Teaching New American Students

As you may know from my previous blogs, I have taught English as a Second Language to immigrant and refugee students at Apollo High School for the last nine years. I originally taught in a program called Jumpstart, which was so named to give New to Country students just that – a jumpstart in their English learning. When I first started teaching at Apollo, in 2008, I had little idea that within nine years, I would have worked with over 400 students who would come to call Minnesota and Room 510 at Apollo their home.

It has been a beautiful, messy journey as I have figured out what works well (and what does not!) and have struggled and shaped my classroom and my teaching methods around the lives and minds of teens who are recent arrivals in America. The majority of my students were born in refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia, a part of the Somali diaspora that fled Somalia due to the civil war that has carried on there since 1991. Many of them have lived in refugee camps for their entire lives until their arrival here in Minnesota. As a result, through no fault of their own, some have had little-to-no formal education. Others have endured interruptions to their education due to various circumstances. Their hunger for learning is often insatiable.

They walk into my classroom, often for the first time having the opportunity to sit at a desk with their own chair and their own backpack, notebooks and pencils at the ready. It is a deep privilege to witness such transitions, and with great care and love, I work to provide these children with the tools that they need to be successful in their steps toward independence. I enjoy learning from my students, who, with their wisdom, curiosity and immense love for education, teach me how to teach and how to walk alongside them as they share their stories, their struggles, and, most importantly, their dreams for their bright futures.

People frequently ask me, “How do you do it? Do you speak Somali (or Vietnamese or French or whatever language)? I can’t imagine it. It must be so hard.” I do speak passable French, but I do not speak Somali, the language of the great majority of my students. I admit that, some days, it is difficult. However, the children come with such a desire to learn that they are willing to try their best to succeed and excel in their studies. This determination helps me, and them, to overcome the obstacles that they face as new readers and writers. Inevitably, a few of the children in my class know enough English to bridge the gap for those who need interpretation or assistance, and, during my years working with the new-to-country students (those here for less than a year), I often have a Somali paraprofessional who comes alongside and assists with the language barrier issues as necessary.

I continue to work with immigrant and refugee children who have been in the U.S. for a year or so. I use a lot of photographs in my teaching (Google Images is my best friend in the classroom, along with my cup of tea), and I work for two hours each day on the integral skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. My students have a great desire to learn English. I cannot imagine that someone would say that they do not wish to do so. If I could wave a magic wand over them that would allow them to instantly become fluent, it would be a moment of immense and unspeakable joy! Since that is not possible, my students and I work diligently to master our goals and continue moving ahead each day with love for one another and an immense love for learning.