Friday, May 26th, 2017 was the last meeting with my 5th grade ESL pull-out class. One student walked in the classroom and handed me the drawing shown below. "Mrs. Francis, You are the best ESL teacher" I blushed, hugged her, and thank her for such beautiful thought!
However, her written words made me question my abilities as their ESL teacher. As my students sat there in my room engaged and working on their assignment, I couldn't help but ask myself; Did I do enough for these students? Why are they still in my class? Why haven't they exited ESL?
Five years ago when I started my career as an ESL teacher at Irvin Elementary, this group of 5th graders was in 1st grade; So this was my very first group of ESL students!
For the past five years, I've done my job. I know that my responsibility as their ESL teacher is to analyze their needs and develop their linguistic and communicative competence in English-speaking, reading, listening, and writing.
My goal is to help them achieve a proficient level of English that allows them to function independently in their classrooms, and in society in the future.
But they haven't. They are still in ESL. They are going off to middle school and they're still in the program!
But for a moment, my focus went from judging them to observing them. Then it hit me. They are just kids! They are funny, they're smart, they're sweet, and they are learning. I immediately fell more in love with them for being who they are...kids!
So I started thinking, and aiming responsibility toward me, their ESL teacher! Yes, I have done my job. I've taken my responsibilities as an educator very seriously.
What did I miss? What have I done for them in the past six years? What opportunities have I made available for them? Where did I fall short? What are they taking from me as they walk away from our school for the last time come June 9th?!? Did I advocate enough for them?
As my 5th school year comes to an end, I reflect on what I've done for my students and realize that there is always room for MORE!
More relationships, more stories, more advocacy, more love, more inspiration, more smiles, more hugs, more interventions, more opportunities, more family engagements, more listening, and much more of ME!
From this point on, I am embracing @ToddWhitaker's quote above! I do have a high expectations for my students, ALL of them, even newcomers! So if I have high expectations for them, I need to have them for myself!
I ran out of time to do more for my 5th graders...but I know I left my mark! Together we joked, laughed, read, learned, and had so much fun. I know they love me as much as I love them.
I'll treasure these drawings forever! It's a piece of them I keep with me.
My hope is for them to remember to be persistent, finish strong, and know I am here... always believing in them!
Thank you for reading!
A few days ago, this image was trending on my twitter feed and it immediately made me think of my newcomers. I hold a very special place in my heart for newcomers. I understand how they feel! As a newcomer student, I remember the fear very vividly! Fear of the unexpected. Fear of the new language. Fear of the what ifs...What if they make fun of me? What if they don't like me? What if I need something and I can't ask? What if they think I'm not smart because I don't speak English. What if...the list could go on and on! But what I also remember very vividly, are the smiles from the school staff as I entered the school building for the very first time.
You see, you don't need to speak you newcomers' native language in order to welcome them into your school or classroom. Your smile goes a long way! Read about providing a safe and affirming environment to lowering the affective filter for language learners.
Now, the purpose of this post is not to provide tips for your newcomers in general. You can find that here!
This post is to highlight a specific newcomer...Brayan! I posted this tweet about him and thought I would share more about his success!
Brayan was born in Mexico. He started with us in March of 2016. His age placed at a second-grade level and on his first day of school, I had to explain to him that I needed to administer not one, but two tests. I needed to administer the W-APT which is the assessment that determines the initial program placement for services, and the ACCESS (since he enrolled during testing window ?).
It didn't take me long to learn we had a lot in common: Love and passion for learning and a very similar childhood! It amazed me how quick he was to learn new information and how well he could read and write in Spanish.
For the remainder of the school year, Brayan received double ESL services. He received one-on-one session for Newcomer foundations with Mrs. Tirado and pull-out services with me and the rest of his second grade ELL peers.
In May of 2016, his teacher administered a state mandated assessment (Dibels Next Reading 3D) to determine his end of year reading level. He placed on PC (Print Concepts) which meant he had acquired enough English to demonstrate this list of skills at a proficiency level!
In 2016-2017 school year, Brayan began 3rd-grade. This grade level to me is crucial because is when students make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn! Even though Brayan didn't speak English, I didn't want him to just sit in class and not learn a thing. Luckily, his 3rd-grade teacher, Ms. Sams, is a very supportive teacher. We discussed ways to support him so he could be part of core instruction. We decided to start taking advantage of his ability to read and write in Spanish. So he was granted the use of google translate, he was provided books in Spanish, he would complete retells in Spanish, he would do research in Spanish...he was even allowed to do presentations in Spanish!!! He would come to my ESL class time and say, "Mrs. Francis, can you help me translate this paper so I can turn it in?" See, he knew that google translate tool would translate the document for him...but he also knew that in many occasions, google doesn't translate correctly. He needed to make sure his translation was correct!
