Teaching more than English to English Language Learners

People often ask what it’s like to teach students who don’t speak much English. The first question I get is “Do you speak Spanish?” but that’s the wrong question. I speak the language of teens who’ve just arrived in the U.S.A. and find themselves in a wonderful environment of opportunity and freedom for the first time. In my classroom they learn how to conjugate verbs and use academic language, but they also learn how respect boundaries, think critically and value independent learning. In my classroom I give them just enough leeway to be themselves, and I watch as they become a little more American every week. It is both frustration and privilege.

They come into my classroom wearing a uniform of jeans with strategic tears at the knees, carrying colorful Jansport backpacks, the boys in black hoodies or soccer jerseys in the colors of El Salvador or Barcelona; the girls wear tight pants and tops that bare the midriff, having discarded the outer layer as soon as they stepped off the bus. It’s like emptying a cup of marbles through a funnel into a wine bottle, the way they all jostle noisily through the door, a multicolored striata of Tiger’s Eye and mocha lip gloss, high ponytails and giggles. Some smell of last night’s kitchen, some smell of too much cologne sprayed on after PE class. Why don’t they take showers any more? Sometimes I feel invisible as I stand before them. They are so in tune with each others’ every gesture, every flick of a girl’s hair, every nuance of eye contact and intonation, and way too much touching for an Anglo. I feel a surge of panic at the urgency of their physicality – hugging, breathing too close, tapping, elbowing, pressing against, jostling, fake fighting, a burst of Spanish curse words,  acne, chewing gum, shampoo, unwashed t-shirt, illicit baseball cap that gets lifted off one boy’s head and passed from gel top to gel top, a bottle of water and a half-eaten ice cream sandwich passes between two girls, licking fingers, chocolate dropped on the floor. The transition music playing through the intercom stops and the bell rings but nobody is sitting down with the book open to page 54 and Luis Chavez is still roaming the back row conversing loudly with with Jose and Karen asks if she can close the windows, bless her heart, she’s wearing a tank top and it’s 20 degrees outside.

I’m patient as they open their books. I teach them how to turn a page without ripping it. How many had consistent schooling in Central America? I teach them the past tense of irregular verbs. How many knew both parents before they came to Maryland? Knew and came. I teach them questions. Why didn’t you eat breakfast? Didn’t eat. I teach them negatives. Please don’t share your answers. I laugh at their little sotto voce jokes in Spanish. English please. I point to the prompt that says On Your Own. Independence is such an American concept. It will come.

I’m not in a hurry. When I was a child, my family moved from Louisiana to upstate New York and then to West Virginia. I had to learn new social rules and a new way of talking each time. And I’m fluent in English. It takes years to get used to a new culture and a new language. Today we’re one step closer. I repeat the pertinent morning announcements for them, slowly and with visuals. I use realia to get them more involved in school activities – like holding up the purple bow for the PTSA Gift Wrap project. Now they get it. Some stay after class and ask who and where and when. For one more day, I’ve given students a safe environment where they can take risks, make mistakes and pick themselves back up to start all over again. I have one of the most important jobs in the country. I’m shaping the next generation of Americans.

 

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evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan is a U.S. State Department English Language Fellow for 2017-2018. The opinions expressed here are entirely her own, and not a reflection of the U.S. Government. Eva is on leave of absence from Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland, where she teaches English as a Second Language. She is writing a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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