PITTSBURG — During summer vacation two Westside Elementary School teachers traveled to the Marshall Islands to help them better understand their Marshallese students.

First Grade Teacher Rachel Southard said she was speaking to ESOL Teacher Michelle Broxterman about their Marshallese students — how they had more students from the Marshall Islands than ever before but didn’t know their culture as well as other students’.

The teachers decided to learn more about their culture and away they went to the islands with the help of a grant.

“As teachers, we work hard to understand their culture,” Broxterman said.

Their trip revealed things about the Marshallese culture which will help them understand their students and their family.

The teachers learned that it is not typical of their culture to be put on the spot — they are a humble culture,  Southard said.

“They don’t like to be the center of attention,” she said. “Marshallese students are not going to raise their hand in class to volunteer information.
“Sharing knowledge in front of the group might look like they are showing off.”

Southard said they also learned that touching predominant families above the shoulders is not welcomed and now they can be aware of that when communicating with their Marshallese students.

“As we talk to smaller children we sometimes pat a them on the shoulder,” she said.

They also learned the Marshallese have a more relaxed culture where time is not necessarily a concern — showing up late is not rude, Southard said.

“During meetings, if parents show up late, it may not rude to them,” Southard said.

Southard and Broxterman said the families of the Marshall Islands generosity to them during their trip was not uncommon — in fact the Marshallese are quite neighborly, they are giving to both their families and their neighbors, Southard said.

Families in the Marshall Islands also live together in the same home or property — grandparents, their children and grandchildren, Southard said.

The teachers tried to follow the Marshallese cultural norms, Broxterman said.

“We were completely immersed in their culture,” she said.

She said misunderstandings happened occasionally.

They were given some tutoring on basic phrases in Marshallese, which put the teachers in a similar situation as their English as a second language learners.

“This really put us in the shoes of the English language learners,” Broxterman said. “It is very similar to our students’ experience.”

The teachers also learned about the history of the Marshall Islands, for example the atomic bombs which demolished some of the islands and caused related health issues along with environmental issues, Broxterman said.

“It is sad to have never really heard about that,” Broxterman said.

The teachers toured a Marshallese school and were able to bring Marshallese resources to Westside.

“They were beaming to have some books in Marshallese,” Broxterman said.

The teachers plan to implement a program where the ESOL marshallese and hispanic students, make videos with phrases in their respective languages. The videos will teach Southard’s class about their language and cultures.

“The kids get excited to share something special to them,” Southard said.

Both of the teachers said the experience has helped them better understand their Marshallese students’ culture.

“It was amazing, amazing experience — it was really neat to be there,” Southard said.

Broxterman agreed.

“We couldn’t have learned what we did if we had not been there,” she said.

— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at spotter@morningsun.net or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.