Category Archives: English Language Learners


Sometime around 2005 in a Congolese village, a little girl watched as men burst into her family’s home, pulled her grandparents outside, and brutally murdered them. On July 20, 2012, that same girl, then a teenager spending summer vacation in Colorado with her sister, went to the movies. Five months later, seated in a small desk in a cramped classroom trailer, she began her school day, like any other, by watching an excerpt from the morning news. But on this day, she learned of the 26 people, mostly children, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. As pictures of the smiling children transitioned from Sandy Hook to the larger national horror story of mass shootings, scenes of the past summer’s terror at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater filled the screen, and she remembered.

But not in the way you might imagine.

She wasn’t tentative or shaky; she wasn’t tearing up, nor did she go on the offensive. She simply yelled out, as other eleventh graders might yell an answer to a friend sitting across the room, “Oh yeah, I was there!” And then she walked over to the pencil sharpener and stuck her pencil in.

The teenagers I teach are no strangers to trauma. They arrive in the US already survivors of being smuggled across international borders, of police raids on their neighborhoods, of having dropped out of school and taken jobs in factories, shops, and on the streets, of having been born in the middle of the jungle to mothers with no country to call home. They arrive in debt to the State Department for the cost of their international plane tickets, and quickly begin to discover that American poverty, though decorated with flatscreen TVs and two hundred dollar sneakers, is no less desperate than the circumstances from which they fled.

A sixth grader goes to the dumpster to take out the trash and finds a dead body.

A girl and her cousin are sitting on the stoop of their apartment building when some boys they don’t know walk up, flash guns, and demand their cell phones.

A grandmother is terrified in the middle of the night by a gang of young men pounding on doors throughout the building, making threats and rattling doorknobs. Her teenage granddaughter calls the police but doubts they will come.

A middle schooler shooting hoops in the parking lot is shot in the face in a driveby gone wrong. It doesn’t make the evening news, but everyone knows about it anyways.

The boys begin carrying knives and traveling in groups for protection. They don’t know it, but in the eyes of the law, they have just become a gang.

Others, desperate for a sense of family, join well-established gangs, skip school, get picked up for possession or robbery, and begin their American adulthood a statistic.

But most buckle down. They study harder than they ever dreamed possible, mastering a new language so they can earn top grades in subjects like Anatomy and British Literature; they apply to the most competitive scholarship programs in the nation. They worry about their little brothers and sisters, who are more easily influenced by American culture. They help their parents save to buy a house on a quiet street in a peaceful neighborhood. The kind of place they imagined America would be.

But therein lies the problem, for America is not the place of our imaginations. Those quiet streets are more and more frequently encircled by yellow police tape, the silence broken by the whir of news choppers lingering after tragedy. Teachers and students even in the most seemingly idyllic communities rehearse for disaster, and suburban parents lament that these drills are themselves traumatic for young children.

A week ago, my school was ordered into a series of Level 3 Lockdowns over the course of a school day, totaling two hours spent with 20 teenage students in a locked, darkened classroom, crouched under tables and crammed into the corner of the room. Intuition and experience told me that this time it was not a drill, and as that realization sunk in and the minutes ticked by (10 – Surely this will end soon; 23 – What is going on???; 35 – I just hope our security and front office staff are okay; 52 – How will this end?) my mind wandered. I shushed students, played bored and told them to “just take a nap.” I checked in via text with colleagues locked and huddled in other classrooms. I read articles on Huffington Post, checked and re-checked Facebook. I watched the kids. I watched them for signs of fear that could be triggered by past trauma. I was most concerned for the Iraqi students, many of whom were little kids when they experienced bombings and gun violence in their schools and homes. For much of that day, I was simultaneously bored out of my mind and ready for imminent panic.

When it was over, when we pulled each other off the floor and brushed off our pants, when the bell rang and we navigated the unchanged hallways, I understood the meaning of the word “shellshocked.”

