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The City Journals

Language barrier softened with art at Utah International Charter School

Aug 30, 2017 05:18PM ● By Jana Klopsch

The “pond” ceramic/glass art piece that replaced a display of plants in a part of the building that belongs to Granite School District. (Jessica Parcell/City Journals)

By Jessica Parcell | [email protected]

From the outside, it looks like a community center, on the inside the Utah International Charter School (UICS) is filled with classrooms and teachers ready to help children of diverse backgrounds receive an education.

Elisabeth Bunker is one of the teachers who began her career with UICS when the school opened five years ago. She said it is the best job in the world.

“I teach art foundations which is basically like an introductory art class,” Bunker said. “So you’re being introduced to different art techniques and different styles of art.”

Bunker said the studentbody is made up of children of several different ethnicities and backgrounds. Some of the children have gone to school in America, and speak the language, while others have no educational background nor read or write. Bunker said these students have what they call an interruptive formal education.

Educators at UICS are specially trained in different ways to teach English language learners. Bunker said there are several different methods and techniques to use.

“There’s something called differentiation,” Bunker said. “It’s adapting your curriculum so multiple levels can access it.” 

She said that art is already “naturally differentiated.” Whether the student is already good at art or they’re a beginner, Bunker said that it is something that all students can still learn to do regardless of what language they speak or their education level.

“If you don’t speak a language, but you’re watching someone do a technique, they may not even need to speak,” Bunker said. “They could show you just how to do something and you can do it.”

Bunker said that especially for English language learners, art can be a form of expression for them when they are not able to express themselves linguistically.

She said art is a universal language, because it is relatable to anyone who can see it. It also helps the students with a language barrier who may find it harder to access the content of the curriculum.

The UICS instructor said that a student may be very good at science or math, but because of the language barrier it frustrates their ability to understand the curriculum from textbooks and other written materials. She said art, however, does not require the learner to read or write to show proficiency in the skill.

Bunker said an important part of UICS is that they celebrate culture. She tries to get her students to reflect on their culture, but also to think about the different things that make up their identity.

“You also have inherited culture—you were born into a religion, your race,” Bunker said. “The things that are inherited, that you were born into—you also have cultures that you choose.”

She said it’s not just about the pride they feel from their country, but also other dichotomies that they can use to relate to their peers, such as the fact that they are all teenagers.

Bunker said that aside from helping students connect to each other, the skills they learn in art can bleed over into the other core subjects in academics. For her, art really is just as important as any other class.

“Art, if you really think about a lot of things in art, you’re creating something new, you’re problem solving, you’re fixing something that went wrong,” Bunker said. “It’s creating these higher-level thinking skills, and learning skills that you learn in a lot of different classes.”