By Hannah Devlin
Port Washington School District’s ENL (English as a New Language) Department gathered in celebration of their Time Capsule Project. The project, a collaboration with Multicultural Voices, aimed to give students the opportunity to share their experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like their peers, ENL students faced many challenges throughout the pandemic. To provide insight into what it was like assimilating to a new country during the height of the pandemic, Weber Middle School and Schreiber High School ENL students have filled a time capsule with letters, videos and mementos that will be opened in 50 years. Every student wrote a letter to the future class of 2072 and included personalized items and photographs alongside their writing.
To celebrate the burial of the time capsule, the ENL Department hosted a ceremony attended by students and their families, departmental teachers, district administration and elected officials.
To begin the celebration, Multicultural Voices’ Program Director and Developer Elise May greeted everyone in attendance. As a first-generation American, May explained that she created the Multicultural Voices Program to tend to the needs of young people who have been uprooted from their lives and unable to communicate. The program uses theatrical storytelling as a vehicle for students to express themselves and share their stories using dance and movement.
After May’s introduction to the project, Senator Anna Kaplan spoke. As a child refugee, Kaplan experienced the struggle of moving to a new country without knowing the language.
“I look at each and every one of you, and I see myself coming to this country and starting a new life,” Kaplan told the students.
After her speech, Kaplan presented the project with a citation alongside Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti.
Following the citation, Superintendent Dr. Michael Hynes spoke, thanking ENL Department Director Priscilla Zárate, ENL teachers and Elise May for their work on the project.
“In the year that [Zárate] has been here, she’s really worked so tirelessly to transform our ENL department, and we are so thrilled, not only that [she’s] here but that we have this project in front of us,” Hynes said.
Although Zárate has only served as Port Washington School District’s ENL Director for the past year, she has contributed to ENL education for the past 24 years.
On her transition to a new district, Zárate explains, “The needs of our students are still the same. The challenges are still the same. They’re still adapting to a new culture, a new educational system and learning a new language while still having to succeed academically and linguistically.”
After Dr. Hynes spoke, Zárate, alongside Weber and Schreiber ENL teachers, talked about their experiences with the project and the impact of the pandemic on English language learners. Accompanying standard challenges, such as academic burnout and online obstacles, ENL students had to navigate learning a new country, school district and language. The time capsule project serves as a space to share their personal stories and hardships while celebrating their resilience and adaptation.
Following the teachers, Weber and Schreiber students shared some of their letters.
Each letter began the same way: “Dear Student of 2072, The years 2020 and 2021 were not what we expected. We want to share what it was like; the good and the bad. The happy, the sad.”
After each student read the introduction, they shared a good moment, a challenging moment and what they put in the time capsule. Objects ranged from student-made artwork, jewelry gifted by friends and family, stuffed animals that were a source of comfort, articles from school newspapers, flags from their home countries, pictures, etc.
Student speakers included Steven Ayala Calderon, Guelinton Ramirez Hernandez, Yordin Hernandez Alay and Lucia Reyes Carmona from Schreiber, and Luis Alana Acuna, Mayori (Jimena) Campos Rodas, Alberto Bracamonte Marroquin and Samantha Zhirzhan from Weber.
Alana, a seventh-grader at Weber, explains that he is excited “to share [his] experiences so students in the future will see [his] letters.” For Alana, soccer was a great outlet and helped him focus on the good. It’s a very popular sport in his home country, Ecuador, and playing it in a new country helped him feel more connected.
After students had the opportunity to share their writing, the time capsule was ready to be buried. As the ceremony drew to a close, each ENL student and teacher, as well as Dr. Hynes, helped bury it.
The time capsule allowed students to share aspects of their lives that were difficult, as well as aspects that were rewarding.
“It was an amazing opportunity to have that voice and share their stories,” Zárate said.
The project provides first-hand accounts of how English language learners adapted during the pandemic, and it will hopefully allow students in 2072 to learn from the past.