A project in North Carolina seeks to get students in English as a Second Language programs to connect their culture with their new language though their own photos, videos and stories.

For more than 10 years, immigrants attending the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been taking part in the "My Family, Our Stories" project, coordinated by The Light Factory, one of the most important independent visual arts museums in the state.

According to Charles Thomas, education director at the museum, the goal is to have young people take photos, make videos, and write stories about their life in the United States while at the same time telling about their culture and learning English better.

"Whatever opinion people may have about the immigration issue, those of us here are out to break down the stereotypes and offer them (the students) a platform for exchanging ideas and experiences with the community in general," Thomas told Efe.

CMS is one of the most diverse educational systems in the state with 10,339 students in ESL.

Students work on the photo literacy and writing project for eight weeks, "take classes and at the end exhibit their work in our gallery. It's a rare chance for many of them and an enriching experience that allows us to promote the power of the image," Thomas said.

For Justine Busto, with 15 years' experience teaching ESL students, the project offers immigrant students "a reason to reflect on their lives and realize they have an important story to tell and to share."

"It's their moment to shine. It gives them self-confidence, something special they can do, the chance to say something that maybe they wouldn't dare mention in everyday circumstances at school with other students," the educator at East Mecklenburg High School said.

For Cuban immigrant Mariana Rodriguez, who has lived in the United States for only three years, taking part in the program served to improve her level of English, stop being afraid of talking to others, and above all to be "better understood."

"When I got to this country I didn't speak a single word of English," the 17-year-old told Efe. "I didn't have any American friends, I never really understood the classes or the teachers, I felt a little isolated."

Rodriguez said that as time passed she improved her knowledge of the language thanks to the ESL classes, and when teacher Busto told her about the project, she didn't hesitate to sign up.

With her writings about her experiences and photographs of her family, the teenager told of the hardships that immigrants have to face during their period of trying to fit into U.S. society and of learning as much as they can in order to be accepted.

Maidy Galdamez, an eighth-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, says the most important thing about the experience is that it introduces young immigrants to situations that are perhaps not mentioned in conversations at school.

"I could say in public what happened in 2001 in El Salvador when there was a terrible earthquake that killed a lot of people, and the worst of it was that we couldn't do anything. Not many students here know about that disaster," Galdamez said.

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