A City Education: How Do You Help Students Who Are Still Learning English?

Posted by Angele Maraj

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Through A City Education, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

Walking into a new school for the first time is a challenging experience for most students, but when you don't speak English, it’s even more difficult. I'm seeing this first-hand while serving as a City Year corps member at John Ericsson Middle School in Brooklyn.

I'm placed as a mentor and tutor with an eighth grade class that has quite a few English Language Learners. For these students that means English is not their first language, and a few of them have little to no understanding of it. This can make staying on track in school a very difficult task.

I interacted with many ELLs growing up in Florida and as a student-teacher. What sets this experience apart is the diversity in the first languages spoken in a single classroom. I have students who speak different dialects of Spanish and other students who speak Arabic. I can't imagine how confused and possibly scared I'd be in a classroom when new information is being delivered entirely in English across several subjects every day.

What's made empathizing with these kids easy is that walking into a new school has been intimidating for me, too. On the first day, my journey through the hallways gave me flashbacks to my own middle school experience. I looked around at the young, unfamiliar faces and, like the students, I eyed my schedule in confusion. Throughout the day I struggled to remember where classrooms were, became frequently overwhelmed by the level of noise in the cafeteria, and messed up student and teacher names more times than I could count. I could see everything through the eyes of a terrified 11-year-old—the only difference was that I'm a recent college graduate, I'm a few inches taller, and I have a bit more wisdom under my belt.

Still, even though my nervousness provided a great way to relate to the students, the fact remains that I have a barely passable understanding of Spanish. I don't speak or understand any Arabic. How was I going to be able to help my students?

The first breakthrough in helping me to answer this question arrived on my third day at the school and my first day providing full classroom support. Throughout the day, I observed and assisted all of the students at one time or another, but I worked especially closely with a young lady who we'll call "Martha."

Martha is lively and social with her classmates during lunch and was immediately friendly toward me, but it was easy to see how quickly she became disengaged within the classroom. I quickly observed that she struggles with both written and spoken English and communicates more comfortably in Spanish. She seemed to appreciate my presence but often became frustrated with her inability to articulate her thoughts to me or to her teachers. This frustration would cause her to shut down, become very shy, and have a hard time asking or answering a question.

In every class, as I would try to explain a concept to her in an understandable way, I would inevitably hear from fellow students, "Oh, she doesn't speak English." But I pressed on, determined not to become discouraged.

In my last class of the day, something changed. We were in English class and the students were reviewing different types of United States Courts. During the class discussion, the teacher called on Martha and asked her what types of cases an Appellate Court takes. I saw the panic register on her face almost immediately—I was just as panicked when she was called upon, but I walked over and knelt down next to her desk.

"Hey. You can do this. We talked about this just now, remember? It's in the word," I said. She scrunched up her face in concentration, and just when I thought the teacher was going to call on someone else, Martha spoke up.

"Appeals," she said clearly.

I cannot express to you the wonderful feeling I had as I watched her beam proudly and receive encouragement from her classmates, who were clearly surprised to even hear her speak.

Although I'm only two weeks into my in-school service, I know that not every day will be easy and not every day will have a breakthrough like this one. But I did learn my first practical and important lesson that day: even when everything seems impossible, always believe in your students. It'll take time for Martha to learn more English, and for that to translate into academic achievement. But being confident in her and boosting her confidence is the first step.

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Photo courtesy of City Year New York