Two years ago, I had the privilege of having Yonathan as a student in my fifth grade ESOL class. He came from Eritria as a refugee who barely spoke English. He was, at first, often misunderstood by his classmates and he also did not understand much of the culture in the U.S. classrooms, which was why there were a few instances when he would be involved in a fight, especially during recess.
It was about this same year that I was completing a graduate certificate course in bilingual special education. In my Immigrant Experience course, I was asked to complete a journal with one entry being to write a letter to one of my immigrant students. I thought that in writing this letter, I realized that I, and any other teacher of English language learners, have so much to learn from this unique experience of having to teach students like Yonathan.
Below is my letter:
A few weeks ago, you were a mystery that I was trying to solve. Now, as I get to know you everyday, I am very grateful for your presence in my classroom. Your classmates thought at first that your name was misspelled until you told me in your “broken” English that in your language it is spelled correctly. Then one day, when I gave you a world atlas to use as part of our lesson, you excitedly leafed through the page, and showed me where your country, Eritria, is. The truth is, if I had not read your ESOL file, I would not have known it even existed, blaming it to my lack of geographic knowledge. I had to actually google your country and your language, Tigrinya, which you said is similar to Arabic. Just like me and the rest of your teachers, your classmates were also dumbfounded that there is a country named Eritria. Now they know that it is a small country that is bordered by Ethiopia and Sudan because you pointed it to them in the world atlas. Now, we all know that before you came here, you lived in Sudan and Germany as a refugee. And that was how you started to learn English.
You told me you are tough, and I believe you. You have seen people die. You have seen kids fight in a war that was not theirs to fight, much less understand. And I could not do anything but listen. You are proud of what you have gone through, and are proud to remain alive. You have every right to feel such.
Thank you for being my student. Thank you for sharing your story. Most of all, thank you for allowing me to learn from you.
Your ESOL teacher