Guest article written by Lori Fettner
I first knew there was something different about Binta when I gave her an alphabet book and asked her to copy the letters into her notebook. It was my third year of teaching ESL, so I was getting used to, and loved, working with students who were brand-new to the country. But when 14-year-old Binta stuck her tongue out in complete concentration and struggled to recreate the shape of the “A,” it became clear to me that she had never held a pencil before.
How was I going to teach a student when we not only didn’t speak each other’s languages, but when she seemed to be illiterate in both? This was a first for me. I continued having her write the letters of the alphabet in her notebook while also showing her a video that shows the letters moving together to become words. I knew she wouldn’t understand most of what was being said in the video, but I was hoping she would get the connection that the letters she was writing made sounds that formed words.
I was used to newcomers being patient with their not knowing, sitting in class quietly taking it all in. This was not the case with Binta. She wanted so badly to be able to communicate. She would come up to me and begin speaking quickly in French. I had to smile hopelessly and shrug my shoulders, and say, “I’m sorry, Binta, I don’t speak French.” I felt awful. I could just imagine this girl in her native country in South Africa, an outgoing child with so many friends. Here, she was forced into isolation and silence. As I escorted the kids out of the class during a fire drill one day, I wondered what Binta was thinking. Was she scared? Did she have any idea that this was a drill for a future emergency? I just smiled at her as she walked past me, to hopefully let her know things were okay.
Binta had a thirst for education that I had never seen before, like it was something she had longed for her entire life. If I began to teach the rest of the class without giving her an assignment, she would come up to me and say “workbook”. When she had mastered the alphabet, this workbook went on to show her conversation strings and short stories. She was beginning to learn to read.
When the class was working on their own, I would play games with Binta. We would walk around the room and I would point to an object and say its name, and she would repeat the word. Sooner than I thought possible, Binta knew all these objects. I stumped her once when I said, “teacher.” Binta looked all around, smiling, and finally shrugged her shoulders. I pointed to myself. I had so much fun working with her.
Ms. Ghosh, my assistant principal, caught me in the hall one day to tell me how amazing Binta was.
“The other day, (Binta) asked me to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Ghosh said, grinning with pride. That was it. It was those moments that I wanted to share with the world. Others might think it crazy to get excited over a student asking to go to the bathroom; but when it’s the first thing a child says to you in her new language, it’s pretty amazing.
Binta still tried to communicate to me in French, and I could see her frustration, but I wish she could see how quickly she was progressing. She had some problems with students bullying her, and I knew if she could just communicate with them, her amazing personality would show.
She had a chance to let some of this personality shine when her class got involved with an art program where they would write and perform their own play at Manhattan’s City Center, while also watching and performing scenes from the play “Where’s Charley?” Binta had her very own line in the play, and she would say it loud, clear, and on cue every time. At dinner after the big performance, Binta sat next to me. When I asked her why she wasn’t sitting with the girls, she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders. A nice group of Bengali girls heard me say this, and encouraged Binta to sit with them. Her transformation had begun.
It was a rough year at this school. We were going through a Quality Review, and kept hearing threats that the school was going to close. There was a lot of pressure, stress, observations from outsiders, and last-minute changes being made to the way we were told to teach, and how we were to manage our classrooms. Through all this, I tried to stay positive when I was with my students, and kids like Binta made it easy. One day towards the end of the year, I was trying to speak to the class, and a group of students kept talking. I looked over to see who it was, and one boy said, “It’s Binta. She won’t stop talking!” And it was English she was speaking.
I laughed and said, “I’ll make an exception for Binta; she’s waited a long time to talk to you guys.”
People looking at the data would see a 14-year-old in 7th grade who could barely read and write. When she still couldn’t score higher than a 1 on the state ELA exam next year, they would say the school, myself, and this student had failed. It may take her several years to be able to read and write on grade level, but I knew she would do it. And I know anyone who met Binta that first day, and saw her progress over that year, would not call her a failure. If we want our students to succeed, it has to be about more than test scores. I could not have taught Binta to read or write without first getting to know her, and giving her the confidence to communicate in her new language. This is what I mean by Teaching to the Child, and it takes time, patience, and more than data.
*Note: Names in this article have been changed to protect those mentioned.
Bio: Lori Fettner is an ESL teacher in New York, and author of a memoir entitled Teaching to the Child, written under the penname Ms. Frank. The memoir tells the stories of the students that meant the most to Lori, as well as lessons, class trips, and strategies that worked and didn’t work in her first three years of teaching. Lori is iPad certified for classroom use, and has participated in many programs regarding ESL and the arts. Visit Lori’s website and blog at teachingtothechild.com.