Helen Thorpe Speaks at CC as Part of Journalist in Residence Lecture Series

By SASHA HART

Journalist, published author, and former Visiting Professor Helen Thorpe visited CC this week to give a talk on her new book, “The Newcomers”, as part of a collaboration between the Journalist in Residence Program and CC Refugee Alliance. The book is an account of her time spent with 22 refugee children in a beginner-level English Language Acquisition (ELA) class at South High School in Denver.

As English Professor Steve Hayward noted in his introduction of Thorpe, the book deviates from Thorpe’s usual journalistic style of writing in third-person and at a distance from her subjects. In “The Newcomers”, she became an active participant in the classroom, and in doing so, she pulled into the narrative and writing in the first-person.

While this presented some moral and ethical dilemmas for her as a journalist, Thorpe ultimately reconciled any internal conflict. She realized that her project was more about understanding the lives and difficulties of these children in a more empathetic way than about journalistically documenting their experiences learning English.

In her opening remarks, Thorpe explained that her own family history and upbringing had drawn her to thinking and writing about the refugee experience. Her parents were both Irish immigrants and she herself was born in Ireland but moved to the U.S. with her parents at age one. Her mother’s stories about growing up in Ireland made Thorpe realize from an early age that children had different realities and upbringings in different places around the world.

Although Thorpe initially struggled with how to write something different or useful about refugees, her journalist friend suggested that she visit South High School, where over a third of the students are foreign born. After speaking to the principal, Thorpe was given access to any classroom to sit in on, and she decided upon a beginner-level ELA class.

After her first few weeks in the classroom, Thorpe questioned how she was going to be able to write an interesting and compelling book about students who, thus far, remained completely silent in class. It was at that point that Thorpe was invited to teach a course at CC about narrative non-fiction, which took her away from South High for some time.

When Thorpe returned to the classroom at South High School, more students had joined the class and she realized that in the first few weeks, the students had been going through the silent and receptive phase of language acquisition. By the end of the year, the students were speaking English with intermediate fluency and a couple of them went on to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” the following year.

At the end of her talk, Thorpe read a passage from her book in which she visits the family of two boys from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were in the ELA class at South High. While talking to their father, Thorpe asked him to explain their family’s history and why they became refugees. He maintained that one of the biggest difficulties as refugees was dealing with American innocence. Heather Powell Browne, Assistant Director of Off-Campus Study and co leader of the CC Refugee Alliance, was proud to co-sponsor the talk. Browne thought the talk was important , “Because often the national discussion around refugees seems to abstract the individual humans (with stories and struggles and hopes) into one faceless glob that’s all too easy to target or exclude or be fearful of.”

That point is exactly what Thorpe strove to drive home in her book. Thorpe noted in closing that she hopes the lasting effect of her book is that refugees are seen as a gift, not a burden.

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