Making books – and new lives – for refugee children

At the Academy of Chinese Language, Sedivy works with children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from Burma on making books.

The first-grader pasted a photo of his school’s water fountain onto a piece of construction paper and carefully copied the word “bubbler” underneath it. That page is just one of many that the first-grader, a refugee from Myanmar, is creating for his book “My New School.”

The boy is one of a dozen immigrant and refugee children in Milwaukee Public Schools who are benefiting from a project started by Lynn Sedivy, a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Education.

Sedivy is helping small groups of immigrant and refugee children from Myanmar, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo make their own books about their new lives. Three MPS schools are currently involved.

The “My New School” project is funded through a grant from a children’s literature fund at the School of Education that pays for photos, supplies and lamination of the books.

Working with Sedivy a couple hours a week, the children take pictures of their school – classrooms, gym, lunchroom, playground, bathrooms, their desk, the counselor’s office, pencil sharpeners, and other places and objects. Once the photos are printed, children paste them onto construction paper and write simple captions. When the pages are finished, they’ll be laminated and bound with a three-hole punch and circular clips so the children can take home their very own book.

“Coming to the United States from a refugee camp can be a terrifying and overwhelming experience,” said Sedivy, a former English as a second language (ESL) educator who now trains early-childhood education and ESL to aspiring teachers at UWM. Some of the children have never been in school before. Add to this the complexities of eating different foods, learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. Writing “My New School” gives the children a fun way to overcome their fears and learn more about their new environment, she explained.

A student from Burma shows off the book she is making about her school.
A student from Myanmar shows off the book she is making about her school. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

Sedivy works with teachers and staff who have expertise in educating children who are still learning English. The book project can help the children boost their vocabulary and learn basic literacy skills, such as writing left to right and turning the pages in a book.

“This is a fantastic project because these children are from different countries and backgrounds, but they each have stories to tell,” said Peili Kramer, one of two English language learning teachers at the Academy of Accelerated Learning on the south side, one of the schools involved in the project. Kramer earned her master’s degree at UWM. With colleague Charlie Davison, who also attended UWM, she teaches more than 70 children. The children work with the teaching duo at least once and sometimes twice a day. “They are really making amazing progress,” Kramer said.

Sedivy knows a little Karen, one of the languages of Myanmar, from her experience tutoring refugees through Lutheran Social Services. So she is able to encourage her students with a few words in their own language as well as English.

Sedivy currently has funding for up to 20 children, and is hoping to eventually expand the project to include more books and more children.

“The books are a really good way to help them write their own stories and share them with parents and friends,” Kramer said. For many of the children, this will be the first English-language book in their homes. “When they are older, they can look back and see how they’ve progressed.”

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