Here is an example of a personal narrative he wrote in October and here is a retell about the book "Emmanuel's Dream".
The reason we were allowing him to read and write using this native language was because we truly believe in studies focusing on L1 transfers to L2.
By January 2017, when the middle of the year reading assessment was administered, he was a level D! Now, the only reason why he didn't score higher was because at a level 'F' is when the written component is required. For students to score a level 'F' or higher, they must accurately respond to a written prompt and they must do so in English.
In order to develop his writing skills in English, he was encouraged to begin proving assignments in the targeted language! This is the first assignment he presented in English and he understood every single sentence! Watch this video as he courageously presents his research to his class!
Brayan was also a participant in our first Annual Spanish Spelling Bee! Not only he helped his peers learn the words but he was also a runner-up the day of the competition!
Brayan's motivation and passion for learning, coupled with the support and opportunities we were able to provide for him, empowered him to soar academically and linguistically.
So what is the result to all if this, you might ask?!? Well, just this month, his teacher administered his last reading level assessment of the year and he placed on a level 'J'!!
THAT'S 10 READING LEVELS, my friends!! ? And I have no doubt he scored very well on his ACCESS too. I will be updating his information as soon as I get his scores.
My objective in sharing Brayan's story of success with you is because he is proof that allowing students to use their native language to learn and show knowledge is imperative. If you want newcomer students to be part of their everyday learning, you must allow them to use the language they master. Research favors the use and development of native language to better and faster acquire the second language.
If you teach newcomers and have a success story you'd like to share, please email me or posted on twitter using #ELs_CAN.
We would love to highlight and share as many newcomers' stories as possible...because English language learners CAN!!
Thank you for reading!
A couple of months ago I had a 4th-grade student stand in the middle of class and courageously said, "Mrs. Francis, what do I have to do to place out of ESL?" I went ahead and showed her the data and gave her step-by-step what she needed to do to place out of her ESL status.
Meanwhile, there were so many thoughts going through my head. I started to doubt myself as an educator...Does she not like me? Does she not like my class? What should I be doing differently?
She preceded, "Mrs. Francis, I like you and I really like your class. Even if I place out of ESL, I still want to come to your class"; "Is just that being an ESL student makes me feel like a failure!"
Her words hit me to the core of what I am about! In a matter of seconds, my life flashed before me. Her words made me relive how I felt for so many years as an ESL student and high school dropout.
My students and I started discussing the reasons why being an ESL student would make us feel the way it does. Together we brainstormed the following:
This powerful discussion allowed me to share with my students my own experience as a language learner. My students needed to hear from me that I also felt the way they feel, and that having the sense of failure does not make you a failure. On the contrary, failures we face today are stepping stones and detours to greatness.
Personally, this conversation opened my eyes to what my focus needed to be from that point on...start highlighting my students' strengths! Our ELs enrich our classroom culture with who they are and with the languages they speak. It is our job as educators to honor our students and empower them with tools and resources to shine...even if it's a little bit! Celebrate progress! Inspire them to dream, learn, and do more so they can become more. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs before Blooms!
Reading Sarah Ottow's post: "ELL Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap" helped me understand that the academic achievement gap that exists among our ELs is not a 'within child' underachievement issue! If our ELs are walking our school hallways repeating to themselves, "I can't", "I don't", "I won't", then it is our job as responsible adults and educators to enlighten them and empower them to aspire for more. We can see the 'big picture'...so why not support them where they are...provide OPPORTUNITIES for students to begin closing their academic achievement gap.
So, inspired by Ms. Ottow's post, I began to look for ways to provide opportunities for my students to grow, and show that they CAN! I shared with them my personal narrative as an immigrant and as a newcomer student. I was transparent with them because I wanted to gain their trust. I wanted them to see me for who I am as a person and not as a teacher.
I encouraged them to begin their own blog and narrate their personal lives. Oh, boy! The stories I learned! One student began writing about the time his mother left him in Mexico with his grandparents...he grew up thinking that his grandparents were his parents. He met his mother when he came to the U.S. at the age of 8.
Another student began to write about being adopted because one day her dad came from Mexico and shot her mom and then shot himself! Her eyes were teary as she shared her story.
Another student wanted to share his story but just couldn't get his thoughts down on paper. When I told him he should write his story in Spanish, his pencil wouldn't go fast enough to write his words!
I am taking the time to get to know my students and at the same time, I am highlighting and valuing who they are. Highlight their strengths and you'll see their weaknesses disappear!
All it takes is to go the extra mile to cultivate a relationship with your students.
When they know you care...they'll do anything for you!
