English Language Learners: A Teacher’s Reflection

“Monday is a bich,” she had written on her paper, boldly proclaiming what the rest of us refrain from voicing.  It was my first teaching day in The American School Foundation of Chiapas in Chiapas, Mexico.  Unsure of what the curriculum had in store, I gave my new set of students the assignment of writing what they had done during Christmas vacation.  I wasn’t just taken aback by Elisa’s story of vacationing with her family on the coast, but I soon found that I had student who were unable to even label their pictures with words that they knew in English.          

In Northern Virginia my classes were a mix of whom we called “neighborhood children” and “Janna Lee kids.”  Our neighborhood students were mostly upper middle class white boys and girls whose parents worked in Washington D.C.  The other students that filled my classroom with laughter, crying, and liveliness were from subsidized housing found across Route One.  They were American blacks, Africans, and Latinos.  I thought they had prepared me for Mexico.

            When interviewing for my position in Chiapas, the assistant principal hesitantly told me that my students were about a year behind other second graders.  I quickly mentioned that I would be fine—after all, my last year I taught half-day first grade.  She didn’t volunteer much more information other than letting me know that I would have two classes of 25 students 18 of whom were female.  Not a problem.  I had specialized in rambunctious boys at my previous school.  That same week I received my first stamp in my passport as I began my adventure teaching English Language Learners in Southern Mexico.

            To say I was unprepared for teaching ELL students is an understatement.  I quickly saw that I was at a disadvantage.  I needed to get procedures set up in the first couple days, but every time I opened my mouth I received the deer-in-headlights look.  I am as thankful now as I was then that I received Responsive Classroom training, because meeting with the students to say hello, play games, and speak English made a difference.  It was something new and fun—and it was a nice change for them from the rigid classroom of the teacher who came before me. 

            Then it became apparent that I needed to teach some basic rules.  But how do you teach rules to students who don’t understand a word out of your mouth?  My frustration escalated, and if I had been closer to home, I would have quit.  I learned quickly to act out what I wanted, to find picture clues and print out what I needed them to do on large papers, and to shut up.  That was the best lesson of all.  The minute I became too wordy, they were done—transported to another place and time.

            I began to learn Spanish, and that was helpful!  Seeing me take risks without worrying about mispronouncing words allowed them to begin speaking and writing in English.  We covered our walls with the words they needed to write stories.  I kept my bilingual dictionary on hand, and each word went on a poster with a picture beside it.  They were then grouped on the walls—actions in one area, family members in another area, activities we enjoy in yet another part of the classroom. 

            Six months wasn’t long enough to make a huge difference, but it was just long enough to see improvement.  I have videos of boys retelling The Gingerbread Man with finger puppets.  I have the sweetest memories of an autistic student quizzing me on the playground, “Miss, how do you say mariposa in English?”  And most importantly, I have the experience of being in a situation where I understood nothing that was spoken around me while trying to build the necessary knowledge needed to survive at home, to excel at work, and to create relationships that still thrive.  

A Letter to My Baby on Her First Birthday

My Dearest Alita,

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies, my love

I can’t believe it has been a whole year since you brightened up this world!  I’ve spent the last three days looking at photos from your birth and those early days.  You were so small!  I see the look on your Papi’s face in those photos and it brings tears to my eyes.  He was so nervous, little girl, but oh-so-excited for your arrival.  And now, a year later, you are still his whole world.

And the first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hands
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love

Ah! kisses! You make me smile and giggle with glee when you give us kisses, baby.  Those open-mouthed slobbers are the sweetest kisses I’ve ever received.  Daddy asks in Spanish, and you happily oblige him–climbing on his chest, then standing up beside him with pride you clap your hands.  Sometimes you pat my tummy or blow raspberries on it.  How I wish we had more moments like this: laughing and giggling together.  These memories are more precious than all the treasure in the world.

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last till the end of time, my love

When I think of your birth, there are some things I am sure of:  Having you at home was one of the best decisions I’ve made.   That first day was bliss.  I carried you next to my heart with the greatest pride!  God gave you to me–and you grew strong inside of me.  YOU are my greatest accomplishment!  I remember snuggling you, touching your soft skin in wonder, and waiting for you to wake up and need me.  Now you are sleeping soundly in your spot (mostly taking over my side of the bed) with the covers kicked off.  

The first time ever I saw your face…

A year of loving you isn’t enough, my littlest love.  I need a lifetime more.

Your Mami


Hours after birth…

Ale 1

One year older!

World Read Aloud Day


My heart is breaking.  Seriously.  I take so much for granted–like this wonderful world of literacy!  Reading has been an escape for me since I was a little girl.  Writing became my therapy a couple years ago when I felt like the world was crumbling around me.

And now?  Literacy is my future!  It’s what my job is based on, and I’ve already signed a contract as a literacy coach for the next two years.  You could say that I can support my family because I learned to read.   That’s the truth.

But still, my heart is breaking.

My custodian just asked me sheepishly, “Miss, what does this say in English.  I don’t understand.”  He was holding a button that I had made proclaiming March 5th World Read Aloud Day.  I didn’t think anything of it, and I explained in broken Spanish the idea behind World Read Aloud Day.  It’s a day where you read with a loud voice (the actual translation).  Suddenly, a look of near panic crosses his face.  “Us too?” he asked?  I explained that no, we wouldn’t have everyone reading, but that some schools do celebrate like that.  “But, it’s because I can’t read.  I had to quit school when I was eleven,” he continued, “when my father died.”

Hard swallow.

I quickly assured him that I understood how that could happen.  My husband too worked his whole childhood and missed out on a lot of school.  I can help, I explained.  It will be hard.  But I know I can help him learn to read.

Wow.  I think back to the notes that I’ve written, the cards that we’ve signed, and the text that is literally dripping from my classroom walls.  Poems decorate my door, banners fly in the hallway with each writing celebration, and this sweet man who takes care of us everyday just told me his secret.

I know that it is a secret.  That expression on his face?  I know that expression.  I see it daily on the faces of the boys and girls who struggle with reading–Who know that they are struggling.

There are a lot of things I can’t do in this world.  But teach someone to read?  That’s something I can do.  And it all starts with reading aloud.  Reading with a loud voice.  Be loud.  Be proud.  Read someone a book tomorrow–even if that someone is just yourself.