Education Chat

Teaching Immigrant Students

Chris Embler, an English teacher at Smithfield-Selma High School in Smithfield, North Carolina, took questions on the challenges facing immigrant high school students and how teachers can help them.

Teaching Immigrant Students

Guest: Chris Embler, English teacher at Smithfield-Selma High School in Smithfield, North Carolina

Nov. 2, 2005

Mark Toner, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
Welcome to Teacher’s live chat. I’m Mark Toner, the magazine’s senior editor, and our guest is Chris Embler, an English teacher at Smithfield-Selma High School in Smithfield, North Carolina. Embler, who’s taught at Triple S for three years, considers it his personal calling to help members of the school’s rapidly growing immigrant population, a relatively new phenomenon in North Carolina, as it is in other rural areas throughout the country. Along with the school’s small ESL staff, Embler and other teachers who’ve volunteered to work with English-language learners struggle to help their students with academic difficulties, social assimilation, and, perhaps most prominently, college access. In “Penalty Shot,” an article in Teacher‘s October issue, Embler is seen working with one such student, soccer standout Eusebio “Sabs” Montoya, as he tries to get into college. It’s an issue faced by as many as 1.7 million undocumented immigrant children nationwide who find themselves, at the end of 12 years of free schooling, largely shut out of colleges and universities. We’re happy to have Chris with us today, and we have many questions to get to, so let’s get started.

Question from Susmita Sil, Ph.D. Candidate, Education Theory and Policy, Penn State University:
In view of the fact that immigrant parents and students do not really know the intricate system of navigating through various courses in this country, what do you think schools are doing or ought to do to make the process easier for them?

Chris Embler:
I feel that the majority of the immigrant parents are uninformed about their child’s educational opportunities. I see that the majority of my students are making these decisions on their own...and very often not knowing or understanding all of their options. I taught in Peru for a year in 1996 and believe me I was lost...I could teach and reach out to my students within the constraints of the classroom...however, I had no clue in regard to the infrastructure of the Educational Hierarchy for world existed entirely in the class room...I feel that the same occurs in the US. Unless a parent or student is very proactive in investigating countless avenues, I feel that our system falls short here. Many do not even know where to begin...excellent observation

Question from Judith Killen, Inactive Middle School Teacher:
What are challenges you face in getting your colleagues, especially those in your building, to prioritize immigrant students’ needs? What strategies do you suggest?

Chris Embler:
Well, I can tell you that there are irrational fears that teachers hold because of the language barrier. The first step is to identify those teachers that have a “heart” for these students. Our ESL teacher, Carol Massenberg, puts together a team of open minded teachers that first of all “want” to be involved with these children’s learning endeavors. Next, with the help of the administration, she tries to schedule these students to have these instructors. The county pays for monthly workshops for these teachers to gather and discuss strategies for success. These teachers are allowed to miss one day of class time in hopes of gathering ideas and concepts to incorporate in the class. We also offer “sheltered” classes in certain core areas because we have the number of immigrant students to justify creating protected classes. Alas, however, not everyone buys into the program, and there still are teachers that will turn a blind eye to these students’ needs.

Question from Diana Zientek, Teacher Assistant Volunteer:
For students who have placed out of ESL and are now being mainstreamed into English-speaking classrooms, do you think it is helpful or detrimental to provide them with materials in their native languages? For example, if the classes watches a video or reads a book; does it help the immigrant students to also have access to the materials in their languages?

Chris Embler:
I feel that it is imperative for immigrant students to continue reading and writing in their native wife (Rachel) teaches Spanish in the high school where I work...she is amazed at the number of Latino students that take Spanish that can not read and especially write in Spanish. The old adage applies...if you don’t use it you will lose it...we do not want to seperate these immigrant students from their native culture and language. Case in point...I periodically go to one of my Latino student’s house to visit (and have an incredible meal). My student has a younger brother, Yovanni, in the 3rd grade. I occasionally let him read to me from his school texts...he is mastering the English language very proficiently. However, if I ask him to read in Spanish to me...he can’t. To write...he can’t. This is a nightmare, he is sacrificing his native language to become Americanized. He can speak in Spanish fluently...however his reading and writing skill are diminishing to become non-existant...this is tragic!!!

