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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘I have a dream’: LaCE inspires KMS students and has fun doing it

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Features

When Amy moved from Haiti to Waltham in February of last year, she barely spoke English. “I knew ‘hi,’ ‘out,’ ‘back,’ words like that,” she said on Thursday in nearly perfect English. Now, just more than a year later, Amy is a 13-year-old seventh grader at Waltham’s Kennedy Middle School and an enthusiastic participant in Language and Cultural Enrichment (LaCE), a subset of Waltham Group.

Each week, LaCE volunteers are paired with students participating in Kennedy Middle School’s English Language Learners (ELL) program. ELL, formerly called ESL (English as a Second Language) is a specially-designed curriculum for students who aren’t proficient in English. Students, depending on their fluency, spend most or all of their day with other ELL students in classes taught in English. “The kids end up hanging out together and speaking their native languages outside of class, so their English sometimes takes a long time to improve,” LaCE coordinator Laura Velez ’11 said.

Each Thursday, the kids walk in laughing and talking with their friends in a mix of English and their native languages, which include Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Tajik and Spanish. Excited to see their tutors, they file in, still messing around until the coordinators get up to explain the day’s activities.

The afternoon begins with a big group activity for the first hour and one-on-one tutoring during the second. This week TRON, Brandeis’ men’s Ultimate Frisbee team, came to hang out with the kids. “Any group on campus should be giving back. Brandeis gives us a lot, so it’s really the least we can do,” Captain Sean Petterson ’11 said.

During their introductions, each player and several volunteers and ELL students said where they were from and what they were studying. When the players listed their majors, the kids seemed surprised and inspired that getting a great education and spending several hours a week practicing and competing in a sport was a real possibility.

After introducing themselves, the TRON players explained how to throw a Frisbee and how to play Ultimate. Although few kids said they had ever played Frisbee before, they caught on quickly once outside, practicing drills with their tutors.

Other group activities have included trips to The Rose Art Museum, Spingold Theater and the BTV studio, and visits from campus groups like Kaos Kids, a dance group, and improv groups. “We travel around campus as much as possible,” Velez said. “The point is to show them what a college campus and college students are like.”

After playing Frisbee, everyone went back inside and the students split up to meet individually with their tutors. Although tutoring is an important component of LaCE, it is more social and cultural than academic, Velez said. Unless a student asks for help in a specific subject, the tutoring focuses on English vocabulary and usage that the children might not be using in the classroom, as well as cultural and social adjustments to living in a new country.

Before the semester began, Velez and the other coordinators, Jon Lopez ’11, Amanda Reuillard ’11 and Matt Eames ’13, pair each volunteer with an ELL student. After a trial week, the pairs are set for the semester so that the tutors and students can form a more personal relationship than they would if they were switched around every week. In order to become a tutor, Brandeis students must interview with the coordinators, but they don’t need to speak the native language of the kids. It’s actually good if they don’t, Velez said, because then the kids are more likely to consistently use English. Velez, an international student who grew up in Colombia and then lived in Honduras before coming to Brandeis, makes sure she doesn’t switch back to Spanish with other native speakers.

Tutoring sessions are planned by the tutors with help and feedback from the coordinators, and usually depend on the student’s English level. Tutors play games like charades, scavenger hunts in the C-Store and board games.

Amy, the Haitian 13-year-old, is currently writing a book with her tutor, Rebecca DeHovitz ’14. The book began as a list of new words that DeHovitz wanted Amy to learn. Now, it has become the story of a girl who discovers a diamond and puts it on display. When the diamond is stolen, characters based on Amy and DeHovitz come to save the day.

DeHovitz was randomly paired with Amy at the beginning of the fall semester and hasn’t looked back. “I love working with her and learning about her, especially learning about Haiti and learning Haitian Creole,” she said.

The pair found a children’s book written in English, French and Haitian Creole and, after Amy read it in English, DeHovitz read it in Creole. Remembering this, Amy laughs, which prompts DeHovitz to add that the atmosphere in LaCE is very open, and that the kids enjoy it because they are able to have fun while learning and practicing English.

Amy initially joined the program because she wanted to see what American college was like, knowing it was different than college in her home country. She wants to become a diplomat, and knows she will need a good education. “My parents are fighting for it,” she said, describing her parents’ emphasis on the importance of doing well in school and their hope that Amy and her 14-year-old brother will go to college.

“I love Brandeis. I have a dream to go here,” she said. If her ambition, charm and enthusiasm are any indication, she could easily be a perfect fit to the Brandeis class of 2020.