New teacher diaries

Learning new language, keeping their culture

BiBi is one of my favorite students this school year. She is polite and respectful. She tries her best with her schoolwork. And she gives me hugs every day. Her hugs to me mean that she is happy at school and when she is with me during small group instruction.

BiBi, a 5th-grader, was not always this way. When we first met in September 2016, she was an entry-level English language learner and I was a new English as a new language teacher. She was reluctant to learn, to speak a word of English or even to go over the English alphabet. She wanted to hold on to her home language. I totally understand this. Why should a child be stripped of her identity just because she is in another country?

It must be scary for a newcomer who doesn’t know the language to enter a big new school building and be surrounded by new faces and voices. It is important that we help newly immigrated children make a smooth transition into their new environment.

During small group instruction that fall, there were times when I would see my new ENL students unhappy. Many of them opened up to me about being upset because they miss their home country. Some of my students’ parents are back in their home country, and they do not know when they will see mom, dad or a family member again.

One of my kids from the Dominican Republic missed home constantly. I brought in books from the Dominican Republic and based lessons around his country. I even gave him candy from the Dominican Republic. He was ecstatic, and it made him more comfortable with his new environment.

This experience helped me learn that my goal as an ENL teacher is not only to help my students become more proficient in the English language but to also help them stay connected to their native language, culture and identity. I’ve started bringing in pictures related to my students’ home countries and creating reading and writing assignments with those connections.

This spring, when I administered the NYSESLAT test to my students, I noticed something different with BiBi. She was not afraid of the test. She had even learned to write her full name on the front cover. She opened up the test booklet, and my heart was delighted to see her actually reading with deep focus and annotating in the margins. I praised her and let her know how proud I was of her. She looked up at me with her bright eyes and smiled.

As we approach the end of the school year, my little BiBi is not as shy and reluctant to learn the English language. She is more interested in reading and requests books from the ENL library. I will miss her when she leaves me this year for middle school. But I will continue to make sure my ENL students know they can acquire a second language while staying connected to their own cultural identity.

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