Fourth-graders join Westminster students in exploring immigration
by Sheena McFarland
Fourth-grader Sam Maxfield didn't know much about Joshua Wilson, but he sure liked the college students' shoes.
He chose the pair of Adidas from a pile of sneakers as a way of securing a partner for a unique writing program that paired Beacon Heights Elementary students with Westminster College freshmen.
After Maxfield and Wilson teamed up, they and other participants in the program explored the topic of immigration together and honed their writing schools, using the book Esperanza Rising as a discussion starter.
Wilson and other Westminster students made collages of their younger buddies' favorite things, and later returned to Beacon Heights to do some biographical writing. They wrapped up their time with the fourth-graders by bringing them to campus for a pizza party, book discussion and campus tour.
"Interacting with the fourth-graders has made me reflect on my childhood," Wilson said. "At first I was intimidated, but it's been interesting to see how [I was different and how I was similar] when I was in fourth grade."
Maxfield enjoyed time spent with his older mentor.
"We talked about the book, and I learned that anyone can get used to change, and you don't have to have all this money and stuff," he said.
The book tells the story of a young Mexican girl losing a parent and her wealth and having to immigrate to the United States with relatives.
While many of the college students were surprised to see a book written for fourth-graders on their syllabuses, it served as a gateway into the course's topics of literature, writing and psychology, said co-professor Leslie Lords Robbins.
The book also personalized many of the issues surrounding immigration for both groups of students.
"It taught me that there are always difficulties in life and life always changes," said fourth-grader Omar Ahmed. "You have to make hard decisions. There is no rose without thorns." Those real-life lessons reverberated throughout the fourth-graders' comments during a book club party on Westminster campus last week (Nov. 28) to wrap up their discussion.
"You need to work hard for what you want," said fourth-grader Dorothy Smith. "If you asked for something and immediately get it, you wouldn't be happy." The depth of comments from the younger students made fourth-grade teacher Lisa Bendall happy.
"One of the best things with this buddy system is that my students have opened up and expressed themselves," she said. "I just can't reach that deep when I'm in front of a large class, but these college students were able to get that one-on-one interaction." Westminster requires every freshman to take a "learning communities" class, where the same students take two classes together to meet general education requirements.
This semester, co-professors Robbins, an adjunct English professor, and Barbara Smith, an associate professor of psychology and director of the college's learning communities program, decided to partner their freshmen with fourth-graders.
"Lately, the campus has had a big discussion on what becoming a citizen was, and we decided part of it was being part of a community. So we decided to dump our college students into the tight community of a neighborhood school," Robbins said.
That partnering has allowed college students to look at child and personality development with real children to use as references, Smith said.
"Working with the children has been an enriching experience," she said.