Question from Rene Perez, Literacy Coach, Sharpstown HS, Houston ISD:
Many of our immigrant students do not see the value of regular attendance in their education. Many are having to hold down jobs or have other issues that keep them from regular attendance. How can teachers deal with the poor attendance, their language and often literacy barriers without taking away from serving those students who are there daily to receive the instruction and skills needed to succeed?

Chris Embler:
excellent question...these students are obvious at-risk students for many of the reasons that you just mentioned. They are students that are surviving on the fringes of society. For some of these issues, I am at a loss as well. However, I think that the key is to try to create an environment in which they feel needed. For example, I coach the soccer team at our school- many of the players on my teams are immigrant students. They feel needed on this school team and noticed. During the soccer season, these children are at school wearing their team jerseys with pride. They are seldom absent and they know that if they want to continue to play for our school then they must perform in the classroom. Our ROTC program at the high school is another draw for our immigrant population. A high percentage of Latino students are very involved in this program. However, once again the instructors for this program make the immigrant students feel needed. They feel like “a part” of something meaningful...thus creating an atmosphere of ownership and purpose.

Question from Angelique Seifert Curriculum and Instruction Specialist Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Charlotte, NC:
How do you motivate students to perform well and graduate from high school when they know that they are not eligible for in-state college tuition?

Chris Embler:
Oh boy- I know where you are coming from!!! If you read the article about Eusebio...I ran into the same issue. Here is a kid in all AP and Honors classes, he was being recruited to play soccer in many of our wonderful universities in NC...he went on recruiting trip after recruiting trip...however, when it came time to sign the papers all the coaches backed off of him saying that they could get 3 instate soccer players for what it would cost for 1 of him. I was furious and needless to say, Eusebio was disappointed...his dream was slowing washing down the drain. I prayed every night for him. We went to immigration lawyers...we even went to lobby politicians. In December, I noticed his grades were starting to slip in his AP Statistics class. I went to house to talk to him..His answer was short and very honest...he said, “Why am I busting my butt in Stats if all I am destined to be is a bricklayer like my other family members. I work so hard for what??? to be told that my educational process stops at high school...well, I might as well start slinging cement’s a dead end for me here.” I was shocked but what could I some ways he is right...what do we tell all kids....stay in school, work hard and you can be anything that you want to be....however, under current legislation in NC that is a lie!!! I told him, just finish and I promise that the doors will open for you...that God did not bring him this far to drop him now...I promised him that if he kept working that I would keep working for him...Thank God he did pick it back up...however, I had no clue how this was going to work out for him....the door did not open up for him in NC but it did in Florida...he did get into school and he did get a scholarship...but he did have to leave home and go all the way to Fla. Some states are way ahead of the curve in helping these is appalling that NC expects immigrant students to not drop out of school yet NC drops them off after high school...I dont even want to get started about the hypocrisy...we just have to keep investigating, keep probing, keep speaking out on the issue and most importantly keep praying!!!

Question from John Shacter, consultant and educator, Kingston, TN:
I spoke no English when I arrived from Austria to join my U.S. cousins in Philadelphia in 1938. No one suggested that I continue to coverse in German. It was “swim or sink” with my education IN ENGLISH, and I thrived on it. Why should U.S. transition from a “melting pot” to the extremes of “diversity”?

Chris Embler:
Point taken...I feel that you are partially correct...the total immersion process works...students learn in all environments. You undoubtedly survived and are very successful because of this experience...Many immigrants adapt and learn at a very fast rate through total immersion..however, to totally ignore an even more rapidly growing immigrant population today, I feel, is unethical...they are an enormous resource for our country...every child deserves an equal immersion is one avenue, but total disregard of learning styles, language and culture is not.

Question from Idalia Velasquez, Spanish Teacher, West Babylon High School,:
Getting immigrant parents involved in school functions and their child’s education has been a great concern for the past few years. What suggestions do you have on this topic?

Chris Embler:
We have run into this same problem at my school. I think many factors play into this issue. First of all, many of my student’s parents are working long hours 7 days a week. They are working nonstop just to make ends meet. Most of the time, when are our parent conferences? (3:00-5:00)- well, you can see the problem...many are still at work during this convenient time for the teacher. We have held scholarship seminars later at night for our immigrant students....the attendance is usually better because of the time shift. However, the attendance is not what it should be. Also, I feel sometimes that the parents are still intimidated if there is a language barrier to deal with. To be honest, I still ponder this very issue.

