Connecticut is home to the largest population of Albanian immigrants in the United States, and the largest percentage of those immigrants live in Waterbury. While Henry Chase Elementary’s library offered resources on African American, Hispanic and Asian histories, shelves were empty when it came to the Balkan Peninsula. Two teachers largely responsible for assimilating these students wanted to create a more knowledgeable and welcoming school community for Albanian students and used a Fund for Teachers grant to do so.
“We wanted to view our students’ diverse cultures and backgrounds as a source of knowledge, not as a challenge to be overcome,” said Sonja Selenica, ESL teacher. “By visiting the places from which our students and their families migrated, we increased our cultural competency and empathy for these families, which is strengthening the student/teacher relationship and promoting academic achievement.”
- meeting with the mayor of Struga, Waterbury’s sister city, to discuss the plight of students originally from his city;
- interviewing the former president of Albania’s English Language Teachers Association to learn best practices for language learning at an early age;
- touring museums such as the National Ethnographic Museum in Berat and the Albanian League of Prizren Museum; and
- experiencing the Mother Teresa Memorial House in her hometown of Skopje.
This fall, Sonja and Miriam (both members of Chase Elementary’s Mutlicultural Committee) hosted the school’s first Albanian Heritage Celebration. Each grade completed related projects in preparation for the community-wide event:
- Fifth graders researched lives of inspirational people from the region;
- third graders performed an Albanian folk tale called Half Rooster;
- second graders completed writing assignments on how Mother Teresa’s life inspired them;
- first and second graders created written responses to Albanian literature; and
- kindergartners learned why Albania is called “The Land of the Eagles.”
The evening event concluded with teachers, students, parents and dancers performing together the Albanian “valle” (pictured here at the 2016 Albanian Festival in Waterbury).
“When a teacher shares from her/his own experience everything becomes more real, the teacher is more passionate and the teaching that goes on is more authentic,” said Sonja. “My fellowship changed me as a person and I now pass that to my students through the message: ‘We are in charge of our own learning and, just like I did, you can be in charge of your learning as well.'”