, it is only because of the many exchanges Fulbright allows for that I can have an impact on others.
Everything that’s happened, what I’ve learned and gained during this time, allows me the possibility now to continue on, and gives me the option of growing new opportunities from the rich soil of this one. Very importantly to me, this means sharing my experiences. Sharing what it means to see life through others’ eyes and the importance of looking ahead to a future through the realities of those I’ve met. Additionally, each of the many people I’ve met are now a part of a global network of individuals who are as equally as inspired to move things forward and create global impact. This will continue to fuel the enormous power of the “bottom-up” process, where individuals make change happen.
Based on your Fulbright research, what do you see as the biggest challenges, and best practices, in improving the experiences of immigrants in European schools?
I have an incredible recipe that results in Successfully Welcomed Newcomers. It can be made by any education system, and is surprisingly simple. Formulated from a collection of my experiences and wishful thinking, of best practices I’ve witnessed and the clear lack of them, it only requires five ingredients. Together, they will fully nourish the success of the newcomers in your country.
The recipe is as follows:
- Respect the mother tongue.
- Support health (physical, emotional, mental).
- Connect with others through pastime activities.
- Provide transitional academic support.
- Reach the family.
RESPECT THE MOTHER TONGUE
An individual’s language is the whole of who they are. Native languages contain linguistic skills people have already mastered that can be used to learn a new language, provide information about cultural norms and beliefs, and offer the fastest way to connect with people. Systems not paying attention to supporting the native languages of newcomers miss an important opportunity to create strong bonds with their newly arrived families and emphasize the richness that can be brought into the welcoming society.
A newcomer within an education system who finds themself needing to learn an entirely new language in order to learn academic content is at an enormous disadvantage. If left from the beginning not understanding the very mode of communication within school (let alone without having mastered it) success will be hard to achieve. This seems pretty straight forward, and yet, these are the very challenges that far too many newcomers face.
In Luxembourg, for example, students entering the education system, whether economic migrants from France, Portugal, or Italy, or refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq, must take a placement exam offered only in French or German. If newly arrived students don’t know these languages, the assessment is skewed and results will be very poor (a logical outcome), and school placement will automatically be within the technical system. There, the student will have to use all of their energy trying to catch up with the language(s), and climb out of the hole they’ve been placed in—only because they did not have the background in the native language (and not because of any lack of capacities).
In Sweden, not only are placement tests in the native language, education policy states that each school with 5 or more students speaking a common language must have a teacher teaching in that language. In practice, this has been hard to implement for all languages because of financial constraints—the Swedish education system has a very diverse population of migrants and refugees. However, many languages are supported with native language instructors and interpreters, providing the essential focus on language that should exist in education. Language support gives confidence, comfort and hope, and helps offer students a clearer path to success.
Supporting health allows all human beings to lead productive lives, and for refugees, recognizing health needs, very importantly, allows them to feel respected by the local community. It also helps move their focus on to other things. At Enskede Gårds gymnasium in Stockholm, Sweden, half of their student population are newcomers, and in almost all of the cases, girls arriving from Somalia have been circumcised. Every student coming to the school meets with a doctor, and social workers/psychologist. In the case of the Somalian girls, each will visit the doctor once she arrives at school and be offered the services of a surgeon who can reverse the circumcision.
When I spoke with school nurse, Tarja Bergerheim, at Enskede Gård, who has single handedly made caring for every newcomer’s health her mission, I asked if the girls needed their parent’s permission for the surgery, and she said no. But very interestingly, Ms. Bergerheim added, “Most parents bring their girls because they want it done. They’re away from societal pressures of their village or town and want what is best for their daughter.” This health outreach is also extended to families in need, producing a strong bond between the student population and their school.
Mental and emotional health is also an essential part of the entire package that arrives with a newcomer, particularly refugees. None of the schools I visited have permanent programs in place with enough staffing and proper organization for follow-up and continual support. Lack of state financial support in this area is the biggest problem. Students usually seek these type of services outside of the school, and at best, they have upfront costs adding additional road blocks to finding help. Often this is enough to make a family not seek needed services. But by providing a human reaction to the needs, and creating the necessary health supports, the schools that take in these children can end up helping all of society. This has to become a priority for all countries.
