Afuera de la idioma: Thinking like an ELL

Boyfriend and I are in Oaxaca right now. It is our first ever time visiting Mexico, and we’ll be here for one week, then off to Mazatlán for another week. Life right now is a lot of sleeping until noon, wandering mercados, marveling at how rich we are in pesos, and eating everything (except the chapulines – I’m way too chicken for that). And of course, amid all this relaxation and the excitement of being somewhere new and different and really not at all like New York City, as we sit in the zócalo watching men shoot fireworks off of their heads, as I lounge in the courtyard of our gorgeous hotel under a tree that bears fruit like miniature mangoes, as I find myself so far from my regular life and contemplate walking down the road to get a manicura at the Todas de Uñas salon, I’m thinking about teaching.

In September, I’ll be teaching at an international school for the first time. In New York, international schools are schools that teach English Language Learners (ELLs), and while I will be working with 11th graders, almost all of my students will have started at the school with no more than four years of experience living and attending school in the US. The idea of teaching at this school and working with a population like this is ridiculously exciting – I have never worked with so large a group of ELLs and I cannot wait to learn from my students about language development and acquisition, about emergent bi- and multilingualism. The prospect is also terrifying. I am worried – and it is a constant undercurrent of anxiety – about not being a good enough teacher for this group. Colleagues and friends keep reassuring me that I’ll be great, because I am dedicated and thoughtful, because I’ve worked with struggling readers and writers, and because I bother to worry about whether or not I’ll be good enough. So I spent the lead-up to this long vacation planning and reading and making lists and searching the depressing Education shelves of NYC Barnes & Nobles for a trace of Danling Fu (to no avail).

From the US side of this trip, two weeks seemed like it would offer plenty of time to sneak in some reading and planning in order to prepare for September. But here, making our way through Oaxaca on only my mediocre Spanish and the (unending) kindness of strangers, this is the learning experience. This is the professional development.

I said to boyfriend – or I guess he should be novio here. I said to novio, that every teacher could benefit from the experience of being outside of one’s home language, of trying to communicate on only a handful of words. Schools (and policy and testing and the Daily News) expect miracles of students and teachers – jumping multiple math or reading levels in a year, passing arbitrary and artificial high-stakes tests that are kept secret, so that test prep cannot be relevant and useful. It’s worse for ELLs, who come to US public schools from very different systems. Many students have not had steady enrollment in their home countries, and, along with an interrupted education, a language barrier, a slew of new social norms and kid politics, they are expected to demonstrate proficiency and master English. I don’t think we appreciate how daunting a task we have set for these students. I don’t think many people can. And it is so easy, with the one million other things teachers are thinking and worrying about, to get frustrated that one’s ELL students are still mixing up these two words, or are nodding to say they understand when they clearly do not get it, or are always a step behind, whispering to a classmate during the lesson.

I can’t remember the past tense of most Spanish verbs. It’s driving me a little crazy, because I know it’s in there somewhere, hiding in my memory. But I can’t get at it. I’ve got past tense ir down, but dormir? Estar? Ver? Don’t worry, I’ve got Google. But I don’t break it out on the street when I’m approaching, or in the midst of, an interaction with a patient and friendly Oaxaqueño. Instead, as I frantically  plan my next sentence in my head and I realize that I can’t say “were” or “saw,” anxiety overwhelms me, and I find myself searching for some way out of this conversation. “Quick!” I think. “Before they know!”

Last night, I asked for a daiquiri sin sabor, and after smiling and nodding as the waitress talked, and agreeing to en las rocas, I ended up with a glass of rum and ice. It sat on the table for a few minutes while I worked out how to ask for a swap. And I haven’t yet worked up the courage to get that manicura.

It’s easier now, a few days in. Things are coming back to me, some things I’m just picking up. I’m not as concerned with seeming stupid, because everyone is really so nice. But our first few days here, the anxiety of not being able to communicate (correctly, proficiently) had me on edge. The idea of asking a question was terrifying, because I probably wouldn’t be able to understand a good portion of the answer. And what would people think of my baby talk – We go to Pochote Market? You know? And I’m on vacation. This is two weeks of my life, with the lowest stakes. What do I have to lose for trying? A nail color that clashes with my skin tone? A drink I didn’t order? Maybe I end up eating some grasshoppers. For my ELL students, this is every day, and it’s so much more – it’s the way people will regard them, and the way they will feel about themselves, and the pressure of being successful and making their families proud.

So as I think about next year, working with 100% ELLs, I think about how to share this story. I don’t know if we acknowledge how scary and overwhelming a new language can be. I know I haven’t made enough of a point of that in the past. I like to start the year with memoir, with writing about ourselves and our lives, and I think we will all have some interesting language stories to share. I’m collecting mine right now.

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2 thoughts on “Afuera de la idioma: Thinking like an ELL

  1. I know I am about a month late, but wanted to leave a comment! Hope you are enjoying teaching your ELLs! I love teaching mine! All the best for you this school year! How did your memoir writing go?

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