In the Classroom

The first thing schools often get wrong for English language learners is their names

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with Ngae Reh, 6, at the BCCE after-school learning time at Nora Elementary School in Indianapolis.

Easter Day, a North Central High School sophomore, was named after the religious holiday.

But when she first arrived from a Thailand refugee camp about 10 years ago, the Burmese student’s name was mistakenly recorded as “Ea Star Di” — a mistake that has stuck with her all throughout her school career.

Day said the mistake essentially has made Ea Star Di her official American name. It’s a surprisingly common error and an example of the confusion and chaos that most English language learners experience during their transitions to living in United States.

“I was nervous, confused, and I didn’t know what was going on,” Easter Day said of her first few weeks at Nora Elementary School.

Such errors also show the troubling level of cultural misunderstanding that immigrant students face at school. Would an American-born student’s name remain that badly jumbled for a decade? Almost certainly not.

Experts who work with Indiana’s growing population of English language learners say that taking the seemingly simple step of learning the correct spelling and pronunciation of students’ names is critical to helping them adapt to what is often a drastically different environment from what they knew in their home countries.

“Your name is your identity,” said Jessica Feeser, who directs the English language learners program at Indianapolis Public Schools. “It’s how you relate to yourself. The easiest thing you can do to build relationships with your students is just to pronounce their name accurately and correctly. We cannot underestimate the importance that acculturation has in a child’s success in school.”

Neineh Plo, who helps lead the Burmese Community Center for Education on the city’s North side, said most of his students’ names were misspelled in the process of coming to the U.S.

Since Burmese families don’t use last names, and because there’s often no easy or obvious English translation, mistakes are common during the resettlement process. Sometimes they’re further confounded by typos and confusion at the school and district level.

New residents often don’t go through the hassle of changing the spelling because of the work that goes along with jumping through bureaucratic hoops, Plo said. He said many people straighten out their names when they apply for citizenship years later.

“There have been families who are reluctant to correct their names because they did not want to have to deal with the consequences, like updating your birth certificate, telling the school or hospital,” Plo said, “so they just live with their own wrong names.”

Plo said what worries him is when teachers don’t ask their students about their real names and their meanings. After being called the wrong name for years, students start to lose a connection with the names they were given at birth.

“Because there’s no conversation about names, Burmese children do not get to talk about their name and explore the language,” Plo said. “Students just forget their own names. It hurts their confidence.”

The Indiana Department of Education trains teachers to help new students manage the change that comes with learning in a very different place, said Rachel Davidson, the department’s English learner and migrant education coordinator. Getting names right is part of that.

“We always start by emphasizing the importance of understanding where the student comes from and their cultural background,” Davidson said. “We talk about honoring the native language.”

Trish Morita-Mullaney, who is president of Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said the common mishaps with English learners’ names represent a larger problem: We aren’t accepting as we could be to immigrants.

“We adapt to the dominant audience, but in that, what we are giving up?  What is being evacuated from our identify?” Morita-Mullaney said. “My name is my history and my legacy. It’s important that people get it right.”

Miriam Soto Pressley, who is an elementary school teacher in Hammond and sits on the American Federation of Teachers’ national advisory board on English language learners, said teachers should make a point to have a conversation with the student if they notice a student being called by a nickname or Americanized version of their name.

Soto Pressley said she once had a new student named Jorge come into her class mid-year, and noticed that his classmates started calling him George. After talking to Jorge’s mother, she decided to bring it up with the whole class and turn it into a lesson about respecting other cultures.

“We had a long conversation in my class with all the other children,” Soto Pressley said. “We all had a talk about proper names and what it meant to be given a name at birth and what the outcome was as far as how they felt, the respect issue.”

A few days later, his friends started calling him Jorge again.

“A name can do a lot,” Soto Pressley said. “A name can make you or a name can break you.”

Transition plan

Two state-run schools sharing a Memphis building will now share a principal, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A moving van sits outside of Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School. The state-run school relocated to a different ASD school because of roof damage, and the two schools will now share a principal.

When a state-run school had to relocate at the beginning of the school year because of a leaky roof, officials with the Achievement School District hoped students would soon be back.