Thank you for reading!
Teacher of the Year Program Eligibility and Criteria:
A candidate should…
During my fourth year teaching not only was I eligible, but was also nominated and elected by my colleagues as Teacher of the Year 2016-2017 for W.M. Irvin Elementary school.
Reading the criteria a teacher of the year should exhibit, I can name a lot of teachers at our school who not only deserve this honor but exemplify these qualities and more.
I was honored to start representing our school and all the wonderful thing we were doing for our students!
Teachers of the year from individual schools in the county advance to compete at the district level.
A selection committee interviews each nominee and selects the top 5 finalists.
On March 23rd, 2016 I received the following email: "Congratulations! You have been selected as one of the five finalists for the Cabarrus County Schools Teacher of the Year!"
I was super excited and honored to have made it as a finalist. I immediately shared the news with colleagues and family.
The five finalist get observed in the classroom by the selection committee. Students, staff, and administration are also interviewed regarding teacher impact at the school level.
On May 5th, 2016 Cabarrus County hosted a ceremony to honor 2016 school Teachers of the Year and announce the district teacher of the year.
The unforgeable moment was when I heard superintendent Dr. Lowder announce my name as Cabarrus County Teacher of Year for 2016-2017. I don't have the words to thoroughly convey how I felt in that moment. I was beyond excited to receive such an amazing recognition. This is the passage Ms. Glenda Jones, Assistant Superintendent read about me as I came on stage to join the other finalists.
As our county's teacher of the year, I was honored to join our board of education as a teacher liaison for 2016-2017 school year.
I also had the great opportunity to share a message of inspiration with beginning year teachers.
But the best part of all this was the opportunity to inspire my students to reach for the stars and that nothing is impossible!
So many doors have opened for me this year. I am thankful for the opportunities I get to grow professionally and share my passion.
I am now part of the FabFive Squadster Team, a group of teachers, instructional coaches, and site and district leaders who focus on building sustainable approaches to ELL and multilingual instruction that are highly relevant to teachers, students, administrators, and parents. We represent five different parts of the US: California, Texas, Washington, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Find us on Twitter: #FabFiveSquad and at Teaching Channel.
I also had the honor to be featured by Teacher2Teacher.
And last and not least, during the summer I get to join other North Carolina teachers on a professional trip to Germany sponsored by Go Global NC.
On Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017, I was honored to share my remarks as 2016-2017 Cabarrus County Teacher of the Year with new Teachers of the Year and celebrated Mrs. Paige Norris as our new County's Teacher of the Year for 2017-2018.
Here's my speech:
"Maria Calla dijo:
“Esa es la diferencia entre buenos maestros y maestros geniales: buenos maestros hacen lo mejor de los medios de un estudiante; maestros geniales predicen los fines de un estudiante."
Maria Calla Said:
“That is the difference between good teachers and great teachers: good teachers make the best of students’ means; great teachers foresee students’ ends.”
Congratulations great teachers of the year! I am honored to be here on this special night dedicated to YOU and to honor you for loving what you do, and for going above and beyond your responsibilities as an educator.
Don’t ever take for granted what you do and who you are, because as an educator you hold your students key to success. Let me tell you what I mean by that.
A couple of months ago, I had an ESL student stand up in the middle of class and said: "Mrs. Francis, what do I have to do to place out of ESL?"
I went ahead and showed her the data, and gave her step-by-step what she needed to do to place out of ESL status.
However, I needed to know what she was asking this! I thought maybe she didn't like me, or my class. Or maybe I needed to do something different for her. So I asked why she was asking this. She said: "Oh no, Mrs. Francis I like you, and I like your class. Even if I place out of ESL, I still want to come to your class." I said, OK - then why the question?
She responded: "Is just that being an ESL student makes me feel like a failure."
Her words hit me to the core! I could see through her eyes that she was feeling exactly how I felt for so many years as an ESL student and as a high school dropout. She was speaking the words I never had the courage to speak.
When I tell you that you that you hold your students’ keys to success, is because you DO! Education is the key for our students to be able to rewrite their personal narrative.
A narrative that empowers them, their families, their communities, and our society!
My personal narrative before education was a narrative with failure written all over it. As an ESL student and a HS dropout, if you would’ve told me I was going to be standing here a year ago receiving the greatest honor of being named Cabarrus County Teacher of the year...I would’ve told you-you were insane.
However, OUR profession made it possible for me to rewrite my personal narrative so I no longer live with the sense of failure; I realized that as a broken crayon...I was still able to color.
