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Curriculum Opinion

‘The Newcomers': An Interview With Helen Thorpe

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 23, 2017 13 min read
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Helen Thorpe agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope In an American Classroom.

Helen Thorpe is a journalist who has written three nonfiction books. Her first, Just Like Us, tells the story of two undocumented students coming of age and discovering how hard their lives would be in comparison to their documents friends. Her second, Soldier Girls, explored the circumstances of three women who enlisted before 9/11 and then unexpectedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Her third book, The Newcomers, tells the story of 22 refugee and immigrant students during their first year in America and the ELA (English Language Acquisition) teacher who taught them English.

LF: What motivated you to spend a year-and-a-half observing a class of English Language Learner newcomers? How often were you in the class?

Helen Thorpe:

I had previously written a book about undocumented students. Wanting to write about the refugee experience, I went to see the longtime principal of South High School. I knew the school was where refugee students were most concentrated in our school system, and I was visiting in case the principal could steer me in the right direction. Kristin Waters said immediately that she had read my first book and invited me to spend as much time as I wanted at South. I think she knew I would be an advocate for her students.

It’s very unusual to be granted that kind of access and I felt I was being given a rare opportunity to give these students and their families a platform. People debate the question of refugee resettlement without understanding the subject, and I wanted to use the room to map the refugee crisis for the reader and to explain why these particular individuals had to leave their original homes.

The room mapped the crisis almost perfectly, in terms of who was represented. There were kids from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Iraq, Eritrea—all the big senders of refugees to the U.S. So being in the classroom gave me the chance to introduce the reader personally to teenagers from each of those places—someone the reader could get to know as a person, not just a statistic.

Eddie Williams also struck me as important to feature as a central character because he represented the best of America. He was a humble man who never bragged about the fact that he was actually a master teacher coaching other staff—he never even mentioned that to me all year, and I had to find out from someone else. He also understood both the Anglo experience and the Latino experience because of his bicultural heritage, and he was a highly sensitive person who was very attuned to the needs of his students and who understood how to build trust with these kids.

I also began visiting key families at home—a Congolese family, an Iraqi family, and a family from Burma—to understand their journeys in more detail. I chose those families because their countries are the top producers of refugees who come to the U.S. and because the students had dramatic stories and wanted to share them with me.

I was in the class two to three days per week at the beginning of the school year, but I began coming every day starting in January until June. As the students learning escalated and the teacher got more students, I found I wanted to be in the classroom every day or else I was missing stuff.

LF: As a longtime Newcomer teacher, I was impressed with the accuracy of many of your observations, which would apply to many similar classes across the United States. These range from talking about the different stages of language acquisition to students viewing the class as an “oasis of safety.” Beyond watching what happened in class, what did you do in order to learn how to effectively teach ELLs?

Helen Thorpe:

During my time at the school, there was a change in leadership, and the new principal of South, Jen Hanson, was herself a former ELA teacher. So I interviewed Jen, to get more perspective, in addition to observing Eddie Williams for a year. I also read key material that they referenced.

Yet my aim was not so much to write about the instructional side of language acquisition—although I wanted that material to be accurate—but rather to write about the emotional experience of watching 22 teenagers who had been through every kind of difficult experience on this earth arrive in the room, realize they were in a safe place, and begin to start over, trying to figure out this country and how to speak English. As I watched this unfold I grew more and more interested in the subject of language in general, and I write a little bit about the structure of some of the foreign languages represented in the room, so that the reader can learn how close Spanish is the English, and how far from English are some of the other languages such as Arabic or the Sino-Tibetan languages like Karen.

It got to be really fun for me with the kids as I learned that I was interested in their languages and the proximity between them—especially when the Arabic speakers and the speakers of related languages used in the Middle East and Africa were teaching me about the cognates they share amongst themselves. I found it fascinating to learn that the words for “book” and for “heart” were the same in many of their languages, for instance. By writing about all of this, I’m trying to make other parts of the world a little less strange for the reader. I want readers to come away feeling less afraid of foreign people; I want the reader to learn that a foreign-born person is someone who might become a friend (as opposed to an enemy). I feel we have to move out of the mindset that foreigners are to be suspected automatically. We create enemies when we view the world this way, and to build a more peaceful globe we have to be able to envision the possibility of friendship with those in other countries more easily.

