In my school we sat on benches


Student portrait, art class at High School of Language and Innovation 

As a school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, our students come from all over the world: Dominican Republic, Yemen, Bangladesh, several countries in Africa, Albania, China, Vietnam, to name a few.

However, we don’t know much about school in our students’ countries.  Recently, I decided to simply ask: what was learning like in your country?

I was prompted to do this because our school had visitors last week.  A group of new teachers were touring the school to learn best practices for supporting English Language Learners.

As part of the visit, I organized a student panel with two of my teachers.  The teachers choose five 9th and 10th graders and ensured they represented several countries:  Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Albania.  The students had lived in the U.S. anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. 

The teachers started their questions: What do the classrooms look like in your country?  What are students expected to do?  When you came to the U.S., what was your biggest surprise about school?

“In Bangladesh, we sit on long benches with a long table in front of us.  We don’t have tables where we sit in groups, like here.  There are 45 students in the class but that’s no problem because if you talk during class the teacher can tell you to leave the room.”  A few giggles and nods.

“In Albania, the teacher assigns questions out of the book and you find the answers in the book and copy them. You also copy what’s on the board.”  Another set of vigorous nods.

“In Dominican Republic, it’s harder.  You have to memorize more.”

“In Pakistan, my back hurt because I had so many books.  Here, the teachers create many different materials and I don’t have as many books.”

“Kids talk more in class here.  In my country the teacher would yell if you talk.”

“We had more homework in my country.”

“You have a lot to memorize but then you forget a lot of it.”  More nods.  “Here it’s easier.  Your teacher wants you to say or write something, so you remember it more.”

I learned that what we are asking of our students is huge: we are asking them not only to learn English, and learn an entirely new curriculum in English, but also, to learn differently.  To learn in a way that values originality and expression over memorization.

And: I realized that their original school’s methods had worked.  Perhaps they weren’t the progressive, American ideal of modern education, but all of these students had arrived at our school with a set of skills and knowledge that prepared them for learning with us.  They were all successful with us.

I also noted that some of our students struggle more to adapt than the students on the panel.  We rarely say to our students, “In your country, learning happened this way.  In our school, learning looks different.  We’ll show you.”  Maybe the students say it to each other.  And maybe it’s something we should start.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman



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