Voices from the Classroom: Birtukan

Deep into the process of writing my second book, The Newcomer Fieldbook, a singular thought came to mind: gratitude.  Gratitude for the teachers, who guided, mentored, supported me and kept me sane; and gratitude for my students, who had taught me so much.

There it was.  The light bulb.  My top-notch, unbeatable professional developers?  My peer practitioners and my students.  

Another “aha” followed. These very student voices- the same ones that had guided my professional growth and acted as magic carpet to new worlds and cultures- appeared no where in my writing.  In fact, I couldn't find them in my state's PD platform or in my college curriculum. How had I (and indeed, we) overlooked our most powerful resources?

That's when the last chapter became the penultimate chapter.  The closing space would be reserved for the best insights of all- those that don't come from me.  This final segment has been divided into two parts: educator contributions and student contributions.

As part of the student insight piece, English language learners from all over the world, ages 7 to 70 took part in a twelve-question survey about their experiences.  The responses are telling of our own work as educators.  The narratives at once heart breaking and uplifting.  These are the voices of our ELLs, as humans, as learners, as individuals who are ready to make a positive mark on the world around them.

Let's look at one of those responses.  I happen to know Birtukan personally.  In fact, she was in my Newcomer classroom two years in a row, as I rolled up with her class.   Her first teacher, Ms. Carmen Kuri, is among my mentor teachers.  Carmen's passion for her students' success shines in this interview.  Birtukan is now a socially and academically competent, full-of-life middle school student on the brink of high school. 


Birtukan G., age 14, female.  Heritage: Sudanese. Arrived in U.S. at age 7 from Eritrea.  First languages: Tigrinya, Amharic, Arabic.  


Survey:  What do you remember most about your first day of school in the U.S.?

Birtukan:  I was a little shy.  I didn’t know where to go.  The school was really big and I didn’t know the language and I didn’t have any friends yet.  It was a lot of new things. 

S:  How did you find U.S. school to be different from schooling in other countries where you went to school?

B:  I wasn’t experienced in going to school with a teacher who spoke English.  It’s a lot different in my country.  There, if you don’t listen you are punished.  Also, in my country we didn’t have any homework.  You do all of your learning at school. I had to learn what to do with homework.

S:  What is something you wish your first teacher in America knew about you (but maybe you didn’t have enough English to tell them)?

B:  I didn’t know any English and it was hard for me to communicate.  I wanted my teacher to know that when I started learning more English I was like a translator for everything.  I don’t have brothers or sisters.  It’s just me and my mom.  My mom got sick a LOT in our country and in America.  We lived in a refugee camp and sometimes in the desert.  Sometimes we had to walk a long way.  I took care of her.  In America, I had to be the translator for the doctors and everyone. Now she’s doing better.  She has a job here now, so that’s really good.

S:  What is something you wish other students in America knew about you (but maybe you didn’t have enough English to tell them)?

B:  That I don’t have any brothers or sisters.  It made it harder because I was alone a lot. 

S:  What were your biggest thoughts or worries about going to school in America?

B:  That people would bully me.  I was bullied a lot when I went to school in Eritrea, so I thought people would bully me here, too. 

S:  What is something that your first teacher or teachers did that made you feel safe and welcomed?

B:  My teacher saw that I didn’t have a lot of clothes and that me and my mom didn’t have any coats.  She came to our house with coats and clothes and a lot of food.  That was really helpful.  My mom was so grateful. 

S:  Tell about something in your first years of school in America that was hard for you or made you feel uncomfortable.

B:  Everything in America was new.  For example, it was hard for us to go buy food.  We didn’t know what the money meant.  We thought $50 was like a dollar.  We didn’t know these things yet and I didn’t learn it in school until after.


S:  If you could change something about the way your first teacher in the U.S. taught or the way he or she taught you, what would it be?

B:  I would want her to help me not be so shy.


S:  Was there something in particular that made learning English easier for you?  Something at school or at home?

B:  I had a friend, Rufta.  She spoke my language.  It was really easier having her by my side.  She came about six months after me, so I knew a little bit more English.  I helped her with math.  I started speaking more after I had Rufta.


S:  What school activities do you think helped you the most in learning English?

B:  Playing with the kids outside helped.  I didn’t feel as nervous speaking English on the playground.  Reading with my teacher in groups was really good.


S:  If you could give Newcomer teachers one piece of advice in working with students from your country it would be:

B:  Don’t pressure students too much.  Try to help them learn the basics of English.


S:  If you could give first year Newcomers one piece of advice it would be:

B:  Please don’t be scared.  There are teachers and students who want to help and be your friend.

Read more student interviews in The Newcomer Fieldbook, available HERE.