In the hours after the lockdown ended, I felt an acute sense of connection with every teacher everywhere who has huddled with their kids and wondered if they are equipped to handle whatever might happen next, with every teacher who has worried that our colleagues and friends are confronting danger while we are safe. And in the days after, I mourned the mass shooting in that famous Connecticut elementary school in a way that I had never before felt for far-away tragedy.

But I also mourned for the three boys (now called “suspects”) who were the reason for our seemingly endless lockdown, who committed some kind of horrible act of violence and then ran towards or into our building, boys who are the victims of, the products of, and the causes of gun-related trauma, caught in an unyielding cycle of community violence.

Now, not even two weeks after our local incident, the tragic shooting in Oregon has prompted President Obama to make his fifteenth statement on US shootings. Op-eds are filling with calls for gun control, while the NRA puffs up its mighty chest and walks confidently into conference rooms, business as usual. While suburban moms are lamenting the loss of their children’s innocence, the nation’s lawmakers are effectively huddling in a darkened corner telling themselves that if they’re quiet enough, the bad guys will just go away.

Perhaps now is the time for me to join my fellow liberals in a loud cry for gun control. But more laws that will be unevenly enforced, that will add more years to prison sentences for a disproportionate number of Black, Brown, Latino, and poor men and women isn’t something I feel moved to rally behind.

Instead I find myself thinking about Syria, and about our nation’s promise to shelter 10,000 Syrian war refugees in the coming year. The events of the last few weeks, both local and national, beg the question, What can we offer these Syrians if not peace and a respite from trauma?

I marvel at our ability to close our eyes to the fact that although it is mass shootings that bring national attention to the matter of gun violence, the neighborhoods in which these Syrian refugees will be placed for their first few years in America (and where it will be left up to them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they wish for something different) are places where gun violence in the form of armed robberies, threats, carjackings, break-ins, and family violence are a normal part of life.

America has not been a place of refuge for the Congolese teenager who found herself surrounded by carnage in a Colorado movie theater. It is not a place of refuge for the parents of children who have stopped coming home at night. It is not a place of refuge for teens who, skipping school one day, get picked up and, when found with weapons, charged with a violent crime they did not commit.

In this community where families are impacted by gun violence more often than makes the news, I am constantly reminded that resilience is trauma’s cousin. Hope lingers in the air long after the sirens have passed.

In this community, education is the embodiment of that hope, yet children are escorted out of the schools in handcuffs. In a community where trauma is par for the course, we accept the horrors of policing instead of teaching, of humiliation, of crime and of criminalization inside our school buildings. We claim powerlessness to intervene in cycles of violence, choosing instead to focus on the inspirational stories of the young people who have excelled despite desperate circumstances. We tell and re-tell their stories, we deem them “mentors,” we hold them up as examples to troubled youth: See her over there…? She maintained a 4.0 GPA, got a full scholarship to an out-of-state college, all while navigating family violence, moving four times, and watching her younger brother barely survive a gang-related attack that left him brain-damaged…. Just be more like her. We marvel at the ways the children inspire each other, at their unceasing commitment to education, but we aren’t surprised that we loose a lot of them. We tell ourselves it’s a personal choice, not a symptom of a badly broken system.

If we are to welcome ten thousand war refugees to our cities, neighborhoods, and schools, we must acknowledge that mass shootings and the terror that their randomness brings to the American psyche is not unlike war. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the tens of thousands of people living in American poverty have experienced generations of traumatic violence akin to war. And we must begin to search for a way out of the cycle, for trauma-informed practices, for ways of facilitating healing.


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Filed under English Language Learners, intercultural life & work, politics of education

Inspiration Message to the Graduates

Last week, I was invited to speak at the Bhutanese Community Association’s graduation celebration. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to speak – but moreover – for the last four years in which I’ve been welcomed by this community. This group of graduates were freshman when I began teaching here. In many ways, we have grown up together. Here’s the speech:

Bhutanese Community Graduation

This week, the US appointed the new National Poet for 2015. The award of National Poet, or Poet Laureate as it is officially called, is given annually to a poet whose poems reflect the themes or values that are central to Americans’ experiences this year.

