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Reaching out to immigrants: Lessons learned

December 12, 2012
Inside Education — Rachel Inks , Times-Republican

Immigrants have always contributed to the diversity of Marshalltown and Marshalltown Schools, each new culture bringing its own inherited beliefs, values, and knowledge evident in dress, language, religion, food and social habits.

Immigrants from Burma, most of them refugees, have made up the most recent influx of newcomers to our community and schools. With new arrivals come new opportunities. It's a chance to learn about a different culture, but also to help someone new to the country and our customs to get used to life in Marshalltown.

Consider what lessons you have to offer our immigrant newcomers. Give the gift of cultural knowledge! Stretch beyond that friendly "hello" and warm smile to share your "life" knowledge in American or Marshalltown culture. As you reach out, remember:

Be patient. It takes time to learn new things! Do you see a newcomer in need? Stop and take extra time to explain (and re-explain) American culture, school life, community programs and services. Gently communicate long-standing policies, procedures and rules. With families new to this country, even the simplest task can become challenging. Use visuals, pictures, and gestures whenever possible to increase understanding. Choose your words carefully, using simple words and short phrases.

Be appreciative. Learn an immigrant's story. Educate, accept, and understand other cultures' values on names, time, space and interactions. There are differences those differences are real. It's our response to those differences that matter. Don't make assumptions about ANYTHING and provide information about the most basic things most people take for granted, but realize each person comes with their own wealth of knowledge and life experiences just waiting to be tapped.

Be active. Take time to connect in person. Visit where immigrant families gather ethnic grocery stores, places of worship or organizations. Get involved at school by volunteering to read to or listen to a newcomer read. Help your elementary child set a "play date" with newly arrived friend. Encourage your older children to invite a friend from another culture over for an "American" supper, while remembering food is culture specific (so prepare choices while dining).

Consider extending your service. Build relationships with the community "experts" who work regularly with immigrant populations. Find out which community agencies give away backpacks filled with school supplies for needy families and solicit their support. Invite a family to join you at the public library and offer a ride. Connect adults with educational opportunities for basic English and computer classes.

Immigrants are eager to learn and Marshalltown offers its families many services and programs to do that, but these supports are only meaningful if families know about them and can access them. Everyone is educated in life, but you hold the keys to success in America. Your gift of time can go a long way to welcome an immigrant family.


Rachel Inks is coordinator of English language learning and dual language programming for Marshalltown Community School District.



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