Teacher to teacher

Bringing guest speakers to your classroom

“War is the worst thing that can happen to any nation,” declared my guest as my rapt intermediate-level English-as-a-second-language students carefully passed around the framed black-and-white photo of her brother, who had died in the Bosnian War during the mid-1990s.

As soon as the photo left their hands, they returned to furious note-taking until it was their turn to ask a question while posing as journalists covering the United Nations. I had never seen my 9th-graders this attentive, polite or poised.

To help them fully understand “Zlata’s Diary,” a wartime diary of a young girl during the Bosnian War, I had them interview two Bosnian Muslims, a mother and daughter. “Zlata’s Diary” takes place in the Balkans, very far away from New York and from the native countries of most of my students, and I wanted them to connect with Zlata’s experiences on a more visceral level. My ultimate goal was for my students to develop an understanding of why all people must work together to prevent war.

Over the last four years since I started teaching high school ESL, I have been trying to figure out how to best motivate my students to develop their literacy and oral skills in English, especially academic English. One of the most successful strategies I have found is to bring relevant, highly engaging visitors to my classroom and then develop projects around their visits.

So how do you find visitors? In New York, so many people have fascinating stories to tell, and most would be flattered to meet with your students. Here are three different approaches to bringing speakers into the classroom that have worked well for me:

First of all, talk about what you are teaching with anyone and everyone, and see what happens! The Bosnian War survivors, for example, were a senior from my school and her mother. I was introduced to them because one of my colleagues, after hearing my excitement about teaching “Zlata’s Diary,” suggested that I meet a Bosnian former student of hers.

And how did we compensate them? Each student wrote a thank-you note, and I brought in Bosnian pastries that everyone shared at the end of the interview. A few weeks later our visitors received copies of the best articles.

Most importantly, the mother said that this was the first time she had been able to talk to people other than her family about her wartime life. The interview had been cathartic for her. Keep in mind that parents and grandparents of students at your school are excellent options as potential speakers.

In addition to finding speakers through personal networks, contacting museums and other nonprofit organizations can be an excellent way to find speakers as well. A year ago, when my students read an abbreviated version of Anne Frank’s diary, a few emails to the Anne Frank Center in Manhattan led to the center sending a Holocaust survivor from Poland to talk to my students.

Bringing speakers into class is relevant not only to humanities teachers. For educators who are teaching about HIV and AIDS, the organization Love Heals: the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education sends carefully trained HIV-positive speakers into classrooms around the city to share basic facts and use their own stories to reinforce the message that young people must educate and protect themselves.

Also, if the speaker cannot physically come to your classroom, consider using technology. Even if you have little experience integrating technology into your classroom, ask a colleauge with more technical knowledge to help you.

During my first year of teaching, my advanced-level ESL students read a memoir of life during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the author was excited to talk to my students over Skype, especially given that it was her first time interacting with students over the Internet. I felt nervous about the technological aspect of the event, but one of the computer teachers graciously agreed to help.

The day arrived, and as the author sat comfortably in her San Francisco home, she made a PowerPoint presentation and answered students’ carefully prepared questions. She teared up while recounting her story, and my students were absolutely riveted.

New York is a city of storytellers from all over the globe. As teachers, one of the best ways we can take advantage of the city in which we teach is to bring New Yorkers into our classrooms and give our students a chance to learn from their neighbors — and give them a break from listening to us!

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