This week, this prestigious award went to a writer named Juan Felipe Herrera. I mention him today not simply because he won an award, and not because I am an English teacher who wants everyone to read more poetry, but because of what his appointment means for education, opportunity, and the America we live in today.

Juan Felipe Herrara is the son of Mexican immigrants. His parents, Felipe and Maria, were not highly educated, and worked as migrant farmworkers. Mr. Herrera spent is childhood years living with his family in a tent made in the back of a truck, so that the family could easily move from farm to farm, and from state to state to pick different crops in each new season.

When his family stopped moving from place to place, Mr. Herrera enrolled in the third grade speaking no English. Remembering that time, he recalls that “his tongue felt like a stone in his mouth.”

I’m sure many of you know exactly what he means. Do you remember your first few weeks here, when there was so much you wanted to say but you could not make the English words come out of your mouth?

To get to where you are today – high school graduates – you have worked hard to overcome the stones that stood in your way.

For some of you, that “stone” was the English language. You have worked tirelessly to pass high school courses that require a very advanced level of English. You have used English to build strong relationships with your teachers and classmates.

Others have overcome different obstacles. Increasing family responsibilities, pressure from friends who did not complete high school, the challenge of always making school your top priority when others around you told you other things are more important.

In May, you received your diploma. But what we really hope you got during the time you spent with us is education.

Those of you who took my American Literature class in 11th grade remember our study of “The American Dream.” We studied how for hundreds of years, immigrants and poor people have seen this country as “The Land of Opportunity,” a place where everyone who works hard will become rich, and where every generation is promised more success than their parents had.

But dreams are not always our reality. The economic situation in America has made it much more difficult for a family to rise out of poverty than it was only 30 years ago.

No one knows this better than you.

This group of graduates has seen many tragedies. You have faced many crossroads where you could have chosen to quit. Many of your peers, in fact, have left school and entered the workforce with limited English and none of the skills they would need for a professional-level job. Certainly, they work hard. But will they lead their families to integration into American society? Will they have the skills they will need to help their future children with their English or Math homework? Will they – like their parents – have to work physically exhausting and often dangerous jobs?

Studies show that refugee families must pull their families out of poverty within two generations of arrival, or the family will become stuck in an impoverished way of life. Young people who do not complete their education, who do not prepare for a career that they are passionate about, pass the responsibility of American Dream-Making on to the next generation – a generation that will be American born and grow up in American poverty.

Juan Felipe Herrera, National Poet of 2015, lived in the back of a truck, did not speak English, and did not go to school until the third grade. His parents did back-breaking farm labor. They supported his education and encouraged him in the arts, and because of their support and his hard work, he stands before the nation, not as a farmworker or laborer but as a celebrated hero who proudly represents his cultural community to all of America.

And today – because of your hard work and the support of your families – you stand before your community as high school graduates. You have already made a difference in your communities: You have received scholarships, you have tutored younger children, you have stepped up to support your families in times of need. We are proud of you.

You stand before us as tomorrow’s nurses, engineers, entrepreneurs, musicians, caregivers, and social workers. And as you move on to these new experiences and become part of new communities, you – like Juan Felipe Herrera – will continue bringing great pride to this community.

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Grandfather’s Blessings

There are some books I know – before I even finish reading the Introduction – that I have to own. It’s less about the words contained on its pages and more about the very existence of the writer.  That this writer is giving me something that is otherwise missing in my life. Adding their book to my shelves somehow adds their light, their perspective, their energy to my day to day.

I first felt this way when I read Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere. I had just gotten a full-time job as an ESL Teacher at a well-respected refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. I had dreamed of teaching in a setting that holistically addressed newcomers’ needs, offering not only English Language classes, but also employment training, cultural orientation, housing assistance, and comprehensive case management to ensure that students were enrolled in school and that families received the public benefits they are entitled to.  I had imagined that I would truly fit in in such an environment.

