Thursday, February 4, 2010

Flags in the Breeze

Memories from the Blacktop: A Crest in Trinity Alps - Northern California

As an ESL teacher I always look for ways in which to validate the language and background of my students. One way in which I do this is by hanging the flags of their respective countries in my room. Though 95% of my school is Haitian, the 5% are as diverse as New York itself... India, Bangladesh, Yemen, Venezuela, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Vincent, Guyana, Guinea, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic... all their banners hang from 13 feet above our heads.

If only hanging up a flag and encouraging discourse about their background was enough to invest and motivate the kids to learn. An immigrant myself, I often look back upon my own experience and wonder what was done right or wrong, how did I learn, what were some of the issues I encountered with learning a new language and culture? But I fare poorly in my attempt to compare my life as a seven year old literate immigrant with a mother and grandmother, both of whom were educated, and the lives of my fifteen to twenty year old mostly illiterate students who have no parents or relatives here, or have just one, many of whom have little or no education.

I try to conjure reminiscence of acculturative stress, and the things I later learned in college and upon reflection - but I come up empty again and again in my attempt to understand their motivations, thoughts, dreams or perceptions of reality. I administer surveys but between the language barrier, fear and not giving a damn I harvest little useful data to inform my understanding.

A brief background: most Haitians in our community did not learn English in their native country, many did not go to all the grades appropriate for their age, many are illiterate in French or Haitian-Creole, most come from poverty... one of the things they did learn in whatever school they attended was how to copy! Copy from the board, copy from books, copy from each other. Whatever original thought exists in these children, it has been duly suppressed. I get glimpses of it when I do a lesson on poetry, and every once in a while when there is nothing on the board and they are not working from a book; usually what happens in that situation though is blank staring, raised hands and dis-engagement.

I started teaching at the end of October in 2009, "green as grass" is an all too generous term for me, yet I hold in my hands the future of 90 ESL kids and about 50 English speaking (fluent) students. If they all came to school ready to learn, excited to learn, motivated to succeed, behaving like students should... this would be but an excursion in planning. But clearly this is not the case, clearly Teach for America does not work with the kind of schools whose populations are the embodiment of the aforementioned traits. Oddly enough they are not all that different from so many native high school students, what they do not however appreciate is that native English speakers don't have to work as hard to pass the mediocre standardized tests which are the determinants of success in this country. If you are a native speaker you have but to learn how to test well and you are mostly set for your middle class, middle income, middle management life. For kids who are struggling to grasp this, a most convoluted and exceptional, language - their prospects are but specks on the distant horizon. Because learning how to be a good test taker still requires certain basic knowledge of English, and to approach the otherwise regular opportunities they cannot be on the cusp of the bell curve, because an accent diminishes your prospects as once did your high heels and makeup.

It is of course my job to negotiate the balance between state requirements and high interest content; my responsibility to somehow engage and motivate my students who did not have the privilege of education being a given in their lives and with parents who know and respect and understand the value of said education. The trick then is performing the ultimate feat of multi-tasking: control and teach the appropriate behavior, ensure comprehension of all standards required by the state to pass the standardized tests, engage their interest, create a sense of urgency - because there is little leeway in high school, teach above and beyond the test so that they stand a fighting chance of actually making it through their first year of college, plan all of this in advance, manage to get more than three hours of sleep and somehow find time to address your own issues of mental, physical, emotional and interpersonal health.

So far I can honestly say I have achieved only a few degrees of growth in some of those tasks - nothing that any self-respecting scientist would call significant. Where then do we lay the sacrifice, what do we choose to exclude form our "to-do" list? How do I mold a citizen who will be a benefit to our future society and who will have access to the American Promise?

As promised here is a poem I wrote about the mentor teacher I had during my summer training with Teach For America:

Booming thunder!

Eyes a-glaze, towards the heavens

Ears are raised.

A trembling calm he spreads

Throughout the body public.

Our forethoughts he duly shreds,

And mends misdeeds so chronic.

What can I learn from him?

This force, from long years built.

I take it all in stride…

With patience I do ride…

This wave of new and brilliant light.

I remain committed to my task, determined in succeeding, hopeful of my abilities, confident in my students abilities, scared shitless of what mistakes on my part could mean.

Until our next e-encounter...


  1. Most things that are worth doing, are hard to do. If it were easy, you'd probably get bored of this job in three days, if that. Eh?

    Oh, oh, can we get some stories from the front lines? I am thinking something along the lines of "The Principal" with James Belushi.