What ideas do you have for helping faculty who only speak English and are club and team sponsers gain an understanding of how important it is to provide a sense of welcome and to facilitate involvement with extra curricular activities for English Langauge Learners? Many immigrant students participated in athletics and in other student organizations in their home countries.

Chris Embler:
This is the key...My observation is that many teachers are fearful to reach out to these students because they risk not KNOWING...especially if the teacher can not speak the language...isnt it a teacher’s nightmare to not KNOW the answer to a question that a student could ask?? Well, if you don’t know the language....then how can you even know the question that is being asked? To get past this, the teachers must take a leap of faith...realizing that it is OK to not know everything...actually, I believe that by not understanding entirely what is being asked will ironically bring credibility to the teacher...because the immigrant student will see that hey, this teacher is going through what I go through all day will be able to relate...this is awesome!!! Once the teacher internalizes the fact that it is OK to not have all the answers...they are open to move forward on common ground with the immigrant student...both parties will be learning together...amazing concept, huh? From this point on, the immigrant student will feel drawn in to participate...when an immigrant student doesn’t initially understand the language, he/she becomes a master of reading body language and nonverbal cues. Once the teacher demonstrates that he/she wants to be a part of that child’s life, you will be amazed at the transformation that will occur on both sides. So take that leap of faith!!

Question from ruth hilsen, ESOL Curriculum,Cherokee County School District, GA:
How can we encourage and support Latino students’ membership in high school AP/Honors courses? Are there successful programs being used?

Chris Embler:
Many of our Latino students are starting to see the need for more challenging courses...however, many are discouraged because of the lack of opportunity for them at the university level(at least in NC for undocumented students)...why get AP credit if they think that college is not a viable option? However, some of our Latino students are entering the college setting and their testimonies are REAL to the other Latino students...try to utilize this resource...have former students that have gone off to college come back and speak firsthand of the benefits of honors and AP classes.

Question from Rosie Buser, ESL Teacher, North High School, Oshkosh, WI:
What have you found to be the greatest motivator for English-Language learners? When students are satisfied with not doing their best, or challenging themselves on to new heights, how do you encourage, motivate, challenge them?

Chris Embler:
They must be able to see a purpose for their learning and achieving. Just like any student, they need to see a glimpse of the future. Many of our immigrant students are very uncertain of what the next day holds. We need to encourage them to dream and dream big--after all, where are they receiving their education... the one place in the world where anything is possible: The United States of America.

Question from Angela Childers, Teacher, Fairforest Middle:
What are some strategies for incorporating recent-arrival (i.e. completely non-English speaking) students into the mainstream classroom?

Chris Embler:
First, with the help of the ESL coordinator, you must access the child’s LEP level to have a general idea of where the child is performing, then move from there...the child could actually be performing higher than the rest of the class or conversely may not even know the alphabet (ie: Chinese student) Once this is determined, then the child must have a modified plan to achieve curriculum goals in the content area. I teach a Sheltered English I class in high school- this class is protected for ESL students. Most of these students are in the same boat...however, even in this class there are varying ability levels. I also teach native English speakers that have extreme learning disablilties in another class--they, too, are a special needs group. A couple of semesters ago, I had the idea to move some of these native English speakers into my Sheltered ESL class. These native English speakers were struggling with English as well...they had no confidence at all prior to the switch...they would never try to read, and seldom participate because they were always viewed by the peers as the “slow ones.” Well, you should have seen the transformation...once they moved in with my ESL students they suddenly were a supposed athority, simply because they could speak English. They heard the ESL students attempting to read and suddenly they realized...hey, I can help. They could also identify with the ESL child’s struggles, because they had been there their entire life, so they would never dare ridicule an ESL student for his reading or writing skills. It created a very stimulating classroom environment...The ESL students achieved and felt secure as did these native English speakers that had learning disabilities! Now I purposely will evaluate my classes from the beginning of the semester and I keep my eyes open for those children that can “help me teach” in my ESL class. This has been a success!