What I found, sadly, was an office full of knowledgeable, seemingly inexhaustible social workers who were so burdened by their clients’ infinite needs and the limitations of an under-funded, tied-up-in-knots bureaucracy that they were miserable.  Their frustration manifested itself in nasty comments about clients and in a privileging of those refugees who arrived with a ready understanding of American norms.  I quickly knew I wouldn’t be able to stay there long.

I sought refuge in Mary Pipher’s perspective. As a psychologist working closely with a growing number of refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, Pipher sits with her clients, gives them time to share their stories.  She offers them the safety to revisit their past experiences of tragedy and trauma, to use their distinct cultural knowledge to shed light on their current struggles, and through this process to settle into their American life.

I kept this book on my shelf at work long after I was done reading it.  Having it there helped me connect to the way of being that I wanted to bring to my students.  So she was not my co-worker. Her perspective was present in my office every day.

I was struck by this feeling again as I read the Introduction of Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. In fact, I paused on page 5 ordered a copy of the book, knowing that it wouldn’t arrive for a week and a half, and that I would have finished reading it long before then.

In the middle of the section entitled, “Becoming a Blessing,” Remen writes about an organization dedicated to helping children cope with the grief of loosing a parent or loved one. As part of their work, they sew and distribute pocket-sized velvet and velour hearts. A touchable, stroke-able symbol of the love their parents felt in life – and continue to give in death – to comfort the child’s less visible, less concrete, but aching heart.

She describes writing to this organization, telling them about her work helping physicians deal with grief and death in the professional setting – revolutionary work in that they are un-teaching these doctors to numb themselves to death – and receiving a donation of hundreds of these same plush hearts. For the doctors.

I think of teachers. For every student who graduates with college plans, how many have dropped out? How many have fallen into lives of violence and addiction, been to prison, had their lives changed unexpectedly by pregnancy, put others’ needs ahead of their own dreams? How much violence do we see on a daily basis, within the walls of our schools? How numb are we to recognizing the painfulness of these losses, of this violence?

When I was student-teaching, a tragedy struck the community I was working with. A van carrying 15 refugee adults to work at a chicken processing plant in Gainesville, GA got a flat tire on the highway.  The van flipped over and crashed. Passengers, likely not wearing seatbelts, were thrown from the vehicle. Two men died, six or seven others were injured. The five children of the two men who died attended my school. One was in my second period.

I had an unusual level of freedom during my student-teaching, and two days after the accident, we invited the students into a conversation about death.  I shared some of the traditions that Judaism has around death and mourning.  The teenagers described their Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Ethiopian Orthodox, and ethnic traditions. We found surprises in the differences; marveled at the similarities.  Through learning about each other’s traditions around death and mourning, we saw clearly that the experience of loosing a loved one, and the act of seeking comfort in grief, is universal.  Then we wrote cards to these five friends and classmates who, two years after receiving “refuge” in America, saw their lives dramatically changed again.

I was certainly impacted by the things I learned that day, but my most pervading feeling is the sense of gratitude I feel for being able to give that discussion to the kids.

I’m clinging to that teacher, afraid I am loosing her.

When that discussion happened, I was still steeped in the Adult Education mentality that the classroom is the perfect place for such discussions.  Adult Education philosophy and pedagogy recognize that such discussions enable students to share their emotional burdens so that they can set them aside for a few hours of study.  It teaches that these conversations force students to confront issues of cultural relativity. And it values lived experience as a source of knowledge.

The environment in which I now teach could not be more different. It is a fast-paced school, where the focus is on mastering standards and getting students’ literacy and math skills up to a level at which they have a fighting chance of passing Graduation Tests. Knowledge exists on paper, and our students are chasing it.  Knowledge exists outside of oneself, and is measured by standardized tests in a language these teenagers learned to read only a few years ago.

In such an environment, there is no space to pause.  To talk. To feel.  I have often wondered what I would do if our community were struck with a tragedy similar to the van accident. Would I ditch the already-tight lesson plan in order to have a conversation? Would my students know what to do with such open-ended discussion?  More importantly, would they understand that the insights gained through such conversation are just as important as writing a paragraph or calculating a ratio?