CONNECT WITH OTHERS
Very few schools I visited during my five months of research offer after-school activities. There are no sports teams, like in the US, nor are there the dozens of clubs students can sign up for. And coming together around a common pastime is the great community builder. It allows people to look past a background and instead look directly at personality and the interests and similarities shared.
In France, teacher and teacher trainer, Catherine Wimmer has created several innovative programs for Lycée Albert Schweitzer. Her mission is to realize a stronger student community and a more inclusive school environment. One program she developed brought students together around a radio station, which gave them the opportunity to create and produce a live radio broadcast. Such ideas allow for common connections that push students beyond stereotypes, to the person in front of them. They work around a common passion and in doing the idea of “other” disappears. More of this is needed everywhere in Europe.
PROVIDE TRANSITIONAL ACADEMIC SUPPORT
Too many newly arrived students enter a school after an assessment test and find themselves struggling to get caught up. Teachers, schools, and Ministries in my case study countries have not made student academic support a high priority. The beliefs that the student is naturally made for a certain outcome (both for their education and their eventual career), and the student themselves must make all the effort without putting the responsibility on the school or the teachers, is the norm.
At Lycée Michel Lucius in Luxembourg, school Principal Pascale Petry has created a program for newcomers based around an “Anchor Class”. Newly arrived students are transitioned into regular classes through something similar to a homeroom, which also allows students to meet other newly arrived peers, including refugees and economic migrants from all over the world. They are assigned a primary Anchor Class teacher who introduces them to the school, classes, teachers, students, and also follows their academic and social progress throughout the year. Once a student moves into a regular class, after having achieved the school designated level of language acquisition, additional support offered by teachers through extra tutorial classes are required until the student is caught up. These supports are also available to any student who wants to attend. The result has produced an outstanding school environment and comparatively strong rates of student success. As the force behind this program, Mrs. Petry firmly believes everyone at Lycée Michel Lucius must work to, “Try to fit the school to the student, not the student to the school.” An important statement, and one not echoed by anyone else during my research.
REACH THE FAMILY
Too many schools meet parents one-on-one only at behavioral interventions, and then rely on big brothers to translate. These schools do nothing to provide school information translated into a family’s native tongue, and have built no bridges to the families or the larger school community.
Schools not only need to reach out to families, but they need to REACH them. Schools need to bring families in, with information about the school delivered in person, and about the education system to show hope and promise for their child. They need to provide families with language and health support to give the family stronger footing, and offer guidance throughout their student’s transition.
Attempting to make Successfully Welcomed Newcomers without each of these ingredients will result in incomplete outcomes, make it very difficult for newcomers (as it would be for anyone in the same position) to put all of their energy into caring about education, and lead to a weaker social fabric. By making sure all of these ingredients are available and used, the entire society reaps the benefits.
Has your Fulbright research informed the way that you approach your teaching today in Illinois?
Absolutely. Two years ago, life left me facing large questions. I was struggling with professional motivation, and I felt my global impact was far too low despite extensive world travels, being fluent in French, having a bi-cultural family, as well as experience with cultural studies and international work.
I had heard about the Fulbright-Schuman program a few years before—a grant designed for students and professionals to conduct research in the European Union—and I decided to pursue it. The resulting experiences reignited my drive, increased my global engagement, and dramatically boosted what I call, my “global quotient,” or GQ. My idea of GQ is more encompassing than just a global mindset, it means taking the knowledge that comes along with the mindset and creating global change. This is very important in education today. We know our students need globally minded educators to give them a global perspective so they can be more competitive in the labor force and more complete citizens in an interconnected world. We also need to model active involvement in making the world a better place.
I’m currently working on a global dialogue series that connects university NRCs, K-12 schools, and communities across Illinois, along with three other countries. [Other teachers] can do this, too! First, begin small, by just involving your school. Contact a local university NRC’s Outreach Coordinator to discuss collaborating. I suggest going to them with a topic option, but sharing your flexibility. They can offer you a variety of supports such as university speakers, help you find a venue if your school is not an option, and assist with publicising the event in your community. Do get your principal’s approval and see if other colleagues would be interested in getting involved with you!
Note: Some of these responses have been adapted from posts on Zwickert’s blog and had to be cut down for the context of this interview. To read those posts in full, you can check out her blog here.