As public schools in Albuquerque open their doors to children for the new school year, there is one elementary school in particular where students and their families can’t wait to gather in the courtyard. As the parents take pictures of their pride and joy, the students visit their pride and joy—individual pieces of artwork representing life and struggles, similar to their own experiences, and that of their community. 

Located in the International District, La Mesa Elementary is a multilingual, Title I elementary school. Many of the students come from low-income families, many of which are first-generation Americans or immigrants. It is the cultural depth of these children and their community that attracted the attention of The University of New Mexico’s College of Education (COE).

In 2015, the COE launched TECLA—Teacher Education Collaborative in Language Diversity and Arts Integration. The TECLA program is an interdisciplinary program for student teachers who are interested in teaching bilingual students and English Language Learners (ELLs) in elementary schools. 

This program ultimately helps student teachers to learn about the communities these children come from, in order for them to have a stronger cultural understanding and ultimately a better ability to connect with and effectively educate these students. 

“The projects will always end with a school wide event, so students have that authentic purposeful reason for doing the work they are doing." — Eileen Waldschmidt

Recently as part of a "Bring a Book to Life" celebration, 18-months of work was unveiled to proud cheers and excited arm-pulls to specific locations around the school’s courtyard. Before the students left for the summer, they celebrated bringing storybooks to life through mural art. 

“There has been so much great work that has gone into this project,” said Eileen Waldschmidt, research assistant professor and clinical faculty member, UNM COE. “This project was very representative of the learning these kids did. It was so heartwarming for us during the dedication ceremony that when we walked by the children, they were talking to the adults and explaining to them about their stories, ‘This is the book our class read; I did this piece; This is the story about the family who had to leave Syria,’ It was wonderful to hear the connections they were making.”

The school-wide event was created to help students become comfortable with their own experiences and similar struggles in their community.

Thanks to private donations to the COE, California author René Colato Laínez — whose book My Shoes and I was featured in one of the courtyard murals — was able to visit the children and see their work. His book detailing the journey of a boy immigrating with his father to the U.S., resonated with the children. 

Laínez thanked the students for their beautiful creation and had a wonderfully interactive conversation about his book.

“What an impact he had on the kids,” said Waldschmidt. “He did a wonderful job of sharing his writing process with them—and that was another great learning lesson for the students.”

The project was exactly what the TECLA program wanted to create.

“This is what we hoped for,” said Waldschmidt. “A lasting installation for the community, that would be a place for them to come and for the children to share. Then when the students get older and bring their children to La Mesa, they can point and show them their piece. We hope to continue to do more art projects that add more things to the school—images, stories of the community.”

The project involved two different cohorts from the College of Education in the TECLA program. It spanned five semesters of work. Cohort two initiated the project, but once they graduated in December 2017, the last cohort, cohort three, came in and helped finish the work.

This fall semester, the TECLA program continues at La Mesa. They are already planning on a December celebration where student teachers help students create what the program refers to as a classroom museum.

“Our student teachers are taking social studies and reading methods course this semester,” said Waldschmidt. “This culminates in a research project that is shared with the children, then the projects are used to help the students prepare projects for their class museum.”

The program is also hoping to incorporate oral histories into the museum project, so the students have the opportunity to learn their history from their family members in order their capture stories. 

“We have lots of plans and lots of art to integrate,” added Waldschmidt. “It will always end with a school-wide event so students have that authentic purposeful reason for doing the work they are doing. They know they will always be sharing their work with others.”

The initial grant that funded the TECLA program recently finished. The program continues to enrich students across the community thanks to private donor support. If you are interested in learning more about the program, visit the UNM Foundation website