A big part of teaching middle school students is preparing them for the new challenges of high school, but in Jennifer Dines’s class at Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, students are already navigating something new and unknown: life in the United States.
Dines teaches English as a second language, or ESL, to newcomers in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. These kids aren’t just new to her class or the Dorchester school, but to the country, having come from places like Portugal, Cape Verde and Somalia.
“Its special because kids remember you — you’re their first teacher in the U.S., so you have the chance to make it a good experience, or a pretty awful one,” said Dines, laughing.
Dines, 36, is definitely making it a good experience. She goes beyond teaching these kids what they need to know from a book by focusing on their mental and emotional health, and her efforts were just honored by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and the education crowdfunding nonprofit DonorsChoose.org.
Born This Way and DonorsChoose.org recently announced five winners of their Mental and Emotional Wellness Innovation Challenge. Five projects centered around reducing stigma and increasing emotional support were picked from more than 600 entries.
Dines’s program involves her students coming in for extra hours of learning, and they do it because they want to, she said. During that time, the students make “peace areas” in their classrooms, even painting peace rocks and creating sensory bottles — water bottles filled with glitter and glue that have been shown to help kids calm down.
These items become talismans to the kids, giving them a sense of peace to hold on to when they’re struggling.
“With the topic of mental health, we did essays about identity and created these sensory vials,” Dines said. “My kids love to get their hands on those and use them during their assignments. I thought they’d use them when they’re feeling upset or sad, but I’m really seeing a connection of when they ask for those and when the work is really hard for them.”
As an Innovation Challenge winner, Dines gets $5,000 to fund another classroom project. She’s thinking about buying more headphones with built-in mics — the students use them to hear themselves practice reading English — and maybe a SMART board, which could better display images of art during discussions and make her classroom feel like a museum.
Whatever she chooses to do with the prize will surely benefit her students. She’s already seen them become more outgoing, she said, and she loves helping them open up to share their stories.
One of her students was previously at a refugee camp, and before that was “wandering” through Somalia with her family, Dines said — but in her class, she’s a bright, funny teenager.
“I would have never have known her if I wasn’t a teacher, and she’s telling me this story that could have been a movie,” Dines said. “And I think, ‘Wow, all these stories, these narratives and special people, come into my life.”