  2. Hello Mr. T,

    I would advise you to please go back and read your post.

    You have completely generalized and stereotyped Haitians in your paragraph beginning with "A brief background." Let's not forget:

    1) You have a very limited sample size of Haitians at an underprivileged high school serving the low-to-middle class

    2) You are teaching a very special class of high schoolers - those who need to learn English

    Would you have the guts to print this post and hand it to your kids' parents and/or guardians? I'm sure they would appreciate your generalization that all they have ever learned to do or achieved in life is copy.

    I thought you taught ESL?.. Of course they're not going to pick up poetry, of course they're going to just copy! That blank look you talk about? Perhaps it's being in your class. No, perhaps it's being in an institution they don't want to be in: high school! You don't teach at a school for the gifted my friend.

    Your students don't know their basics yet. Not to mention, again, you teach at an underpriveliged school where these children might be used to people giving up on them, holding them to low standards, etc. Notice the keyword: Might. It's not fair to assume there are poor/bad teachers at underprivileged schools either. It's also not fair to assume your students haven't been exposed to good teachers in the past.

    Ultimately, you come off as someone who views himself on a "higher plane" than the rest of your "lower class, dumb, lacking in skill" students in your post. When I read this, I heard the butler from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air complaining about how his non-English speaking students can't appreciate poetry and how that makes them insiginficant. It doesn't. The kids are there to learn English, which on a side note shocks me how grammatically incorrect most of your blog is.

    You might be a nice guy, but your post comes off very snooty and "superior" to those "under you." I am shocked at the sheer ignorance of this post - especially since you yourself claim to be an immigrant. I am appalled you were accepted into a program as "PC" as Teach for America. This post leads me to the conclusion their recent popularity has resulted in the lowering their own acceptance standards.

    Do you dare and delete this comment? Or man up and respond? Either way, I hope you spend some time thinking about the ignorance of your words - they are powerful and I would expect an English teacher to recognize that much!

  3. Dear Confused Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments!
    I will of course address your points; except for the “man up and respond” one. It is difficult for me to take a comment like that seriously from someone who decided to comment anonymously.

    I am sorry that you have misunderstood the words and spirit of my blog, so I will attempt to clarify some things.

    First of all I do indeed retract, and will subsequently fix, the beginning of the “background” paragraph. The words contained therein apply mostly to the students in my school; though I thought this would be obvious – that I can only intelligently speak about something within my own sphere of experience. Though it is important to note that this is mostly accurate about the Haitian immigrants from the last 20 years. The original Haitians to come here were educated, however looking at the population form a strictly statistical point of view, it is not possible that today the majority of immigrants would contradict my description, considering that the population of Haiti itself does not. Also, notice that I DO NOT lay blame on my students, nor really on the parents, but on the circumstances in which they found themselves for the majority of their life.

    PC? I have no intention of ever being PC, and my potential as an educator, one who is motivated solely on improving the lives of his students, one who has a strong background in leadership and has given up what he has done for the last 10 years in order to be a teacher at an underprivileged school, one who regularly works 16 hour days, is why TFA chose me.

    To immediately address the tone of “higher plane” to which you refer. I have often found trouble expressing most accurately my thoughts via electronic messaging, but I do hope to get better. However, upon review, there is not even a morsel of such a perspective on my part in the post. If you would read carefully you would notice that I seek to understand my students, their “motivations, thoughts, dreams…”; I seek to find new methods and strength to be an effective educator, one who will give them the tools necessary to succeed in this country. All of this is pretty clearly stated. I do express frustration, I do acknowledge my own weakness and lack of experience. The point of the blog is to explore my situation and that of my students, to recall from past experiences on the blacktop, at the blackboard, with pen and paper, and camera. Again, if you read my first post and this post carefully, this would not be a point in need of reiteration.

    About poetry: my kids are fantastic at writing it! It is a hard start, but they DO posses original thought. It is labor intensive to reveal it, but it is there and it is beautiful! What was suppressed by a form of schooling, was not extinguished in their hearts and minds.

    I thank you again for taking the time to comment, but I urge you for next time, please read more carefully, with an open mind, and perhaps on a more humble and relaxed plane of thought and assumption.


    Mr. T

  4. Mr. T's comment about Haitian system of education is actually the same comment I heard from a Haitian friend of mine - it is all about copying.

  5. Hi Mr. T!

    Keep posting. Love your words & hearing about what the fight is like up in New York.

    -Atlanta (Secondary English) '09

  6. Thank you all for your comments and support!!