Offering English Learners an “adventure”

Adventure can’t often be found in a spreadsheet, but Carla Ann Femino did just that. By analyzing data, she found a way to turn a concern into an exciting learning experience.

Femino, the new City Connects Coordinator at Beverly High School, in Beverly, Mass., was conducting a whole class review when she noticed a concern that cut across grades. 

“The students in our English Learner program had really high needs and didn’t have enough supports to address that,” Femino says. “I like data, and I know data helps people understand what students need, so I did an informal extension of my whole class review.”

Femino began talking to English Learner program teachers who taught students who speak Albanian, Arabic, Italian, Nepali, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. 

About 67 percent of these students faced mild, moderate, or severe risks in addition to their strengths.

As she conducted her review, Femino also found isolation. Some students weren’t connected to the larger social life of their school, and many weren’t well connected to their larger communities. And they were still building the skills to cope with the stresses of attending a school where most people speak fluent English.

Another factor, Femino says, is that “a lot of English Learner students have adult roles. They have jobs. They have to take care of younger siblings. They might come to school tired, but they still work hard at school, and they find the courage it takes to be resilient.” 

Femino’s solution was to provide students with an adventure, one that would help them build connections and grow. 

Carla Ann Femino

In addition to her work in schools, Femino has been an adventure-based counselor and lead facilitator for 20 years, leading participants through experiences — from team building to hiking, white water kayaking, and rock climbing — that give them the confidence to build life skills while having fun playing outside. 

To create this experience for English Learner students, Femino formed a partnership with Project Adventure, a local nonprofit in Beverly, that brings programming to the high school. 

Project Adventure focused on engaging more than fifty students in team-building activities. One example is having students pick a card with an image and share with the group what the image means to them. This helps students build their confidence in communicating, sharing ideas, and interacting with students they don’t know well. 

Students also spend time reflecting on these experiences.

“We’ll ask them, What’s something that we did today that you could challenge yourself to do out there? Or, What’s something that you appreciated that somebody else did for you in this group, that you could see yourself doing for someone else?” Femino says.

“We guide them to think about how to use the skills they learn in other settings. So if there’s something they’re interested in doing – running track or joining a club – we encourage them to think about how they can get involved.”

Femino and the English Learner teachers also participate in the team-building activities, which helps students get to know teachers better and trust them even more. And Femino and the teachers learn and speak phrases in students’ languages. 

“I push myself to speak Spanish to students, and it’s not smooth. They laugh at me a lot, and I’m glad they do because it shows that we’re working to connect to them, and that we can be vulnerable as well.”

“The bigger goal within the goal is that we’re creating an environment where students feel comfortable being vulnerable with us and with each other so that they can really learn what they need to learn to thrive here.”

Femino says the students are excited about the program. 

“They are more comfortable pushing themselves further than I’ve seen them be.”

And students are more willing to share their insights, encouragement, and life advice with each other — especially when it comes to figuring out how to be successful when other people think they’ll fail. 

The adventure approach also offers students a break from their responsibilities and the pressures of being from another country. 

“My favorite part about this program is that while students are still working hard, they also get to have fun. They’re playing. They’re being kids. They get to let go for a little bit. They giggle.”

And at City Connects, we know that experiencing joy and connection builds confidence and skills that students can use throughout their lives. 

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