LEWISTON – Before Bates College students begin working with Lewiston’s English Language Learner students, 85 percent of whom are children of Somali immigrants, there’s a few things they should know, an expert panel said Thursday.

When dealing with the opposite sex, hold off before offering to shake hands, advised Abdi Musa, the Lewiston School Department school community relations staffer. Depending on the level of conservatism in their families, some shake hands, others don’t.

Homosexuality isn’t something that’s talked about in the Muslim culture. It and alcohol are taboo.

Learning how to pronounce their names correctly goes a long way, as does understanding a little about their culture, ELL teachers said.

“Just be open,” Lewiston Middle School ELL teacher Charlotte Nile said.

Soon they’ll fall in love with you, “and you’ll fall in love with them,” Lewiston School Department ELL Director Kristie Clark said.

A panel of experts who work with Lewiston’s 1,200 ELL students was assembled by Patti Buck, who teaches a globalization and education course at Bates College. Her students heard from panelists Thursday at Bates College. Her students will soon start community service tutoring ELL students.

Lewiston High School ELL teacher Patty MacKinnon told college students she’s impressed how Somali families value education.

“They are here to improve. That’s what sets them apart from native struggling families. They value education and are motivated,” she said.

MacKinnon quoted one of their proverbs: “’Without education there is no light.’”

A phrase she hears often from Somali parents is “’You are the other parent.’”

ELL students do need more confidence, to better understand teachers don’t know everything, MacKinnon said. She encouraged Bates students to help ELL students think on their own.

When she passes out worksheets in her high school class, ELL students ask a lot of questions on what they’re to do.

MacKinnon tells her students she will not answer questions for five minutes, they are to read and reread the worksheet instructions. At the end of five minutes, they’ve answered their questions “and that feels great,” MacKinnon said.

Panelist Rilwan Osman, who founded the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine, which tutors students, said the ELL program has improved, but five years ago there were problems.

Too few Somali Bantu students were graduating from high school. They were placed in ELL classes in high school that didn’t carry credit toward their diploma, then they “aged out” and had to leave high school at 19.

“That frustrated a lot of people,” Osman said. “I was not happy.”

Things have improved, he said.

Today, more students are mainstreamed. Students and parents are given individual plans for how students can graduate in four or five years. This year they’ve had the highest number of graduates yet, he said. “I am happy.”

In addition to changes in programs, there’s been a change in students, Musa and Clark explained.

Five years ago some of the refugee students coming to Lewiston were high school age but had never been to school. They couldn’t be put in age appropriate classes that carried credit, they first needed to catch up. Today, fewer students need that level of help, more are mainstreamed in classes that carry credit, Clark and Musa said.

One Bates College student asked if there racism among Lewiston school students?

MacKinnon paused. In class, white students and Somali students are well behaved, respectful, she said. But when asked to choose a partner to work on a project, students pick one of their own, she said.

“A lot of students are unaware of each other,” she said.

The exception is sports, especially soccer. There “the playing field is equal,” MacKinnon said.

She and other teachers try to bridge the culture divide, in part, through books that promote understanding, including “Beetles and Angels,” about a Sudanese refugee who came to Chicago and went to Harvard. Another title is “Out of Nowhere,” a fiction about high school soccer players based on Somali youths in Lewiston.

Other panelists said there may be some racism, but far less than 10 or five years ago.

Students are integrating, ELL students are blending, Musa said. “They’re becoming Americans.” He smiled adding sometimes their parents “might not be happy about that. But it’s good.”

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