Lena Shaqareq came to the US with her family as immigrants in 1993. She and her family are Palestinian but were living in Qatar, a peninsular country in the Middle East along the shore of the Persian Golf. As a teenager in Jacksonville, Shaqareq attended high school at the Stanton College Preparatory School, the oldest continually operating high school in Florida. After graduating high school, she enrolled at the University of North Florida (UNF) where she earned a Bachelor's of Arts Degree in Elementary Education. Shaqareq re-enrolled at UNF and obtained a Master's Degree in Adult Education, with a concentration in Teachers of English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL).
After completing her Master's, Shaqareq began working with the College of Education at UNF. There, she taught the undergrad TESOL courses and eventually became the ESOL Coordinator for the university. Now, Shaqareq serves as the President of Northeast Florida TESOL. She is also the Former Vice President of the Florida Chapter of the National Association of Multicultural Education.
Shaqareq has presented at conferences locally, nationally, and internationally on the topic of language and cross cultural communication. In February 2018, she published a teacher's resource book titled "Versed In English: Using Poetry to Tackle Common ESL (English as A Second Language) Issues". Shaqareq wrote the poems within the book, each targeting a specific linguistic issue. After each poem, the book provides a compilation of activities that teachers can implement to teach and enforce linguistic concepts. Since 2016, Shaqareq has taught TESOL poetry workshops through Hope at Hand, a nonprofit arts organization that provides art and poetry sessions to vulnerable youth populations.
Shaqareq is also the Founder of Sous Chefs, LLC, an interactive after-school program that focuses on educating children on health and nutrition. This initiative is modeled after the United States Department of Agriculture's MyPlate initiative.
10 Questions with TESOL Instructor and Poet Lena Shaqareq
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I have learned to accept myself for who I am and others for who they are as well. Having come from a different culture, I had previously struggled with the notion of keeping the traditions of my Arabic cultural background and adopting the All-American lifestyle. My endeavors have taught me to take the best of both worlds and accept who I am and respect the fact that we are all different and that’s ok.
How do you define success in what you do?
I think success takes on many forms. Success takes on the form of pursuing a career in what I enjoy and managing to balance career and family life. But also, within that, having immigrated to the US as a junior in high school, I understand how difficult it is for English Language Learners to acclimate to the new language, new school, and new culture. Therefore, success for me is also being able to reach those students, as well as their teachers to, help make the transition better.
What patterns, routines, or habits do you think advance the likelihood that any given project will be successful and how do you integrate those behaviors into your workflow?
In general, commitment to a project is key; making sure that everyday you do something towards completing that project, no matter how small. I also find that staying organized helps me mentally feel accomplished and makes taking on tasks easier. I have several lists of things-to-do, and a list for my lists of things-to-do!!
On a more personal level, what helps me is taking breaks to play the piano. It helps me unwind and refresh my thought process. I also typically have music playing as I work. Finding a way to unwind and rejuvenate makes a difference in achieving goals.
What does it mean to take a multicultural approach to education and what are some examples of this approach being implemented in our region?
A multicultural scholar, James A Bank, talks about four levels of multicultural education. Multicultural education goes beyond celebrating cultural holidays in a classroom and teaching units that address it, but transforming the entire curriculum to enable students to view content and concepts from different ethnic perspectives and points of view. Even furthermore, to really consider a multicultural approach to education, Bank encourages a decision making and social action approach that allows the students to take action on issues by researching it, addressing it, and voicing their opinions, among other things.
How did you develop your method of integrating the arts, specifically poetry, into the teaching process?
I have always enjoyed writing poetry. I used to write poems in Arabic back home and then, as I became more comfortable with the English language, I started writing in English. As I started my work in the TESOL (Teachers of English to Students of Other Languages) field and became more passionate about it, I decided to combine both passions to benefit the English Language Learners. Poetry is universal and less threatening to language learners, and a big part of teaching language learners is lowering their affective filters so they can be more receptive of the information they are learning.
Jacksonville is extremely diverse culturally. Yet we are also a city that has traditionally existed within our own silos. What do you think are some actions that we as residents of Northeast Florida can take to dismantle those silos and encourage integration and engagement?
One of the first things residents can do to help dismantle those silos is to step out of their comfort zones and learn about other cultures. One simple step to get to know someone from another culture can have a ripple effect. It will encourage other family members, children, neighbors, and co-workers to do the same.
At home, actions, or the lack of, reflect on the children. If children see their parents, for example, not engage or communicate with those from other cultures, they won’t learn to do so themselves and might inadvertently learn to stay away from those who are not like them. It is important to realize that accepting and respecting other cultures does not mean you have to adopt their way of life and that it is ok to learn about others and it's important to keep a mutual respect.
A little understanding goes a long way. One of the things my friends and I love to do, and actually began our year with this year, is having a multicultural progressive dinner. We celebrate each other’s diversity, respect each other, and learn from one another.
You have been involved with Hope at Hand's Jax Poetry Fest since 2016. What has been your takeaway from working with Hope at Hand and how have you seen their poetry festival impact the community?
It was great to work with Hope at Hand and to see all they do in the community. Their mission, which the festival also seeks to accomplish, is reaching at-risk youth by giving them an outlet for healing through creative poetry. I have seen many great poems written by the youth of our community, many stories of healing and growth, and many efforts to collaborate with several organizations within our community, from schools, to shelters, to other non-profits. Hope at Hand is truly using the arts to benefit the youth of our community.
What assumptions did you have when you began your TESOL career and what do you think about those assumptions now as you reflect on your career?
The beginning of my TESOL career started with teaching undergraduate TESOL courses at the University of North Florida. At that time, I was under the assumption that my students will have some cultural knowledge, have experienced different cultures, or have a global perspective. My assumption stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a relatively culturally diverse environment and it has shaped me and how I view things. Looking back at things, I do realize just because my reality looks diverse doesn’t mean everyone else’s is, and sometimes, to no fault of their own, others might not have had the chance to explore a world outside their own. However, I very much enjoy learning about other cultures and exposing others to it as well.
You migrated to the United States with your family in 1993. How would you describe your experience of acclimating to a new region? Additionally, how do you think the arts and cultural activities can help individuals acclimate to a new home and re-establish a sense of community?
I won't lie, it was horrible! I came over as a junior in high school, which in itself, outside of adjusting to a new life, is a difficult time. I remember calculating times so that I can call my friends back home, having experienced many nights of homesickness. The adjustment wasn’t as much with the language as it was with the cultural (school and societal) differences.
The arts and cultural activities can have a tremendous impact on newcomers, or anyone acclimating to a new environment for that matter. Personally, I took to poetry to help me cope with the change and express my feelings. I also believe that providing such activities allows individuals an opportunity to not only express themselves, but to belong to a group and make friends. It exposes the native students to the other cultures and helps bridge that cultural gap that is usually there because of lack of knowledge.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
For starters, I would like to see it incorporated into the schools more rather than eliminating it. In eliminating the arts, and cultural activities, from schools, it is inadvertently teaching the students that they don’t have much value and are not important. Raising a generation that respects the arts and cultural activities will help reshape the future of our community to one that is more open, more tolerant, more welcoming, and more respectful.