Opening up my e-mail and sipping on my third coffee of the morning, I read the following message:

“Hello teachers.  Please welcome a new 10th grader, Ngoc Trinh, coming to us from Vietnam. We will have to do our best to support this student with her limited English skills.”

“Uh oh…” was my first thought. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to welcome in a new student.  Some of my colleagues get their curricula all up in a bunch when a student is added to their classes in the middle of the semester. But not me. 

I think teaching in our Education Academy makes it easier for me than for some of my colleagues to integrate new students.  Whenever I get a new student, my kids share the work of getting our new companion up to speed on our class and current project.  I love watching new relationships form and seeing my kids practice the tutoring skills I taught them in the fall.

Nevertheless, the “limited English” comment worried me.  Like most teachers at my school, I’ve had very limited training working with students in our English Language Development program.  As a school, we’re not set up to serve children with very limited English skills.  Oakland has another school, International High, which typically serves that population.  Instead, our best-trained teachers are prepared for kids who test at ELD Level 5—students who have fairly good conversational English but struggle with academic English.

Ngoc tested at ELD level 1.  On her first day, her only English phrase was: “Hello.” 

My other concern was Ngoc’s reading skills.  Sometimes, when our district gets a new student from abroad, he or she is from a rural farming community.  These students, while plenty smart, are uneducated and don’t know how to read or write in their home language—let alone English.  Luckily for me, Ngoc comes from Saigon, has been attending school, and reads and writes in Vietnamese like a champ!

Also luckily for me: I have Google Translate.  While the software is not perfect and frequently the syntax and tense is off, it’s far, far better than nothing. 

I started off my first class with Ngoc by running a welcome letter and my syllabus through the software.  Her first assignment was to translate the welcome letter into English so I could determine what, if any, English she knew.

The answer was: practically none.  She could read the letter, and, using her cell phone and Google, translate the Vietnamese into English and then draw the English words on her paper.  (I say “draw” rather than “write” on purpose. I was doing the same thing with the Vietnamese letters that were on my screen.)

That weekend, I had a lot of work to do. Ngoc could read and write Vietnamese, so I knew she could do the same curriculum as my other 10th graders.  She could read and analyze a group of primary sources about a historical topic, take notes and gather evidence, and build an essay arguing a thesis.  She just needed to do all of this in Vietnamese.

Seven hours later, I had created five assignments to help Ngoc build her background knowledge on our topic.  I also had ten documents about the Communist and Cultural Revolutions in China, prepared in Vietnamese.  In about a month, I expect an essay on, “Looking at the time from the Communist Revolution in 1949 to his death in 1976, how successful was Mao Zedong in moving China toward a better society?  In answering the question, consider the political, social and economic issues.”

So now, one week later, I feel like I’ve got Ngoc’s history curriculum prepared and organized.  But what about her English development?  I feel like I need to help her with this as well. 

In my next post, I’ll share what I’m doing so far to help Ngoc learn English.  More importantly, I’ll be asking for your ideas and help.  I know there are a lot of teachers in our Collaboratory whose language development skills far outstrip my own.

And while I have you here….can I ask you a couple of questions?

  • Have you ever gotten a mid-semester transfer?  How did you deal with the situation?
  • Online translation software. Do you use Google Translate to communicate across language barriers, or is there another resource you like better?

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