By Ibby Caputo
Dec. 27, 2011
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a rainy weekday afternoon, a tall, slender, dark-haired woman named Maria Schaedler-Luera waited in the lobby of Harvard’s Sackler Art Museum for four new students. They weren’t undergraduates, though. Schaedler-Luera works in the education department at the museum and uses art to teach English. Her work prepares immigrants to take the exam to become U.S. citizens.
When the adult students arrived, they introduced themselves. Wilman was from Honduras; Milagro, Marvin and Oscar from El Salvador. They all worked for Harvard University and were part of an education and training program there. They came to the museum to practice their English.
Schaedler-Luera has designed the session to align with her students' language lessons in the classroom. “Two of the things they’re working on right now are adjectives — identifying parts of speech — and they started working on past tense, so I will find ways to incorporate that,” she said.
More than a fun day at the museum
Her supervisor, Ray Williams, is the director of education at the Harvard Art Museums. He said that part of the citizenship exam is giving oral responses to questions in English.
“We knew that working on language skills was going to be important,” Williams said.
The Engaging New Americans project started as a pilot and grew with a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the hiring of Schaedler-Luera.
Williams said he was motivated to design the program because of “the ugly political rhetoric around immigration and how ungenerous it seems.” It made him think about “what an art museum might do to send an explicitly welcoming message to people who had chosen to relocate.”
Schaedler-Luera, a native of Brazil, said she understood what her students were going through.
“I’ve been here for almost eight years,” she said. “My first year here I also didn’t speak English very well… [and] I know we are not necessarily invited to participate in society or mainstream culture institutions.”
"Red" is an adjective
In the lobby of the Sackler, Schaedler-Luera strove to make her new student guests feel welcome. After introductions, she handed each of them a laminated, construction paper heart. She called it a “token” and brought the students into the modern contemporary art gallery on the first floor.
“I want you to look around and choose one work that is going to be your favorite, and once you choose your favorite work of art, you are going to place the paper heart on the floor in front of the art,” Schaedler-Luera instructed.
One by one, the students dropped the hearts on the floor signifying the artworks they liked the best, and then a discussion started. Schaedler-Luera asked Milagro to explain her choice.
Milagro had placed her heart in front of an abstract painting by the famous American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (see the painting). First in Spanish, and then in English, Milagro explained that she liked the colors red and pink, which fill the canvas. Responding, Schaedler-Luera made the point that colors are adjectives.
Enlightenment in language and experience
After all the students had had their turns, the group headed to the second floor of the art museum, where they stood in front of a large, light-gray sandstone statue of a seated Buddha (see the sculpture) from eighth-century China.
It was time, Schaedler-Luera said, to tell a story. “Maybe you can use your paper to write down some verbs that you recognize as I tell you the story of Buddha’s birth,” she suggested. When she was done, the students read some of the past-tense verbs they heard and slowly repeated parts of the story, moving on to a long conversation about the meaning of the word “enlightenment.”
At the end of the class, Schaedler-Luera urged the students to come back again soon — a request that was met with vocal thanks. But the thank-you Schaedler-Luera has cherished the most came in an email from an English language instructor.
“She said, ‘It was so lovely to bring them somewhere new at Harvard where they don’t have to clean anything or wash any dishes and they were treated with such respect,’” said Schaedler-Luera.
Schaedler-Luera and her colleagues hope that the Engaging New Americans project will be a model for other art museums.
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.