Someone Foreign This Way Comes
by John Pearson
Who knew that the Dallas public school system would be such a melting pot? At my elementary school alone, there are over 60 countries represented by enrolled students. Many of these kids come to us speaking no English at all, and some of them have never been in a school setting before.
The Dallas Catholic Charities organization is very active in bringing families, especially refugee families, over from Africa. Sadly, these kids have usually spent time in refugee camps, and they very often have seen friends or family members killed.
When these kids arrive at our school, they are placed in one of our "Newcomer" classes. These classes allow them to acclimate to an environment that most of us take for granted. For instance, running water and indoor plumbing may be completely alien to them. Sometimes, they have never used a pencil in their lives. Backpacks are a mystery.
I have heard stories from some of the Newcomer teachers about kids hitting and scratching each other just to be first to line up at the classroom door -- as if their survival depended on it. Kindergartners have physically attacked each other in class because they came from different tribes. Quite frequently, when these kids receive their first few cafeteria lunches, they will stuff their pockets rather than eating, believing that they need to make that food last. They slowly come to understand that it is OK for them to eat their lunch because they will receive another meal tomorrow.
Thinking about the lives of these children can be heartbreaking, but on the flip side, seeing their acclimation and transformation is often awe-inspiring. It is not unusual at all for newcomers to be ready to be mainstreamed into a "regular" classroom within a couple of years of being here. Once they get a grasp on the language, many of them excel academically.
At the beginning of my second year of teaching, I had a boy in my class from central Africa. We'll call him K. This was before there were Newcomer classes at the school, so I was told to just do my best with him. K spoke absolutely no English, but he was able to slowly copy down the morning word problem into his spiral notebook every day. Frankly, he probably didn't understand the problem any less than a few of my other students.
After a few weeks, K was able to repeat back to me my greeting of, "Good morning" every day. Whenever I had papers to pass out, K would always be standing before me with his hands held out and a huge grin on his face. Around the 14th week of the school year, the Newcomer classes were created and K was transferred. I didn't see him much after that until the last week of school when he knocked on my door one day. "Mr. Pearson, I think I left my folder here, can I have it please?" Almost like a native speaker.
Last year, a little girl -- R -- transferred INTO my class from the Newcomer class around February. The teacher said she was ready to be mainstreamed. R was very polite, very soft-spoken, and very intelligent. She didn't do so well on the benchmark assessment I gave her the first day. But she retained everything that we covered from that point on. She finished the year as one of my higher students.
This year, there are three Newcomer classes at my school. I continue to be amazed at the resiliency and adaptiveness of these kids. I somehow doubt that I would be able to make the transition to another world and another language as well as they do.
John Pearson is a third-grade math and science teacher in Dallas, Texas. He has degrees in mechanical engineering from Duke University and Texas A&M, so most consider his math abilities adequate enough to teach nine-year olds. He is also the author of Learn Me Good (Lulu, 2006), a funny, fictionalized account of his first year in education. Read more at www.learnmegood.com