“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.