The Bosnian war that started in 1992 left Nermin Vehabovic and his family refugees. He was 6 when his family moved from Bosnia and Herzegovina to escape the violence. They went to Germany and eventually the United States, where Vehabovic had to learn to fit in — a challenge for a sensitive and inquisitive 12-year-old who had rich life experiences but only spoke a few phrases in English.

“There was this unspoken narrative that centered around learning English and forgetting the heritage language, culture and life experiences that had shaped me,” says Vehabovic, an assistant professor of education.

Those experiences now inform his teaching and research as he prepares students to educate culturally and linguistically diverse learners. They inspire his innovative teaching approaches and fuel his passion to impact the in- and out-of-school experiences of children with immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

Using children’s literature to engage in meaningful conversations — which Vehabovic refers to as interactive read-aloud sessions — Elon teacher candidates in his Adolescent Literacies course get an opportunity to work firsthand with multilingual children who recently moved to the United States.

This innovative approach to teaching ties directly to Elon’s commitment to experiential learning and gives Elon Education teacher candidates access to high-impact experiences.

Traditionally, the approach for working with refugee children is rooted in the idea that there is a language deficit and they, their families and their communities are broken in some way. Vehabovic works to debunk that narrative with an approach that includes “learning with and from” these children and families.

This past fall, the teacher candidates in the course met with seven children from a refugee family from Afghanistan. They read a picture book together in the family’s apartment in Burlington, North Carolina. Since most of the children were still learning English, the pictures were used as conversation starters, so the children could share their culture and experiences.

“This innovative approach to teaching ties directly to Elon’s commitment to experiential learning and gives Elon Education teacher candidates access to high-impact experiences,” he says. “They gain deep understanding of their responsibility to equitably support all K-12 students, including multilingual students with immigrant and refugee backgrounds.”

In his Children’s Literature course, teacher candidates also work with refugees, but from afar. They record interactive read-alouds for families in Durham, North Carolina. Vehabovic believes there is value for all participants in this approach to teaching.

“A strategy that works effectively with multilingual students can benefit students who are not multilingual,” he says. “If you’re in a bilingual or English-dominant classroom, all students benefit when there are strategies around using languages in playful and innovative ways.”

Whether it’s recording read-alouds, providing tools to educators working with multilingual families or sitting on the floor with children from Afghanistan, it’s all about creating equity and emphasizing love.

“I draw on Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz’s notion of ‘critical love,’ which is about caring deeply for the communities and people that we serve,” Vehabovic says. “That’s what I hope the Elon Education teacher candidates will get from this experience — care, love and empathy for the students that they serve.”