That’s not going to happen, though. Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School will stay at its temporary home at nearby Frayser Achievement Elementary through the school year. And besides sharing a building, they will share a principal.

ASD officials announced this week that Yolanda Dandridge will take the lead of Frayser Elementary, in addition to her role as principal at Georgian Hills.

Verna Ruffin, chief of academics for the ASD, said the decision was made after Jessica Tang resigned as principal of Frayser Elementary. Assistant principals at both schools will now report to Dandridge.

Georgian Hills relocated to Frayser Elementary, two miles away, in August. Ruffin said the goal is still for Georgian Hills’ 258 students to move back into their original building after the school year ends and the building is fully repaired. At that point, the ASD either will promote the assistant principal already serving at the 207-student Frayser or bring in a new leader.

Georgian Hills, under Dandridge’s leadership, recently came off of Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing “priority schools.” That success was a deciding factor, Ruffin said, in asking Dandridge to take responsibility temporarily for both schools.

“This is not how we originally planned it, of course, but it’s an example of taking something that could be a big challenge, putting our heads together, and creating a plan that benefits two schools,” Ruffin said. “Frayser teachers will get to collaborate with an outstanding principal.”

Both schools, like most in the ASD, have struggled with enrollment. Early this school year, the student count at Georgian Hills was down by 20 percent and Frayser’s had fallen 30 percent.

But Ruffin said there have since been enrollment gains and that, in the case of Georgian Hills, a dip was expected with an abrupt change in location.

“It’s a matter of adjusting to put two schools in one location,” she said. “The opportunity to unify around one school leader in the building will hopefully make it a smoother rest of the year for everyone.”

How I Teach

‘All our dreams are on his shoulders.’ The stories that motivate a bilingual teacher

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

It had been a tiring day of parent-teacher conferences for Amanda Duncan, a sixth-grade dual language literacy teacher at Foster Elementary in Arvada. Then the last family of the evening snapped things back into perspective.

The mother had walked two miles through the snow with her sixth-grade son, pushing the baby in a stroller. She told Duncan that she and her husband hadn’t been able to pursue their education, but wanted something different for their son.

“Will you make sure he stays successful?” the mother asked Duncan. “All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

Duncan, who was named the 2017 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, talked to Chalkbeat about why that conversation was a valuable reminder about the role teachers play in shaping the future.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amanda Duncan

Why did you become a teacher?
I really didn’t set out to become a teacher. I was always interested in other cultures and languages, and in college I considered majoring in anthropology, then public health. Finally, I settled on Latin American Studies. During my last semester, we had to write a mini-thesis about any topic that interested us, and I chose bilingual education — a controversial political topic at that time (still is!).

After graduating, I began working in a middle school English as a Second Language classroom as a paraprofessional, and realized that it felt right being in a school in a diverse setting. I enrolled in a one-year program to get a teaching license and haven’t looked back. I love how teaching makes you an integral part of the community. It allows you to create change in the world by helping students realize how valuable and unique they are.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom has charts made by the students or me in English and Spanish. There is a lot of intentional use of color to denote important language frames or highlight vocabulary. Since everyone in the room is a second language-learner at some point during the day, I try to provide lots of visual support both with pictures and key words so they have something to latch on to if they are unsure of some word meanings.

For years I was always saying, “It’s Spanish time, I don’t want to hear English right now!” But over time, I had to accept that there is no way to turn off the other language in your brain. So as long as we are using one language as a springboard for understanding or creating in the other, I find value in letting kids use both languages at the same time. It is a natural thing our brains do anyway!

It is a fine line, though. Since we are an immersion program, it is vital that we really hold students to a high standard of production in their second language. But each child builds their second language differently, just like any type of learning. Some need to rely more heavily on their first language to avoid being overwhelmed by the second language. Others are very bilingual already and need to be reminded to continually use Spanish in an academic setting. Even the youngest students know that English is the language of power, and it can easily dominate even in a Spanish immersion classroom. The teachers at my school work tirelessly to constantly lift up the value and beauty of Spanish, so that students will undertake the extra effort of learning through two languages.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Hahaha! No, but really, the students are what keep me coming back day after day. Even after 20 years of working with children, they continue to surprise me with their creativity and initiative. I am constantly inspired by the stories they and their families share with me, their daily struggles and perseverance.

