Growing up as an English as a Second Language, or ESL, student, Vivian McNeeley understands the challenges and discomfort that is often accompanied by being in an environment where English is not your first language.

McNeeley, 45, was born in America from Cuban parents. Her mother escaped the reign of Fidel Castro, and her father came to America as a child and fought in the Vietnam War after becoming a U.S. citizen. McNeeley grew up in Boston and was raised in a Spanish-speaking household alongside her sister.

During her childhood, McNeeley said there wasn't a very inclusive climate in the city. However, that environment helped her understand and relate to the difficulties her students face trying to fit in and be themselves.

McNeeley is a fifth-grade ESL teacher at Bancroft Elementary School, where she has taught for five years. She is also an artist.

Incorporating art into her lesson plans is how she encourages her students to feel safe and comfortable in an environment different than their home country.

When she stumbled across the memory project while browsing online, she said it was a perfect way to teach her students about geography, history, and current events, while also creating art.

"How do I make kids know that they matter, and what they do matters?" she said. "So I started searching portrait-making."

The memory project encourages teachers to have their students create portraits of children from disadvantaged countries, while teaching them about the country.

"Creating art makes for a safe space that encourages language learning," she said. "It's intimidating when you're learning a new language and you're surrounded by all this language you don't understand, and kind of feel like you're not in the same playing field as everyone."

Her class of five ESL students were excited to take on the project. But first, McNeeley had to overcome one big challenge: Teaching her kids about Syria.

When she received her assigned country, McNeeley said, "This is heavy, because this is fifth grade. I knew it was going to be tricky."

Teaching young students about the horrors and catastrophes of the Middle Eastern country was not an easy task, but McNeeley researched how best to teach kids about the difficult topic and found a website with helpful resources, called teachsyria.org.

McNeeley's students watched videos of Syrian children speaking on the difficulties of being separated from their families. Her students recalled the story of one child that was forced to work 12-hour days in factories cutting wood.

Her class then spent four weeks working towards the end result of portraits of assigned children from Syria, learning the techniques of highlighting, shadowing, and blending along the way.

By starting off drawing different fruits, they were able to learn how highlighting and shadowing creates depth. They then advanced on to drawing portraits of one another, which taught them how to be sensitive while drawing somebody else, and incorporate both likeness and empathy in their work.

"It's very different when you're drawing yourself and you're drawing someone else," McNeeley said. "As part of the project, one of the main things the organization asks is there's a likeness. As a portrait artist I know how difficult it is to create likeness."

To capture the likeness component, they traced the faces on transparent sheets.

The final products are colorful portraits of children both in Syria, and those who have fled. They mailed the original portraits to the memory project, which will then send them to the students. McNeeley's students will be sent videos of the Syrian students unveiling their portraits.

McNeeley's students said they were happy to create something that would make other students feel good. From their time spent on the project, they said they realized even something small can be a big deal and have an impact on someone else.

Ryan Bos, 11, came to America from the Netherlands one year ago; Luis Ribera, 11, came to America from the Dominican Republic in October 2018; Matteo Magitteri, 10, came to America from Italy over a year ago; Smit Patel, 11, came to America from India over a year ago; and Kimberly Tolentino, 11, came to America from the Dominican Republic when she was in first grade.

McNeeley's students all agreed she was the best artist they know.

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