My growing book collection – The Middle of Everywhere, My Grandfather’s Blessings – is my soft, fuzzy heart.  My reminder that there are people in the world who do their work with the same intentions I have.  Who meet their clients’, patients’, and students’ immediate needs for housing, medicine, and literacy without sacrificing time spent in truly healing, strengthening, overcoming, and discovering.  They are my guide; they are doing the work of un-teaching me to be numb to the things that matter most.

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Filed under books, English Language Learners, healthy teacher, intercultural life & work


On a school bus sometime in the middle of second grade, I discovered that Americans don’t kiss each other on the cheek when they greet each other.  That this, in fact, is taboo.

That was also the first year I rode a school bus, the first time I was surrounded by people who weren’t Orthodox or nearly-Orthodox Jews. It was a few months after I discovered that shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers were appropriate school attire for girls, but before my mom started letting me buy lunch on ham and cheese sandwich day.

Hearing my new white non-Jewish friends re-tell in disgust the story of one girl kissing another girl, I thought about my mom greeting her female friends with kisses on the cheeks and lips at synagogue. My seven-year-old brain made a mental note – “Kissing to say hello is ok at synagogue but it’s wrong here” – and filed it away under Cultural Differences.

Even at age seven, I understood that the greeting I watched my mom give and receive in synagogue is not a regular American hello.  It is a fuller hello, a hello that says I’m with you, I missed you, I’ve been thinking of you, I haven’t seen you in a while, but I heard about your father-in-law’s liver cancer, and I’m praying for you. It says congratulations, it says how have you been, it says we’ve been out of touch and I have no idea what’s going on in your life, but I care about you.  It has little bearing on how much you like someone; it is about being connected to them.

I was not thinking about this while I sat outside the Farmers’ Market sipping coffee and watching people come and go.  I was reading, I was wondering if it was too early in the morning to run into any of my students and their families.

I noticed two Ethiopian women sitting on a bench nearby, and absentmindedly speculated about whether they were waiting to be picked up after an overnight shift, or relaxing for a few moments before going inside to begin a 9am shift. While I sat, cars and vans pulled up and dropped off their uncles, brothers, wives, and neighbors.  As workers gathered, they greeted each other with handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheeks before filling the benches, then greeting more newcomers.

My first thought was envious: I’ve never had a job at which we greeted each other with such friendship. But after a few minutes, I started speculating. They’re just co-workers. They probably don’t even know each other that well. Who knows, maybe a few of them don’t even like each other that much.  They’re part of a community, a culture, in which this is the appropriate greeting.  I was struck by how different this is from American norms.

And I thought of my students.  I thought about how frequently students walk into the room well after the tardy bell has rung, after the on-time students have settled into their warm-up activity, and disrupt the tenuous beginnings of focus by extending handshakes among the boys, pecks on the cheeks among the girls, personally greeting everyone in the room.

This behavior has been the bane of my existence for two years.

I cannot tell you how many one-on-one conversations I’ve had, how often I’ve insisted that students re-enter the room silently, given warnings, incentives, and detentions, and repeated myself like a broken record, trying hopelessly to access some seemingly non-existent well of shame at their tardiness, or at least instill in them a sense of respect for their already-hard-at-work classmates.

Watching the Ethiopian employees arrive, it dawned on me that my students’ behavior is not because they’re children – rude and disruptive – but because they’re children of a particular, non-American, culture.  A culture, like my own, that highly values interpersonal relationships and community. It dawned on me that many of these children will never associate “respect” with silently entering a room.

Not unless we change the conversation.

Immigrant teens are perfectly positioned to understand that “disrespect” is a cultural construct. But for us American-born-and-bred teachers, it’s harder to remember.  An annual presentation on “intercultural competencies” is a nice reminder that newcomer students might not look us in the eye because they have been taught that that shows disrespect. But rarely will such a presentation go beyond the surface.  It’s on us as teachers to take it one step further and realize that our internal list of “disrespectful behaviors,” is not intuitive to someone raised in another cultural context.  And then, to make this list explicit, and to have the conversation with our classes – to talk about the ways these expectations are different in the US, the fact that following rules is a choice, and the reasons why choosing to follow rules that run counter to your previous experience is sometimes important.

