Learning a new culture while treasuring the old

Laotian high school students now living in Rockford, Ill., have had a unique opportunity to learn more about their new home in the United States as well as the old home that they left behind -- and the customs, history, and idealistic symbols of each. With about 1,000 Laotian refugees, Rockford, a city 90 miles northwest of Chicago, has one of the largest resettlement concentrations in the country. Some of the families live in the town's oldest neighborhoods. Their children are enrolled in the public schools, where special assistance has been offered since they began to arrive about five years ago. Most of them knew no English then, and the cultural differences they encountered were many.

At the time, Laotian leaders and students agreed that there needed to be greater opportunities for the new immigrants to learn about their adopted community, its heritage and values.

In response to that need, Maureen E. Gustafson, a former teacher and now an educational services consultant, designed and directed a program called ``Conversations on Cultures in Transition'' to supplement existing social studies curricula in local high schools. The program, sponsored by Restoration Education Inc., the Illinois Laos Association (an immigrant self-help group), and the Rockford School District, was piloted at Guilford and East High Schools during the second semester of the 1983-84 school year. Funding came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Gannett Foundation, and the Rockford School District.

The project, Mrs. Gustafson says, was the result of cooperative efforts by educators, scholars, students, Laotian refugees, and community preservationists.

Classroom sessions for groups of 10 were held one day a week in the two high schools. They took place during lunch periods to avoid conflict with regular courses.

Mrs. Gustafson began by devoting several weeks to Laotian history to help students reaffirm their pride in their own heritage.

Next came an examination of democracy and its ideals and institutions, including how it worked in Rockford. ``We examined the notion that conflicting ideas are inherent in a diverse, democratic society and help give it strength,'' she says.

She next gave special emphasis to previous immigrants in the community -- Swedes, Italians, European Jews, and others -- and discussed the patterns they shared and the economic and political roles they played. With slides, she showed the buildings that each new wave of immigrants had produced, the many historic structures that town preservationists have struggled so valiantly to save, and some that had been demolished.

By making creative use of the environment as a document, says Mrs. Gustafson, the teacher does not have to depend solely on written materials and can help students to follow the evolution of a new community and better understand what each immigrant group has contributed to it.

Mrs. Gustafson also took students on a field trip to visit some of the neighborhoods and buildings she had discussed with them. She arranged a meeting at City Hall with Mayor John McNamara, who talked to them about political participation and the importance of neighborhood conservation. To help in communicating, a bilingual teacher, Suchada Ashmun, assisted from time to time.

Although Mrs. Gustafson found difficulty in pronouncing the names of her Laotian students, they found equal difficulty with hers -- sometimes settling for ``Mrs. Gas Station.''

Mrs. Gustafson's feelings at the end of the semester project, developed as a pilot program that might serve as a model for other communities, ranged from exhilaration at having been a part of a rich and meaningful educational encounter, to frustration with lack of time (she would prefer classes three days a week rather than one day), to great enthusiasm for the program's potential.

Because of its flexibility, says Mrs. Gustafson, the program offers a number of possibilities for other schools and communities:

It shows that a positive and productive relationship can be developed between a school and its immigrant community.

It can be altered to meet the needs of any ethnic audience.

It affords opportunity to develop closer contact with parents of students and with other organizations that are helping immigrant populations.

It can be made available to all students, with material developed in the course used in departmental seminars.

A similar course could be offered to the parents of immigrant students.

The 43 students who completed the program were unanimously enthusiastic. ``Dear Mrs. Gustafson,'' wrote one of them, ``It was nice to learn in the lunch class. The class was so nice and fun. I learned a lot about Rockford history and about Laos history and I had a chance to meet the mayor of Rockford.''

From a graduating senior came these words: ``Please help the kids, wherever they came from, whatever country, please help them to learn and to understand . . . [the] history of the United States.''

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