Jenni Dickens is Director of Partnerships and Initiatives for Educational Studies at Monmouth College and also serves as the Place Network Liaison for RSC. Thanks to Jenni for providing us with this fine example of place-based learning.
When 40 Kindergarten and 1st grade multilingual students walked onto Monmouth College’s campus one Friday morning in early May, they were greeted by familiar faces: Their own. The library’s periodical shelves had been transformed into a gallery exhibit of their self-portraits, the culminating projects of a unit of study on skin-color and identity.
While students in the Monmouth-Roseville school district all live in the same small rural community in western Illinois, they come from a broad range of national, ethnic and racial backgrounds. A striking 15 languages are represented in the district, and one in every five students in the district is multilingual.
These students’ first years of school often take place in language-supported settings – such as in bilingual and English as a Second Language classrooms – that also aim to affirm their diverse identities. It was with this aim in mind that three teachers at Lincoln Early Childhood School developed an interdisciplinary unit that invited their multilingual students to explore dimensions of their own identity. Together, they read stories, composed identity poems, and experimented with paint-mixing to create self-portraits that accurately reflected their skin colors. Monmouth College Educational Studies students visited their classrooms to photograph and record students’ portraits and poems for a virtual gallery to share their works with distant friends and loved ones.
Monmouth College’s REDI (Rural Education Initiatives) program then collaborated with the teachers and the College’s library director to bring the students to campus with two goals in mind: To publicly display students’ work and to help the students see themselves (literally) in college. Masked and socially distanced, these three classes of 5-to-7-year-olds took their first field trip of the pandemic school year to the Hewes Library, rotating through art and literacy activity stations – or “classes” – led by members of Monmouth College’s TARTANS rural teacher corps. Students toured their self-portrait exhibit, participated in an interactive read-aloud, wrote encouraging notes to college students studying for finals, and decorated the building entrance with cheerful and multilingual chalk art. College students walked around them and smiled, some greeting their young peers in their own home languages.
As the students left, having made their mark on the college that lies in the center of their town (but which most had never before visited), one student turned, waved, and called “See you again soon! Adios!” before skipping to rejoin her friends on the long walk back to Kindergarten. The College staff, faculty and TARTANS waved back, excited to see their diverse young neighbors in the library again next year.