Previously, I have addressed the issue of tardiness and its associated disruptions as discipline problems.  As obvious failures of respect for me, for the other students, and for the classroom. This year, I am going to try addressing this issue within the broader framework of cultural relativity, with the goal of guiding my students to make thoughtful decisions about why – not just how – to follow rules.

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Filed under classroom management, English Language Learners, intercultural life & work

An Orchard and a Dome

I am a Literature teacher who hates the classics. I wasn’t an English major in college, never read Shakespeare, couldn’t be bothered with the old white guys of the canon. I discovered my love of literature when I discovered magical realism and post-modern and post-colonial (women) novelists and poets. I gravitate towards today’s rule-breakers: the outsiders, the daring.

It’s only through teaching Lit that I’ve learned to embrace those who came before. Teaching American Literature to teenagers who immigrated from refugee camps in Nepal, Thailand, and Kenya, from the slums of Malaysia and Ethiopia, and from temporary refuge in Turkey and Syria means teaching American history and culture alongside the literature. Teaching kids from other countries, from other cultural contexts, it’s impossible to separate – isolate – the writing from the culture in which it was written.

This way of thinking about history and art reminds me of my favorite museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Their permanent collection could be easily mistaken for an archaeological museum rather than an art museum – as you walk through the exhibit, you travel back in time to pre-Columbian pottery and paintings, cathedral murals inspired by Catholicism yet infused with Aztec and Mayan symbolism, portraits of presidents and battle scenes from the Revolution. The art tells the history.

The curators of the National Museum of Mexican Art realized something fundamental and often overlooked in Literature and Art classes: that art is a product of it’s time, and that artists are usually revolutionary.

To understand Shakespeare’s plays, you have to know something about the culture – the daily life, the sense of humor, the political climate, the fears – in which they were created. To understand Emily Dickinson’s poems, you have to understand her as part of a generation that was forging new ground, establishing a spirituality outside the confines of the Church – setting the stage for many of the ideas we take for granted 150 years later.  The canon is not so much full of boring old guys as it is a testament to the original rule breakers.

I remember reading Emily Dickinson poems as a teenager. My analysis of her writing was, shall we say, complex and nuanced. “It’s all about love and god and birds,” I would have told you. “She capitalizes stuff that isn’t even important, and uses this awful forced rhyme.” Clearly, I was a literature teacher in the making.

Standing with my class, watching these new English speakers unravel the vocabulary and puzzle out the meaning of “A Service of Song,” I stumbled upon the meaning myself.  Using Google Image searches, we pieced together that a “Bobolink” is a type of bird, a “chorister” is a member of a church chorus, and “surplice” is a kind of frock worn by a preacher. We figured out her preferred setting – an orchard, like a farm of fruit trees – and how she finds reverence there, rather than in the “dome,” or the church.

Yes, yes, god in nature, I thought. Sweet, but not super relevant for today’s world. I found the image calming, even enjoyable, but the cynic in me held strong. Then, unexpectedly, she hands us the whole point, in two tidy lines.

 “So instead of getting into heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.”

In other words: While you suckers are preoccupied in life by dreams of heaven and fears that you won’t be righteous enough to “get in,” I’ve figured out how to live an experience of heaven.


Take that, Puritan forefathers.

Take that, everyone who isn’t living their own experience of heaven.

My teenage interpretation of the poem could not have been more off-base. It’s not about god, or even birds.  It’s about finding blessings, joy, and peace in life.  It’s about not holding out on yourself, not assuming that you cannot, will not, live a life that is blessed, joyous, and peaceful.

While I do find peace in nature, I am too much an extrovert, too dedicated to the idea that blessings and joy originate in and lead back to community, to truly follow Emily Dickinson into the woods.

Mine is an exploration of both the orchard and the dome.

Some Keep the Sabbath

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Filed under American Literature, English Language Learners, poetry