LF: You wrote about Eddie Williams, the teacher in the Newcomer class: “He couldn’t teach the students English if they did not trust him.” Can you say more about that comment—why and how you came to that conclusion and what it specifically looked like in the classroom?

Helen Thorpe:

I think trust is essential to the teaching relationship because a student will want to move in the direction that a teacher is leading only if the student believes that the teacher is creating the right path forward for the student—that the teacher has the student’s best interest at heart.

Some of the students in Eddie’s room had been imprisoned in their home countries, or had seen armed conflict, or car bombings. Some of them had been betrayed by the adults around them, possibly by authority figures. So for them to put their faith in an English-speaking teacher, someone they could not communicate with in their own home language, in most instances—it was a big leap of faith. And in some cases, it was also an essential step in their healing process, figuring out how to trust an authority figure again.

Eddie worked really hard to build this kind of trust with the students. He made sure they knew where the food bank was. He got them winter clothing when they didn’t have the right sorts of coats. He helped them seek counseling if he thought they had been through trauma. He treated every student with respect and made sure they treated each other with respect. And, in time, he joked with them and teased them and gave them nicknames. He made clear that he wanted to get to know them as human beings, and they responded to that in a wonderful way. The kids blossomed over the course of the year until his room was filled with joy and life and happiness. It was heartwarming to witness.

LF: You also wrote this about Mr. Williams:
“Where others might see students with limitations, or students who were lagging behind their peers, Mr. Williams saw a room filled with kids who had lived through titanic experiences, teenagers who could do anything at all....He often told me that he felt lucky to work in a room like this one—a room that spoke of just how big the world was, and how mysterious.”

I think that’s reflective of the attitude many teachers of English Language Learners—and, in fact, many effective teachers of any students—have, that of looking through at their classes through the lens of “assets” and not “deficits.”

How do you think he was able to maintain that attitude and what are specific ways he showed it? Did you share the same view? You were an observer, and not a teacher but, based on what you saw and experienced, what would your advice be to others who want to develop and sustain that kind of perspective?

Helen Thorpe:

Absolutely, I shared the same view.

When a newcomer student arrived in the room and could not communicate in a language that I knew, it was easy for me to underestimate that student. And when they began speaking English, their phrasing might be so basic, they would sound younger than they actually were. But when I hired interpreters, and spoke to the students in their home languages, I could begin to appreciate better how smart and how sophisticated they actually were. I think it’s easy for all of us to underestimate newcomers.

But Eddie had been teaching these kinds of students for several years and so he knew to expect a rapid learning curve and hidden attributes that he couldn’t see right away. So he no longer made the mistake of underestimating the kids. Because the students only reveal their full capacities over time, I think Eddie reminded himself of moments when previous students had awed or impressed him by hanging up their work on the walls of the classroom. And he also maintained ties with his former students, who would often visit him, and tell him more of their stories later, after they had acquired enough English. Those ongoing revelations kept him humble, I think. So I believe the kids themselves taught him over the years that he should never take the newcomer kids for granted. Experience showed him that the newcomers were always going to arrive pretty much silent, but when they opened up, they would move him and surprise him in all sorts of ways. He just grew to know to expect that that would happen.

LF: You wrote about a therapist coming into the class each week to do group therapy with the students. I suspect I speak for many Newcomer teachers who were thrilled to hear such a program, and who might be jealous at the same time!

Though I’m somewhat familiar with the impact of trauma on students, this information from the therapist was new to me:

“Miss Pauline had explained to Mr. Williams that students still coping with traumatic events were likely to have increased activity in the amygdala. At the same time, there was typically decreased activity in those parts of the frontal lobe where learning takes place. Mr. Williams could go over and over a given lesson, but if a student was in a triggered state, he or she might not learn readily, no matter how good the teacher was.”

Can you share a little what Miss Pauline did with students, and what impact you think it had on them individually and as a class?

