I was an English Language Learner (ELL) when my family moved to the United States when I was six years old. I had English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers that I worked with for years, and to this day I am thankful for what they did for me. I would not have been able to complete school or college without the foundations of the English language that they gave me.
When one of my former teachers learned that I was studying linguistics in college, she gifted me her old linguistics textbook. It is one of the few books that I make sure to take with me when I move from one place to the other. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to be the coordinator for Al-Bustan’s ELL Arts Enrichment Summer Program held at Lea School. However, while I knew the difficulties of being an ELL, I did not know how hard it was to be on the other side, as the teacher trying to communicate with the students.
Trying to teach students when they do not understand your instructions is a demanding task. You have to make sure you utilize visuals, peer learning, and demonstrations every day and every second of your class. Students that were having difficulty with things that involved any talking, such as in Drama, found a quiet safe haven in classes like Art where they did not need to communicate using English. They could express themselves through the art that they were making.
Our Drama teacher gave them opportunities for storytelling in their own language and had several people be key translators but the task of having to speak in a classroom in a language you are not proficient in proved to be very daunting for the students. I was scared of public speaking for years because I was worried about my English skills when I was in school. Because of our Percussion teacher’s use of demonstrations on his tablah and his knowledge of Spanish, that class became a favorite for the students. It became very clear that although the cultural programming was supposed to be a respite from their morning classes of English and Math, the language portion in the classroom still proved to be very difficult.
On the last day, I had the opportunity to sit down with the students and ask them for evaluations of the program and their experiences in the United States. It was the first time I had them in a classroom by myself and could see them in smaller groups. I had a self-appointed Spanish translator and a Mandarin translator. I witnessed students helping each other translate, write, and spell without me urging for them to do so. I wanted to know how they actually felt and it was amazing to see how articulate and poignant their comments were. I could see how much they craved expressing themselves and being heard. They all expressed wanting to learn another language, including English, and how that is one of the biggest obstacles for them in transitioning to a new country. They conveyed the hindrances in their life and the hope they had so well that it took me back to when I first moved to the US. I had forgotten how far I had come.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to be with the students that reminded me so much of myself, seeing their struggles, and seeing the struggles of teachers and programs that want nothing but the best for these students. It was a perspective I sorely needed to see how far I have come, acknowledge the people that helped me, and to inform my decisions on how to help ELLs in the future.
Coordinator of ELL Program