When I think back on all of this, I can’t help but rejoice in it - even the hard parts. I am thankful to everyone who supported me this far. My mother, who without her strength I would have never reached the American Dream; Corey Cochran who hired me with just a GED and nothing else on the table; To Angie Power who took me under her wing and taught me right along her 1st graders or 8 years; For WM Irvin who elected me to represent our school; Assistant principal Danielle Baker, thank you for your support; The board of education who welcomed me and took into account my point of views and opinions; Dr. Lowder, I know you believe in me.
YOU highlighted my strengths and made my weakness disappeared.
Cabarrus County Schools YOU made me the educator I am today, an educator who will be for students what I didn’t always have: someone to believe in them. An educator who has so much more to give to our profession.
So let’s never stop believing in each other and in OUR profession, appreciating what we get to do and cherishing the opportunity we have to INSPIRE our students to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more!"
Thank you for reading!
"Highlight my strengths and my weaknesses will disappear." ~ Maori
Allow me to start by highlighting some of my accomplishments...I promise it'll make sense in the end!
Please don't take me wrong for beginning this post listing my accomplishments. It is not my intention to come across as a show-off by highlighting my strengths and achievements; my ultimate goal is to affirm my failures as a detour to reach my goals. If you have not read my previous posts: New Land, New Opportunity, and A Newcomer's Journey, please consider reading them.
I will never forget the last day I walked out of Martin Van Buren High School in 1998. The tears rolling down my cheeks were not of happiness as I once hoped so, but were tears of sadness, disappointment, and frustration. I was not going to be able to graduate high school because I have failed the American History end of year exam...twice!
Completing every single credit required for graduation; Giving everything I had as a newcomer; Learning the language...ALL these efforts for nothing. The sense of failure was so strong within me that for six years I suppressed everything I knew about myself. Having a career and becoming a teacher was now an impossible dream to achieve.
At the age of 18, I became part of the statistics as a Latino high school dropout, and joined the workforce as a cashier at a local supermarket. I was a very efficient cashier! I was always given additional responsibilities because of my efficiency. In 2000 I moved to North Carolina and got a job at Bass Pro Shops as a cashier as well. Again, because of my proficiency, I was quickly promoted to team leader and customer services leader. Being a cashier was a fun job...it was paying my bills!
But the desire within me about having a career and becoming a teacher wouldn't let go!
My aunt Rosy, the aunt who showed up at the airport when I was about to be deported...once again came to my rescue. She mentioned a local community college and encouraged me to find out about getting a GED. I enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and in a matter of months, I received my High School Diploma Equivalency... My High School Diploma!
Now, this might be "just a GED" to many of you, but to me, it became the key to my profession.
The Beginning of My Profession
In 2004 I took a leap of faith by submitting a college application to get my associate's degree. At the same time I submitted an employment application to Cabarrus County Schools. Clearly, because of my educational background and my employment experiences, my choices for employment were very limited. My first choice in the application was as a custodian, my second choice was a cafeteria worker, and my last (just because I had to have a third) teacher's assistant. I had great references so I honestly expected a callback. What I never expected was getting a call from principal Corey Cochran to interview for a teacher's assistant position. I played his messages so many times just to make sure I was understanding correctly. ME, as teacher's assistant! No way! However, it was the only call I received so I scheduled an interview. During the interview, I met Angie Power, the first-grade teacher who needed the assistant. I walked out of the interview very discouraged because I didn't think I had answered the questions correctly or perhaps my limited educational experiences would be evident that I was not the right person for the job.
But fate stepped in. The weekend after the interview, I got called to a registered that was not working for the cashier and customers were waiting. I rushed over just to see that the customers waiting were the teacher who interviewed me along with her husband. We greeted and hugged like we had known each other for years! Without knowing each other, we had a connection. That evening she called the principal and asked for me to be hired as her assistant. And so my career with Cabarrus County School began. Angie power took me under her wing and taught me right along with her first graders for 8 years. I learned so much from her as an educator, but I also perfected my academic language right along with her students. A lot of the foundational skills of our English language were perfected in her classroom. She always made me feel as a teacher and always trusted me to teach her class. She valued my ideas and was always encouraging me to continue my education.
While working as a teacher's assistant and a bus driver, I completed my Associate's degree at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in 2007. Walking across the stage to receive my first diploma was an experience I will never forget. This accomplishment gave me back the sense of worth, and the sense of failure started to fade away.
In 2007 I enrolled at the University of Charlotte to begin my teaching career. My courses at the university were a challenge for me. Keep in mind that the only schooling I've had in the U.S had only been three years of high school and three years obtaining my associate's degree. This is only 6 years of academic language! I had a professor say to me, "writing like this, you'll never graduate college." A very sad statement written with red pen all across my essay. I wish I can go back to her today and say, "you were wrong!"
