University of Vermont

Cynthia Reyes

Associate professor of education

Cynthia Reyes

The printed words, "I am a little shy," begin 11-year-old Lubna's movie, "But I want you to know more about me." As the screen fades into a classroom photo of a young Iraqi girl wearing a headscarf, her voice narrates the simple story of a child new to English who fled war-torn Iraq for Winooski, Vermont. This is the digital story, a project of Cynthia Reyes, associate professor of education, whose research focus is in language, literacy and their impact on identity.

Reyes has been working closely with a class of sixth- through eighth-grade English language learners (ELL Stories) in Winooski — 16 students speaking six different languages, all in the U.S. less than 18 months.

Watch a project video:

"I've always been interested in children with bicultural identities, who have dual language worlds and dual cultural worlds," says Reyes, whose parents are first-generation Filipino. "I'm really interested in the ways that literacy might mediate identity. We talk about student voice but what is student voice for students who are not able to speak English well?"

In Vermont, students speak more than 90 languages and come from 97 countries on 6 continents.

It's an increasing problem for Vermont, and the country as a whole, as more refugees and immigrants enter school systems. From school years 1998-1999 to 2007-2008, ELL enrollment increased by 81 percent to approximately 1,650 students in Vermont. And it's far from a monolithic new culture that's being introduced — in the class where Reyes has been working, one can hear Bhutanese, Nepalese, Iraqi, Vietnamese, Somali and Chinese.

The digital stories, created with iMovie, are fun to make, Reyes readily admits, but students develop a number of mainstream literacy skills and pick up technology applications as readily as their mainstream peers. They learn elements of story development and work on writing, speaking and listening skills.

It's a common misperception among professionals, according to Reyes, that students who come from other cultures resist learning a new language, never true in her experience. That idea, at least when students are given the tools they need to progress, is affirmed watching the digital movies. The movies were screened during an enthusiastic assembly of all middle schoolers.

Reyes considers her research to be emergent. "When I entered the classroom to upload the students' movies," Reyes says, "I was struck by their joy. They proudly pointed to each other's movies and begged me to watch each one. That single moment highlighted for me what learning should be."