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Published in Print: January 1, 2003, as Accidental Tourist

Accidental Tourist

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An ESL teacher unwittingly inspires her kids to talk about their home countries.

I am a school counselor, but for 10 years I taught a high school Fundamentals of English class designed for juniors and seniors who needed special accommodations— individualized instruction, time for reading aloud, a pace that’s slower than the norm. About half were learning English as a second language. Some of these students spoke Bosnian, Laotian, Russian, or Vietnamese, but the majority came from homes where Spanish was the mother tongue. After teaching the class for more than six years, I decided to study Spanish for my own enrichment. At the time, though, I had no idea how great an influence that personal decision would have on my teaching.

To begin, I borrowed a Spanish 101 book from a colleague, bought some tapes, and set out a daily schedule. After a few weeks, I was able to read simple phrases. The local library had a good selection of Spanish children’s books, which I began checking out.

During silent reading time one day, a student came up to my desk to ask for the bathroom pass. “Hey, Mrs. Brown,” he exclaimed, “is that book you’re reading in Spanish? I didn’t know you knew Spanish.”

“I don’t, Juan,” I explained. “But I’m learning.”

Es bueno,” he said encouragingly.

After that, Juan and some of his classmates began routinely greeting me in Spanish. “¿Qué pasa, Mrs. Brown?” If I didn’t understand the students’ questions or comments, a mini-lesson followed, with me as the eager student. Gradually, I realized that I was hearing Spanish— as well as other languages—spoken more often among the kids in the classroom. I asked why.

“Oh, because in here it’s OK to say something that is not in English,” one of my students replied.

“Isn’t it OK to speak another language anywhere?” I asked.

“No!” several youngsters responded at once. “In some classes we get in trouble for speaking our language.”

“Yeah,” agreed one girl. “Just this week, I was sent to the office for explaining something in Spanish to a new girl who didn’t understand what the teacher was saying.”

As I continued to struggle with my new language, I detected other changes in the class. Students started sharing stories about where they came from, their families’ traditions, and their fears as they entered a country where almost everyone spoke a language they didn’t understand. A Bosnian girl showed me pictures of the ruins of the house where generations of her family had lived before war erupted there. A Ukrainian boy displayed maps of where he came from. A proud Mexican youngster offered photos of his girlfriend’s lavish celebration of her 15th birthday, the traditional quinceañera. In each instance, other students gathered around asking questions. Suddenly, they were intrigued by their classmates’ cultures. And regardless of their backgrounds, all of them followed my progress in Spanish with great interest.

Just before the winter holidays, I wrote “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” on the chalkboard in English and in Spanish. “I know that some of you celebrate other holidays this time of year,” I told the class. “I would like to invite all of you to write something on the board in your native language.” Students scrambled to the board, which soon was filled with holiday greetings and favorite aphorisms.

One girl pointed to what she had written in Laotian, pronouncing it slowly. “Now you say it, Mrs. Brown,” she suggested. I accepted her invitation and thought I did a good job of repeating exactly what she’d said. But the entire class burst into laughter.

“Let’s try it again,” she offered. It took several attempts to get it right, and by then many of the students were pronouncing it with me.

“Very good,” she said. “I will bring my mother here to hear all of you speaking Laotian.”

Several weeks later, toward the end of the year, a contingent of students came to me and announced, “We need to have a party, Mrs. Brown.”

“Nobody needs to have a party,” I teased.

“We do,” they insisted. “We’ve been talking about food. We want to have a picnic. Everyone will bring something from their country.”

Then they asked, “What will you bring, Mrs. Brown? What is your country?” For the first time in decades, I found myself thinking about my grandmother’s kluskies—Polish dumplings flavored with bacon. So almost before I knew what was happening, it was decided: We would have an international potluck.

“What about me?” asked a lanky, all-American boy. “I’m just American.”

“What d’ya mean, ‘just’?” retorted a youngster from Mexico City. “Is very, very good to be American.”

On the day of the potluck, the American boy brought hot dogs, which we heated in the microwave in the teachers’ lounge, and another native English speaker contributed a red, white, and blue cake. As students filled their plates and sat down, I noticed that, for the first time, they mingled with one another rather than dividing into groups according to homeland. Some simply swapped recipes, but others shared stories about the often harrowing experiences they had in getting to the United States. A girl from a war-torn country in South America was carried in a suitcase to the train station because her mother feared she might be kidnapped en route. A Bosnian boy spent five years moving from one country to another as his family worked its way to America. Along the way, he learned Italian, French, and German with remarkable fluency.

By the end of the year, I realized that studying a second language myself—and being transparent about it—had become a valuable tool in my classroom. Not only was I a role model for my students in terms of practicing a new skill, but my classroom, more than ever, was a place where differences could be celebrated.

Today, I still teach an occassional class, and students stop by my counseling office to help me practice Spanish. Although my progress has been slow, that’s not a bad thing. Sure, it would be wonderful to speak the language fluently, but there are advantages to being a learner. As a teacher, my study of a new language validates the culture and first language of many of the school’s students—not just the Spanish speakers. I’m also closer to the students who teach me while I am teaching them. And, what is perhaps most important, I have the opportunity to demonstrate that it’s OK not to know everything and that learning is, after all, a lifelong process.


Vol. 14, Issue 4, Pages 39-40

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