While completing my general education credits at the university, I hit another wall. I was not able to pass the PRAXIS I which would allow me to be admitted in the college of education and take the education courses I needed to be an elementary school teacher. I took this test six times and failed every single time.
I was ready to give up. Another test was getting in my way to achieve my most desirable dream. But then it hit me! I realized that I was having this struggle not because I didn't have the motivation, or because I didn't have the knowledge...but because I was struggling with the language! Why would someone who loves education and gives all they have be deprived of being successful in completing a career?!?
Instead of quitting, I needed to know how I could help students who were having the same struggles I experienced in school and what could I do to support them. This is how I first learned about the TESOL (teachers of English to speakers of other languages) program. So here we go again...using my failure as a detour to achieve my goal. I was able to enter the graduate program after receiving an undergrad degree. In 2010 I received my Bachelor's degree in Spanish and enrolled in the graduate program to obtain a graduate certificate to teach ESL (English as Second Language). In 2012 I graduated with a graduate certificate to TEACH and continued in the program to obtain my Master's in TESOL.
In 2012 I interviewed in different surrounding counties...but in my heart, I wanted to teach in Cabarrus County School, the county that had first opened its doors to me.
And so my dream came true! In July of 2012, I received a call to start my ESL teaching career at W.M. Irvin Elementary school.
Finally...a dream come true!
I walked in room #167 telling myself:
"You did it!"; "You're a teacher now!";
"This is MY classroom."
I embrace and cherish the opportunity I have each and every day to inspire my students. I create opportunities to build relationships with my students and empower them to believe in who they are. I go above and beyond my responsibilities as an educator to reach out not only my students but their parents as well. I hold quarterly meetings with my students' parents to teach them about our school system and how to better support their children at home. I build a rapport with mainstream classroom teachers and provide strategies and methods they can use in the classroom to better support our language learners. I offer staff PDs to enlighten staff about topics that would not only make them better teacher for all students but will also make them better language teachers.
In 2016 I was elected by Irvin elementary staff to represent our school as the teacher of the year. After an interview process, and classroom observations I was named my district teacher of the year for 2016-2017.
This is what I call "the shinning wall". I choose to have these awards and titles in my classroom because I want my students to see that "Sí Se Puede!" Yes, it is possible!
Being an ESL student and having a sense of failure should not be an obstacle to achieve our dreams...nor should a TEST!
Thank you for reading!
There is no complicated or long terminology to define and/or identify newcomers.
Newcomers: newly arrived immigrant students.
Now, I am no expert in guiding you through this topic, but as a newcomer and English language learner myself, I can provide a few tips on how to support your language learners in school.
I encourage you to read my previous post where I share my immigrant journey and my experiences as a newcomer student.
The first and most import thing to understand as a newcomer's educator is that newcomers will arrive with a variety of characteristics, and each student, must be treated individually according to his or her needs. The diversifications of characteristic I am referring to are literacy levels, language, socio-economic, and emotional background. All of these characteristics, (and perhaps more), must be taken into account when providing academic and English language support to newcomers. I encourage you to read this research and learn best practices and programs to support your newcomers: "Helping Newcomer Students Succeed in Secondary Schools and Beyond"
When I get newcomers in our school, I personally:
1) Guide Students' Acculturation to the School System in the U.S.:
When I first started school here in the United States, EVERYTHING was different! Transportation, food, schedule, dress code, classroom expectations, seating, and so much more! The list could go on and on...no wonder experts call it Culture Shock.
When guiding students' acculturation to the school system, don't take anything for granted. The little things you might think are not important to share with your newcomer, could become a barrier for your student to be successful in school.
2) Help Students Acquire Beginning English Skills:
If you don't know the terms BICS and CALPS, please read this! It is imperative to understand that language learning has a process. For some is faster to acquire than to others, so we must be patient and respect the process. There are so many apps and technology tools available today that can support the acquisition of English language learning, but keep in mind that the human/teacher relationship goes far beyond than a tech tool would do. You might find this read interesting!
Try these resources:
3) Provide Instruction in Core Content Areas:
Just because your newcomers don't have the academic language YET to understand core content, does not mean they should not be receiving core instruction. The ultimate goal of providing the beginning English skills mentioned above is to engage our students in core academic instruction. This article: "Language Objectives: The Key to Effective Content Area Instruction for English Learners", will help you see how students can develop language acquisition while receiving core content. We need to make sure ALL students receive the education they deserve. Remember, EQUITY and EQUALITY are not EQUAL!