As the dropout/recovery coordinator in the Kilgore, TX ISD, I am very concerned with the 40 percent dropout rate of our Hispanic school age children. What do you do to stem this problem in Smithfield?

Chris Embler:
I think that these students drop out because they do not feel needed! We must engage these students outside of the sports, clubs, ROTC, student government, after school programs. If they feel like they are part of something larger than themselves, then they are more likely to stay. Also, they need to dream...see their future. Bring in successful immigrants to speak and share how they made it....they need to see it in action!

Question from karol smith, teaching artist, Blount County schools:
In an after-school art program, how does one “recruit” immigrant students? Many illegals fear participation.

Chris Embler:
I feel that they must receive exposure to the arts in the school setting first. They must be identified as having talent. Next, we must recognize this...their talent should be displayed and rewarded. The following step would be to encourage them to further develop their gift. Many of my Latino students are fabulous artists...therefore, I try to brag on them...display their samples and tip off our art instructor at the school. However, it is true that after school programs are poorly attended for a variety of reasons...transportation, employment, etc...yet, if we really recognize them and constantly encourage them, then maybe they will be inspired to take the next step.

Question from Rene Perez, Literacy Coach, Sharpstown HS, Houston ISD:
Giving a lot of time to one student takes away time from another student. If you had to choose between an immigrant student with little to no prior schooling and a student (immigrant or not)who has been in a school system (U.S. or other), which would you teach?

Chris Embler:
Well, I am an advocate for those that are less fortunate. Granted, both populations deserve equal treatment. However, who will stand up for these marginalized students...they have no voice in our system. We as teachers have all been blessed with gifts in certain areas....I have been called to represent the students with little or no prior schooling. I am in a classroom environment, supported by my administration that allows me to focus my energy on this group. However, to think that a teacher should authentically serve both groups at the same time (equally) is a bit unreasonable.

Question from Rene Perez, Literach Coach, Sharpstown HS, Houston ISD:
Unfortunately our immigrant population is not limited to Latinos. As a country, we have not prepared for the increasing immigrant population. Do you feel that your narrow focus on “Latin culture” is similar to the blinders that our educational system is wearing regarding the changing face of immigrants into the U.S. educational system? What implications does the fact that our immigrant students are coming from many different countries with different needs and different challenges from Latinos?

Chris Embler:
Wow!! This is a big one! I agree with many times the American public misidentifies what it means to be an is a be an immigrant is to be a Mexican. This drives me nuts. Students in my mainstream classes will call any Hispanic student a Mexican. Of course, I have to have an entire lesson to correct this misconception. In my last ESL class, I had students from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, as well as South Korea and about diversity. I loved that class more than any I have ever taught. There was collaboration of ideas, culture, and language that I stood in awe at the end of the semester, when I realized that I learned more than my students. This is an issue not just limited to Latinos. In North Carolina alone, there are over 100 different nationalities being served. Yes, we must expand our view of the TRADITIONAL IMMIGRANT STUDENT!

Question from Carlos Barrera, Miami-Dade Public Schools:
As an ESOL teacher, I have come across exceptional kids who could compete for valedictorian and scholarships if it wasn’t for the fact they don’t have proper documentation or financial resources. What hope or resources can I give these students?

Chris Embler:
I feel your pain...if you read the article about my student, Eusebio, you will see that I went round and round to find opportunities for him... we talked to senators, deans of schools, immigration lawyers, etc. The bottom line is that you must be persistent. It may be helpful to let them read the story about Eusebio...he was ready to drop out of school, but I convinced him to keep working and the doors would open up. We do need a network of professionals to get this information out to the immigrant students. There are ways to get them in, but they are NOT publicised. It is sad that many students feel that they must use false identification just to get into school or to lie on applications. I prayed every day for Eusebio, that is really all that I had left to do.

Question from Marise Joas, Teacher, Shaw Middle School:
How can we educate our teachers on accepting differences before we expect our students to accept other students from different backgrounds?

Chris Embler:
I agree with has to start at the top. There needs to be a major pardigm shift in our thinking as teachers. The immigrant student issue is strikingly similar to the civil rights issues of the 1960’s. It is the exact same injustice...just a different people group. There are many close-minded educators still today... Students look to the teacher and if the teacher is still blinded by race, ethnicity, culture, gender...the list goes can our children be expected to break the cycle??? Once again...keep praying!!

