Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, laughter and fun are the same.
I was reminded of this within the first few minutes of the arrival of Phoenix Union High School District’s English Language Learners summer school students at the Arizona Science Center. I watched as they pointed and laughed together at a giant telescope on the ceiling over the entrance, with a large eye staring back and shifting about. You wouldn’t guess that most of these kids didn’t know one another, or that many of them weren’t even able to speak to one another. They all had the same expressions of wonder and amusement.
Phoenix Union High School District ELL students played in the stream table in the "Forces of Nature" exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.
The students of Phoenix Union’s ELL summer school are refugees from all over the world, many of them displaced from their home countries, some as recently as a few weeks ago. The students speak more than 20 different languages ranging from Farsi to Swahili to Nepali. All have lived in the U.S. for less than one year, and all are at various levels of proficiency in English, from “pre-emergent” to literate.
The students have been exposed to activities like bead working, making ice cream in a bag, songs, math and other concepts in the classroom, according to Carl Hayden High School ESL department chair Karen Grimwood.
Phoenix Union High School District teacher Debbie Kunes, left, explains how the rope maze works to Masoka, from Mozambique, in the MAZES exhibit.
In addition to time spent in the classroom, the 4-week summer school has taken the young students on field trips to see the sights around Phoenix, journeying to a bowling alley, an IMAX movie, the Musical Instrument Museum, the library, Shamrock Farms, the zoo, a candy factory and the State Capitol, to name a few.
At the Science Center, the kids romped upstairs to the third floor, where the MAZES exhibition awaited them. They immediately scattered across the large space, exploring the various maze games in the exhibit.
Zarsanga from Afghanistan enjoyed having a fort of foam blocks built around her in the MAZES exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.
I loved watching how the kids got creative, taking games and activities that were designed to be played one way, and playing them in completely different ways of their own invention. Foam beams meant to be arranged in a maze on the floor became the walls of a fort. Other students competed to see who could balance the beams on their noses the longest.
Yadav from Nepal balances a foam block on his nose in the MAZES exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.
As I observed the students at play, I realized that the exhibit allowed them to explore new concepts without the use of language. They could feel textures, see colors and shapes, follow paths and build structures, all without saying a word. Some of the kids spoke to one another in English, others had made new friends who spoke their native tongues and others weren’t communicating with words at all. Whatever the case, everyone was having fun.
I guess goofing around is a universal language.
A group of students in the ELL class played with the confounding marble labyrinths in the MAZES exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.
When it came time to leave, a boy from Burundi named Edgar, whom I had met playing a rotating maze board and marble game, turned and smiled at me, using one of the phrases he’s come to know well, “Have a good day!”
Story by Sadie Smeck, photos by Daniel Friedman