4) Develop or Strengthen Students’ Native Language Literacy Skills:
I personally feel in a way that I was forced to forget my native language in order to learn the English language I needed to learn for school. WHY? As a newcomer, I knew how to read, how to write, how to have a discussion about school topics in my language. However, I was NEVER given the opportunity to show what I was capable of using my language. It is such a big mistake to try and substitute students' master native language, for the English language. ALLOW them to use their native language to assess what they know. Let them use it to their advantage and empower them to become successful bilingual/multilingual individuals. You might find this podcast interesting about "The Use of Native Language in the Classroom".
Try these resources:
If you work with newcomer and would like to share your resources, please add them in the comments below and I will be glad to add them to this post.
Thank you for reading!
Life is very interesting... in the end, some of your greatest pains, become your greatest strengths. ~ Drew Barrymore
I love the time of year when parents proudly post and share their children's prom and graduation pictures. It's without a doubt an accomplishment worth of celebration; It's an epoch to cherish forever! 🎓🎉
Now, this might not be the best graduation picture you've seen. It's not even an original! However, it's the only graduation picture I have!
Here I am, in a cap and gown, I was not permitted to wear after the picture was taken.
Allow me to share with you how this picture, for so many years, represented a personal narrative with FAILURE written all over it.
I encourage you to read my personal journey from Guatemala to the United States. This post provides a background of where I came from and how I made it to America as an undocumented and unaccompanied minor.
January 1994 marks the date I started attending school in the United States. I was 15 years old when I was enrolled at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, New York. I was very confused at the thought of starting in high school since I had not completed any of the junior high school years. I was explained that because of my age I needed to be placed in the 9th grade. Talk about widening the achievement gap right?!
Anyway, I was thrilled to start school! I was fascinated by the alluring, towering, and gleaming school. It was so clean and the structure was something I had only seen on TV. I was stunned when they handed me a pass to ride the bus to and from school. For so many years I had walked miles to attend school, and now I get to ride the bus?! Oh, but wait...it got better. Free breakfast and lunch! WOW!
I sincerely could not have asked for more. I realized that school was supplying my essential needs so I can just attend school and LEARN!
From the very first day I started, I gave it ALL I had. I didn't speak a word of English but I made sure I took advantage of every single opportunity available to learn. I enrolled morning classes, afternoon classes, evening classes, and even weekend English courses. There was no stopping me! I was in a land of opportunities and I was going for it!
ESL, ESL and More ESL
During my first school year, my classes consisted on English as Second Language (ESL) one after the other. I had wonderful ESL teachers. Very friendly, always making me feel welcomed. One ESL teacher knew a little bit of Spanish so if I needed something, she was my go-to person. ESL classes were very old-school structured - textbook guided kind of lessons. There was no interaction, just a lot of note-taking and worksheet practice. I didn't understand then why I wanted to get out of ESL so bad. TODAY I realize that not being able to be part of the courses other students were taking was making me feel somewhat a failure. In some way, walking the school hallways as an ESL students made me feel inferior and worthless of "real" learning. I had different classes, different textbooks, different schedules. I was different.
A determination within me ignited to learn English to get out of the ESL status. So, during my junior year, (one and a half years after starting school), I placed out of ESL after taking the annual language assessment. I was super excited because that meant that I was allowed to enroll in core courses to gain credits for graduation.
I started taking economics, history, math, biology, health...etc. But, oh boy, this is where the real struggle as a language learner began. My sitting spot was always at front in all my classes. I wanted to be as close as possible to the teachers and the boards. I took as many notes as possible in each class. I brought home all my textbooks to review and to complete assignments. I realized that the school had a library that would give me books to take home, so I checked out 3 different types of dictionaries and thesaurus. I would use these at home to translate my notes and to complete assignments. Of course, my school work was always done after making dinner and putting my siblings to bed! Don't forget, even though we were in the U.S. I was still the oldest child and expected to care for the little ones while mom worked. My mother can attest how I would stay up till 3:00 am completing assignments and studying my notes! I enjoyed learning. I cherished new information. I was like a sponge soaking it all in!
I will never forget the day I started reading my economics textbook and the terms "supply" and "demand" began to make sense to me! I was understanding the words...I was understanding the content! I was learning!
I must have finished my economics book in a day or two. I started passing my classes and earning the required credits for graduation. I was so focused on school work that didn't care much about "Senior's field trip" or "prom". To be honest, I didn't know how important these events were. All I wanted was to get my credits, and pass required assessments to graduate! I have learned how important and necessary a high school diploma was to be able to go to college. I wanted to go college! I wanted to be the first in my family to obtain a career! I wanted to be a teacher! I wanted to make a difference! I had the vigor, so I knew I could do it. What you can't see in the graduation image above is the excitement I felt getting my graduation pictures done with my cap and gown!
