Thursday, September 29, 2011

Communication Breakdown

Let's start today's entry with a story. We'll hop into the Way Back Machine and head all the way back to 2001. Imagine Mel, just a few days into her brand new teaching career. I had just finished a scintillating lesson on sentence structure or something (talk about a glutton for punishment -- starting my teaching career trying to teach freshmen how to write!!). The class period came to an end and two of my students approached me. At this point, I really didn't know the names of a lot of my students because I'd only known them a few days. This was before computer attendance programs that included student pictures, so I knew the names of students in my classes -- I just couldn't match names to faces yet. Very shyly, the young woman (we'll call her Sofia) informs me that she doesn't speak English very well and that the young man standing beside her (we'll call him Jose) speaks next to no English and has only been in the United States for a couple weeks.

I was completely floored. All of my college education had somehow failed to prepare me for a moment like that. Every single education class I took carried with it the assumption that my students would at least be able to speak the language in which I was teaching. I was filled with regret at deciding my freshman year of college to drop Spanish 101 and stick with the French that had gotten me through college ( a decision made after my Spanish professor informed me that I was speaking Spanish with a French accent -- if you can't beat it, re-join it!) ... and at the subsequent decision to stop my French education as soon as I fulfilled the college's minimum foreign language requirement. How in the heck was I supposed to help these kids? At the time, our school had nothing in the way of ESL services, and many of us were wading into uncharted waters to help our growing Hispanic population. Looking back now, I know that I probably failed Sofia and Jose. I did the best I could with my limited experience, but I also feel fairly certain that they left my class without a lot of improvement in their English skills. Yes, I gave them some modified assignments, but I could have given them more individual attention, given them some alternate readings ... all things that seemed completely overwhelming for a first year teacher who already felt like she was struggling to keep her head above water.

Over the past eleven years, I have had many students like Sofia and Jose walk through my classroom doors, and I've slowly but surely found ways to help them. Some have a stronger grasp of English than Sofia and Jose. There have been several that I have been shocked to discover had only been in the States a brief time. My school district, too, has also become more adept at addressing the needs of these students, setting up stronger ESL programs and services that give the kids a stronger sense of ownership and confidence. I've also seen kids blossom -- that shy little freshman who did not speak a word the entire year I had him in English I becomes the sassy senior who will not stop talking the entire year he spends in my junior/senior-level English Fundamentals class. That success, though, has often occured outside of my "realm." I am an outsider to their success in ESL classes, success that then transfers into their other classes.

Last year, a new population began to emerge at our school. About midway through the school year, two Burmese refugees (a brother and sister) joined our population. Ko was put into my English Fundamentals class, and I am embarrassed to say it was a bit of a disaster. He was placed in a class that was pretty high maintenance already, and I struggled to give Ko the attention I think he needed. At the end of the semester, it was decided to move him into a lower level English class with his sister Mya. I struggled the rest of the year with the guilt that I had essentially given up on Ko to make life easier for me. I sucked.

Jump to the start of this school year, and our Burmese population has roughly tripled. Instead of just Ko and Mya, we now have four more students who have found there way here. Three of them were placed, along with Ko's sister Mya, into an English I teacher with a brand new teacher (who just got her job about two weeks before school started -- a gig that includes teaching our intensive senior-level writing class). Almost immediately, their teacher realized that our first unit, reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was going to be nearly impossible for them, particularly since Alexie writes in a very informal, colloquial style that is loaded with terms and phrases that are literally completely foreign to these kids. An alternate text was selected, and the students were pulled out of their English I class to work individually with my student teacher, who was not taking over teaching my English I class that meets the same hour until we were done reading the novel. We then agreed that I would step in and work individually with the kids while my student teacher was teaching. What happens when my student teacher leaves? Well, we decided, we would cross that bridge when we came to it.

Our novel unit came to an end, and suddenly, there I was sitting at a table with these four kids whose grasp of English ranges from relatively strong to what education folks might call "emerging." It's a challenge -- no doubt. It really makes you marvel at how much we actually accumulate in our language and how much we take for granted. Every day, I have a moment where I am amazed at what they know and what they don't know. I've also gotten to know these kids as more than just students. The first assignment we really worked on together was a descriptive essay for class, essays that became tales of their journeys from Myanmar to the United States, stories filled with being shuffled all over Asia, being arrested, being beaten, being placed in camps until the United Nations came in and helped them find new homes. I'm sure there is even more to their stories that they can't tell me because of the language barriers that exist between us -- and that I probably do not want to know anyway. The resounding theme in these essays, though, is how happy they are to be in this country and how grateful they are for the opportunities being here affords them. It always sort of stuns me how much of our 45 minutes or so together is spent giggling. After all that these kids have gone through in their comparatively short lives, they still are filled with tremendous humor and joy. It kind of makes all those reasons we want to scream "FML" seem pretty trivial when you see the sparkle in eyes that have seen so much suffering.

After one of our sessions together, I went to our school counselor and made a request that would have stunned first-year teacher Mel ten years ago. I asked if my four new friends could be moved to my section of English I. I realized that, when my student teacher's time in my classroom came to an end, I was really going to miss these four kids. Ten years in, I know I'm ready to be the teacher that they need, the teacher I wasn't able to be for Sofia and Jose.


NICKI said...

Good luck, Mel. This can't be easy, but learning English will open a lot of doors for these kids!

Danielle Mari said...

You did not fail and you do not suck. If their skills are emerging, then so are ours as teachers. It's such a rough row to hoe and please know you're doing an amazing job. And... *O* *M* *G* have you seen God Grew Tired of Us yet? If so, we must talk about it. If not, grab some tissues and stream it.

You're an amazing gift to those kids, girl. Don't doubt it. You CARE. That makes up for any shortcomings.