Helen Thorpe:

The specific paragraph that you cite was new to me also. Miss Pauline described this insight to us as based on new research about trauma and learning. She was an expert conduit for both the teacher and me, in terms of making sure that the students were operating in a “trauma-informed” environment.

Miss Pauline was employed by Jewish Family Services, and her time in the classroom was funded by various nonprofits including but not limited to Jewish Family Services. I do think it was incredibly helpful for her to be in the classroom on a regular basis both for the students themselves and also for Eddie Williams. She visited several times a week and she took half of the class out of the room for group therapy. Often they did art projects, but she would push the students to speak a little bit about their feelings as they worked on their art. Over time she taught them more and more English words for various emotions, so that they could get better at naming what they felt. Eddie had to accommodate this intervention by repeating his own lessons twice. After Miss Pauline brought back the first group, she would take the other half of the class away, and Eddie would go over the same material with the kids who’d been gone from the room. It slowed down his teaching process. But it helped the kids acclimate so he felt it was important.

And, as you mention, Miss Pauline also had running side conversations with the teacher about what was going on emotionally with the students. She did this by educating Eddie about the impact of trauma on learning, and also by illuminating what might be going on inside a particular student who was facing difficulty, and how that was playing out in the classroom. For instance, that year Eddie had a student from El Salvador who was an asylum seeker. She goes by Lisbeth in the book (although that’s actually a pseudonym to protect her given that she doesn’t have legal status). Lisbeth was often disruptive in the classroom, as she compulsively socialized with other students. Miss Pauline was able to describe her behavior in terms of the psychological needs Lisbeth probably felt to fit in and to be accepted by others, given her ongoing “removal proceedings,” as the court process was called. Understanding her behavior in these terms helped Eddie be more patient with Lisbeth.

Finally, when students came from active zones of conflict like the Congo or Iraq, and indicated on questionnaires that they had seen difficult things, Miss Pauline also arranged for individual therapy for those students. I can’t speak to that much, as it all took place without my observation, but I believe it was probably very helpful for the students to process some of their experiences, and I assume these interventions contributed to their being able to be present and focused in the classroom.

LF: You write about how the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee political rhetoric, and Trump administration policies, impacted the students in the class (as it did for many our students everywhere). Can you share a few specific examples, and do you have some hope your book might bring some influence to bear on the public debate?

Helen Thorpe:

Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year, as the subject of refugees became increasingly politicized, students faced increasing verbal abuse on the city buses they rode to and from school. In particular, wearing a hijab or headscarf of any kind drew stares and comments. There were many cases of mistaken identity. No matter where a student was from—in one instance, it was a Bangladeshi student—other commuters mistook them for Arab and called them terrorists. For the students themselves, this was a tragedy, as they were either a) not from the Middle East at all or b) when they were from the Middle East, they invariably belonged to families that had sided with the United States during the Iraq War or the war in Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the abuse on the school buses grew so bad that the principal actually had to request that plain clothes police officers ride the buses to ensure the safety of students.

I believe the American people are fundamentally generous, as long as they don’t feel threatened. It is human nature to fear the stranger, but all of our important religious texts advise that one should reach out and get to know the newcomer. Eddie Williams models this act for the reader. Watching him get to know these young people over the course of a school year is both illuminating and heartwarming. The kids turn out to be so hilarious and wonderful—exuberant, driven, witty, charming—they melt the heart of the reader.

The public debate is increasingly divorced from reality, and increasingly fear-driven. The actual resettlement experience, as described in this classroom, is both more reassuring and more joyful. The essential emotional experience of the newcomer is loneliness. It’s arriving in a foreign country, unable to communicate with anyone, and being terribly isolated. Overcoming that by learning to speak a new language brings joy and happiness. All of us can empathize with the desire to overcome loneliness, and the joy when we succeed. It’s a very positive story and one that resonates deeply. So yes, I hope this book can open hearts around the subject of resettlement. I think this book can also show that we are actually very good at this work.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Helen Thorpe:

I believe that ELA [English Language Acquisition] teachers are the most under-appreciated people in an under-appreciated profession. The work they do is heroic.

LF: Thanks, Helen!

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