The Walk of Shame
During my senior year, I was required to take some standardized state assessments. I don't remember exactly which ones I had to take, but the one I will never forget is the United States History State Exam. I was not prepared for this exam. I have not taken enough classes to learn the required information to pass the test. I had only been in the United States for 2+ years to know its history. However, this standardized exam and every other exam were required no matter what. So I took the exam...not once, but twice. First time in English and failed. Second time in Spanish but failed.
I was called into the guidance counselor's office to chat with a guidance counselor who kindly explained to me that passing the U.S. History exam was a requirement for graduation and without it, I was NOT going to be able to graduate. She said, "You have all your required credits for graduation so you don't have to continue in school."; "Go home, study, and come back next year to take the test again. Once you pass, you'll get your diploma."
"Go home"; "Study"; "Come back next year"; "You're done"
These words echoed in my head as tears ran down my cheeks. That afternoon I walked out of Martin Van Buren High School for the LAST time.
The walk of shame from the guidance counselor's office and down every step outside the building felt like an eternity! I was crushed. I was so disappointment in myself. I was disappointed in the school system for the lack of support. How was I going to explain this to my family? Where was I going to get the strengths to "study" for the test once I was out of school? I have failed. I was a failure.
I became part of the statistics of a Latino high school dropout in the United States because I didn't go back. "Why go back?" I thought... "I failed it twice, there's no way I can make it now."
So, if I wasn't going to school then I had to work. So at the age of 18, I got my first full-time job as a cashier at a local supermarket. My first job in the USA. I was a cashier at C-Town in Floral Park, NY. I was a very efficient worker. I worked hours after hours to earn money...or perhaps to forget and avoid how I was feeling.
This, of course, is not how my story ends...
Did you notice the quote above?!?
Life is very interesting... in the end, some of your greatest pains, become your greatest strengths. ~ Drew Barrymore
This was just an epoch in my life that motivated me to become who I am today. So, stay tuned for my next post and learn how my personal narrative changes from FAILURE to SUCCESS because of education.
👀 Read my post on resources to support newcomers be successful in school! 👀
Thank you for reading!
"It isn't where you came from, its where you're going that counts."
To be honest, I am not sure what Ella Fitzgerald was referring to when she said the quote above. To me, where I came from COUNTS a lot! The second part of the quote is where my focus has been ever since I moved to the United States from Guatemala.
I was born in Guatemala and lived there for 15 years. I am the oldest of 5 children, 4 girls, and 1 boy. My mother was a single mother who worked day and night to provide for her children as best as she could. I didn't live with my mother until I was 7 years old. I stayed with random family members or sitters since my mother had to work.
Life was very difficult for me and my siblings during our childhood. We all encountered verbal and physical abuse, not to mention all the house chores we were to do on daily bases.
Two days I will never forget: The day my mother told me we were going to start living together, and the day she told me she was leaving Guatemala to go to the U.S.
As the oldest child, my job was to care for my sisters and brother while our mother was working. My job was to cook, clean, do grocery shopping, care for the little ones, etc. My sisters will never forget the first time I made them scrambled eggs...I didn't know I was supposed to let the eggs gel and "cook" before I served them! Yeah, they were a little runny!
School?!? oh, yeah, I went to school when I could and when my mom was home. I was always from school to school, from teachers to teachers. There might have been one or two school years I completed the year at the same school. You see, education is not a priority in Guatemala. Not because there's no interest in education, but because survival takes a higher priority over education. Third grade was the highest grade my mother and most of my relatives completed in Guatemala. In many occasions I missed school in order to help my mother at the market to sell oranges, cauliflowers, or used clothes. But even though I missed a lot of school days, I was able to obtain my 6th grade diploma. I completed the 6th-grade at the age of 14! I was very proud of this accomplishment. You see, this diploma is an honor to obtain in Guatemala. Its value is equivalent to obtaining a high school diploma here in the U.S.
The saddest part was not having my mother with me to celebrate this great accomplishment.
It was 1992 the year my mother gave me the news that she was leaving Guatemala to make a better way and life for us in the United States of America. I don't think I can find the words to explain how her decision made me feel. The thought of being without my mother terrified me; but I knew it was best for all.
Once again, my siblings and I were divided. My second sister and I stayed with my dad, my third sister stayed with church friends, and my little sister and little brother stayed together with a recommended sitter. It was very difficult for all to be apart from each other again. Not to mention not having our mother with us. You might think that my mother's decision was crazy or perhaps cruel, like many people told me; but in the end, it was all worth it. You see, my mother promised she'll fight for us, she promised to make the impossible possible for us. I had school friends and people come up to me and say, "She'll never come back!", "She is going to forget about you once she makes her new life in the U.S.", "You're on your own now!" I didn't believe any of these statements! I knew from the bottom of my heart how much my mother cared for us! We wrote each other constantly! We sent each other pictures and talked about our future together.