At times I feel exhausted by this job, but then I think of how hard many of our families work and the obstacles they are facing, and I am humbled. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to give our students the best preparation possible so they can be successful in this country. Our community is counting on us and we cannot let them down.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite units to teach is the personal narrative. I love helping students see that their regular lives contain incredible stories. Sometimes they are heartbreakingly sad. Other times they are ridiculously funny. I love helping them learn techniques to take a seemingly regular moment and create a terrific piece of writing. We do this by studying mentor texts (including those by former students) and I demonstrate my own thinking as I write my own story in front of them. I also incorporate drama into the writing process. and we have learned techniques to help students really immerse themselves in their memories. It is powerful to watch students create a “freeze” of their memory — making themselves into a statue that shows the feelings and the moment — then write. They also interview each other to dig even deeper into that moment in time. Their writing improves exponentially and they are so proud of the results.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand, I first have to figure out why. Were they listening? Is there a misconception? Was my lesson confusing? Did it not meet their learning style? Are they distracted by other things going on in their life? My response depends on what the root cause is for not understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Any time a teacher redirects a class or a student, it’s a million times more powerful if she gives the reason why they are being redirected. For example, “Table 3, please focus your talk on the lesson. If you talk about other things right now, you will lose your train of thought about the lesson and you won’t produce your best quality of work when it’s time to write.” or “So-and-so, if you are talking while I am giving directions you will not know what to do, and if you don’t know what to do you will not learn this critical skill that will help you be successful in middle school and beyond.” Kids need to know that the rules are not about the teacher having control. Rules are there to protect and enhance the learning environment for everyone’s benefit.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think the first step to building relationships with your students is having a genuine curiosity for who each one really is. You need to laugh at the annoying traits that kids exhibit at different stages of life, maybe roll your eyes about it with colleagues later, but also just enjoy watching the kids figure out who they are and who they want to be. My favorite strategy is paraphrasing what students say. It’s helpful when they are upset, or when the problem they are having is confusing or convoluted (No! Not in 6th grade!). It lets students know you “get them”. I also think it’s super helpful to tell them about a time you struggled with a similar issue, and explain how you learned to deal with it. It helps them feel connected. And if you haven’t experienced something like they have, just really saying with your whole heart, “Wow, that sounds so hard to deal with. I am not even sure what to say, but know that I am with you and I am thinking good thoughts for you.” It helps kids feel less alone.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One story that sticks with me is from a couple of years ago. It was the second night of parent teacher conferences, near the end of the evening. I was tired, feeling good because conferences had gone well, but also feeling overworked and exhausted. It’s easy to feel a little sorry for yourself.

It was a February evening in Colorado, so it was very cold and snowy. I just wanted to be home and curl up on the couch with my family. I peeked into the hall to see if my 7:30 p.m. appointment had arrived, and there was my student Oscar with his mom and his baby sister in the stroller. Their cheeks were rosy-pink and they were unwrapping themselves from their many jackets. They had walked to conferences from their home about two miles away in snowy 20 degree weather.

Oscar’s mom and I introduced ourselves, and she apologized for missing the fall conference, but that was right when her daughter was born.

“Ms. Amanda,” she began in Spanish, “I just want to know if Oscar is doing well in school. Is he respectful to you and his classmates? Does he work hard?” I assured her that Oscar was a model student. “You see, Ms. Amanda, Oscar is the hope of our family. My husband and I weren’t able to study as much as we would have liked to. And now, we work so hard. I work all day and my husband cares for the baby, then I come home and he takes our one car to work at night. But we want a different life for Oscar. Will you make sure he stays successful? All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

This particular story sticks with me because of the cold night, because of the baby, and because I was feeling sorry for myself right before this conversation. But we all hear stories like this all the time. They remind us that we hold in our hands the future of many families, generations even. We cannot let our community down.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom was also a teacher and she always reminds me to take time for myself and my family. There is always more that you can do as a teacher. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to make every single lesson perfect. You need to say, “That is enough for today,” and let it go. Guess what? The sun will come up tomorrow and your students will still learn plenty. Especially if you are able to come back fresh and be willing to give your heart to them.