Teaching in a school where more children speak a language other than English fluently than not comes with a unique set of challenges. For one, how do you deal with the whole “he said a curse word in Spanish!” accusation? Really, a lot like you deal with it in English.
But the major challenge is working with children who are very new to learning English. Consider this…
“Zack” and “Kelly” are both newcomers (in the country less than a year). Zack came last May and within the last few months has really taken off with his English. Kelly is much newer, and while her understanding of English is actually pretty good, she’s still very much in the silent phase. Kelly has been practicing writing sentences in English using sentence starters that include “I like…” and “I don’t like…” Her “I like…” list is lengthy, but the other only contains one item: “I don’t like Zack.”
The whole class is in the lunch line, and Zack comes up to me, very upset, and explains that “Kelly do this!” [throws elbow through the air and then smacks his chest] “Really hurts!” So I walk over to Kelly, demonstrate the motion of elbowing a child, and ask her if she did this to Zack. She shakes her head no. I ask again, suggesting that it might have been an “accident” (because kids will readily admit to and apologize to accidents, I’ve found). Kelly has no history of violent behavior, so I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I have to repeat a few times, but eventually she begrudgingly nods yes.
I tell her that she needs to say “sorry” to Zack. She very hesitantly listens and repeats the word “saw-ree”. I tell her she can say it in Spanish, afterall Zack understands Spanish. I model by saying “lo siento”. She looks up at me, “lo siento”. Me: “No, look at Zack.” And I point to him. She continues to look at me and apologize, plainly refusing to look at Zack. Three or four times pass, and finally I get her to comply.
Now, I have a rule in my class that after a fight/argument, the two parties have three choices: shake hands, smile at each other, or hug. This ensures the disagreement is actually resolved, as kids will rarely do this unless they can get over the problem.
Knowing that this process would be lost on Kelly, I tell the two of them they need to fist bump, which is how we greet each other in the morning and say goodbye in the afternoon. Kelly is refusing, and I’m trying to get her to do this, finally saying “fist bump or move your clip”. At this, she turns to “Screech” and says, “Que dile?”
Screech, who is fluent in Spanish, turns to me and says, “She says…” and then proceeds to babble about why she doesn’t want to fist bump Zack. Now, I don’t know very much Spanish, but that’s not what she said. I know, because I hear “Que dile?” about a thousand times a day. I’ve gathered that it means something to the effect of “What did she say?”
And the thing is… I really don’t think Screech was doing this maliciously. I think he’s really just a terrible listener, and he’s so used to not listening to people, that he fills in with whatever he likes instead.
I call in another kid to translate for her, and eventually, she does fist bump Zack. The two of them still hate each other, but I’m pretty sure by fifth grade, they’ll be crushing on each other.
Working in a school with such a large Spanish-speaking population does come with challenges. But sometimes, it’s fun to bust out your middle school Spanish vocabulary when you write a note home to a parent: “pelota de papel”. And one of my ESL kids was so impressed with me!