Question from Mark Curtis, teacher, Kofa High School, Yuma, AZ.:
This is a very hard question. I teach great students from Mexico. There is a difference between many in the same group however. Some are here because their parents take advantage of guardianship laws for them to be here, but go back to Mexico on the weekends. Some are here because they actually live here and are “real” immigrants. Those kids (the real immigrants)are serious about learning English. Question: Aren’t we supporting dishonesty, when we continue to allow those who shouldn’t be here, (which we can’t do much about)to drain our educational resources and fill our classes with defiant students? How can good teaching and learning occur under these sentiments?

Chris Embler:
Interesting dilemma...being that you teach closer to the border of Mexico, I’m sure that this is a very real issue. I can’t speak first hand on this topic, being that I teach in NC, not many of my students are crossing back on the weekends. They are authentic immigrants here to stay and thus should receive an equal education. I’m sure this can create a very frustrating classroom environment.

Question from Elizabeth Park, ESL teacher, Dover (NJ) Middle School:
How can we work successfully and supportively with secondary school students who come to our classrooms with minimal skills in literacy but are still held accountable for high stakes testing?

Chris Embler:
Once again...I have fought this battle for 9 years in NC. At first, ESL students were required to take all State End of Course did not matter how long they were here...even though most research shows that an immigrant must live in a country for 8-10 years to be even close in comparison to a native English speaker. I was students were learning at extremely high rates, however, they were not reading or writing on grade level, yet they may have gone from a 5th grade reading level to an 8th grade reading level in one year. Did they achieve? Did they learn? Not according to the 9th grade English EOC test. Well, after a few years the state agreed to wave the standardized testing requirement for the first 2 years for a student...some progress- but 2 years...I still don’t know where they pulled that number? Yet we live in an era of standardized testing accountability....millions of dollars spent on assessment insteand of investing in teacher development.

Question from Pamela Harris, Multicultural Instructional Specialist, Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland:
Here’s a slightly different angle that you might be able to adress. We have over 400 foreign born teachers. What are your thoughts about ways to help them be successful in teaching children from culturally diverse backgrounds? Any thoughts are welcome.

Chris Embler:
This is the area that needs attention...a teacher that can relate from the start...if our government would invest in allowing these immigrant students to attend would make sense that they would go to school, some would become teachers and then THEY would cycle back into our education systems and resolve many issues. Alas, this line of thought makes too much sense.

Question from Suzanne Forman, Teaching that Makes Sense:
Chris, I’ve been working with teachers and students in Phoenix Union High School District. I taught for 10 years in a small rural district in Missouri. What I love about working with the demographics in Phoenix is that their students seem to appreciate education just a bit more than where I’m from. Do you think, if students could get their “papers” - be come legal, when they graduated from high school, there would be a higher graduation rate among the children of illegal immigrants?

Chris Embler:
Without a doubt! It is not going to take long for these immigrants to realize the flaw in our system. Right now they are struggling just to be admitted into the university system. Let’s say they get into a 4 year university, they make superior grades, they graduate with honors, they are being sought after by major industries with in our country....but hold on...they can’t be hired in most tax id #, no social security number, no JOBS!!!! So, why would they want to graduate, why would they want to go to college? Most of us go to college to get better employment....this does not currently exist for the undocumented what do they do???? They ask the question- why did I graduate, why did I go to college....Just so I could still have some low paying job involving manual labor. This is exploitation...if we removed every undocumented immigrant from our country, our economy would crumble!!! This is an obvious social issue! This immigrant generation will eventually figure this out...beware, a revolution is on the horizon...oppression can only exist for so long. Just look at the civil rights movement of the 60’s...Keep praying for change, before we have a real problem.

Mark Toner, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
Well, folks, our time is up. I want to thank Chris Embler for participating in this enlightening chat, and all of you who’ve asked great questions and checked in with us this afternoon. The transcript of this chat will be posted on, and Chris has graciously offered to answer questions via e-mail (at mblur3 at hotmail dot com). Until next time -- so long.

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