One year away from each other was all we could handle. We started sharing and noticing the abuse we were experiencing. I couldn't bare the thought of my little sisters and brother going through the abuse I had experienced. My mom was going to return to Guatemala when she found out what was happening. Yes, we needed our mother with us...but what about the sacrifice she made crossing the border?!? What about the sacrifice we all made for over a year?!? What about the plans we've made about a better future?!? There had to be another way...and there was! My mom sent enough money to build a small shed where we could all live together and I was going to be responsible for all the kids. In a matter of days, at the age of 14, I became fully responsible and took guardianship of my 3 sisters and my baby brother.
We had what we needed to survive. We had food, clothes, and shelter, but we were kids who needed a mother. I needed my mother.
One year. That was all my mother could handle seeing us in the situation we were in.
So what now?
This was the question I asked. In reality, the only comprehensible solution was for my mother to return to Guatemala and start life all over again.
Until, someone asked my mother, "Why don't you bring your kids here to the U.S.?"
At that moment the idea of bringing 5 kids alone from Guatemala to the United States seemed impossible. However, doors began to open and the plans to join my mother in the U.S. were becoming a reality!
It was November of 1993 when we started packing the little bit we had to join my mother. My little sister and brother were lucky to make it to the U.S. in a month. Their dad was able to bring them without any problems. They were able to spend Christmas of 1993 with our mother and new relatives.
The journey from Guatemala to the U.S. was different for me and my two younger sisters. My mother made arrangements for coyotes "smugglers" to bring us to the U.S.
So mid-November 1993 we were picked up by strangers we have never met, but trusted that they were taking us where we needed to go. We were very fortunate to be taken care of by the coyotes and their family. We were fed, had a comfortable place to sleep, and never needed anything. But we would wake up day after day for two months wondering if that was the day when we finally would see our mother. We traveled on land for several days. We rode cars, buses, trains, horses, and we also walked. We were desperate to see our mother. We were not allowed to communicate with mom or anyone. Meanwhile, my mother lived in panic day after day for two months not knowing where and/or how we were doing. Though my experience as an unaccompanied minor was very stressful and perhaps unsure about what was going to happen; it was not even close to the experiences other unaccompanied minors go through to make to the U.S.
Like I said earlier, my sisters and I were very fortunate to have made through safely.
A snapshot of a day traveling through Mexico
Finally, the day came when we were to board a plane in Mexico City and reunite with our mother. It was January 14th, 1994. As you can see in this picture, we wore our best outfit, and "our Mexican jackets", for our special day.
Our plane arrived around noon. We made it to JFK International airport in New York City. We had been instructed to say that the gentleman who was bringing us was our dad and that we were coming to New York to visit family. We went through immigration, show our passports, and were asked questions. They must have noticed I was not telling the truth because we were taken into a room for more questions.
My sisters began to cry, and I was panicking because we knew it was over when we saw authorities handcuffing the gentleman who was bringing us. They started asking more and more questions until we broke down and told them the truth. I told them my mother had paid people to bring us to be with her. I told them that we didn't have any family in Guatemala to go back to and begged them to please not send us back. My little sisters would not stop crying, I couldn't stop crying! They kept asking me where my mother lived and who was she staying with. I honestly told them I didn't know where she lived and that I didn't know how to contact her.
We were there for hours. We were confined 12 hours to be exact! Questions after questions...is mostly what I remember. We were tired! We were scared! We were hopeless!
Of course, my mother did not show up because she knew that the moment she walked in, they would have taken her and immediately deport her and her children. My mother was in the U.S. with an illegal immigration status. It would have been over for all of us if she showed up to claim us.
Suddenly I see two older ladies talking and yelling at the immigration agents. They seemed to be talking about us because they kept pointing at us. Well, these two amazing ladies were my grandmother (mom's mom) and her sister (mom's aunt). I didn't know them because they've lived in the U.S. and had little to no contact over the years with my mother. These two ladies, as American citizens, fought for us and claimed our lives. They made sure immigration knew that sending us back was perhaps ending with our lives since there was no one to take care of us back home. After more hours of discussion, my grandmother ended up claiming my mother, and her children as well. My grandmother made herself responsible for caring and to provide for us. She also made available all the required paperwork to allow us to stay in the U.S. with a LEGAL immigration status.
After pictures, fingerprints, and signatures, we walked out of the airport on a cold winter night and into a yellow NYC cab! That night we were able to hug and sleep with our mother after two years.
Finally, we were together! Finally, we were happy!
And 23 years later...we're still together...and Happy!
Thank you for reading!