Talk to Me

ESOL teacher Rajesh Gowda supports his students, recent immigrants with limited prior exposure to English, as they adapt to mainstream American culture. He works to develop their skills - both academic and social - as quickly as possible in order to prepare them for the demands they'll face in the regular high school.

ESOL teacher Rajesh Gowda reflects on the challenges faced by his international students.

“I go to high school, then I go to high school?”

Semira was insistent; I had to give her that. No matter how many times I tried to explain to her that she couldn’t leave this language immersion program until she could pass the English tests, we always came back to her one wish: high school. “You must master English further before moving into your neighborhood school,” I tried again. But, as I said, she was insistent.

Semira and her family recently immigrated from Ethiopia
to the USA.

She understood our school protocol better than I had guessed and approached the school director, Dr. Rubens in the hall just outside our classroom door. “I go to high school soon? This…” she said, pointing over her shoulder toward my room, “Mr. Gowda class too easy.”

“We’ll meet with you and your mother after we look at your scores. Can you bring your mother in next week for a meeting?”

“My mother, yes, and then I go to high school.” With that, Semira turned on her heel and entered our class. A quiet smile crept onto her face as she took her place in the circle of desks. She seemed pleased with the outcome of that interaction, but I was fairly sure she wouldn’t be pleased with the outcome of the meeting.

See the school district’s guidelines on ESOL student placement below: 

Semira and her brother had joined my class just six weeks after arriving from Ethiopia. I was impressed by the way their spoken language had improved and their confidence had blossomed. Semira’s academic writing skills were developing, but neither she nor Abduljabar had yet achieved the level of independence they needed to function in the regular school setting, even with ESOL support services.

As if I needed further confirmation of how far they still had to progress, I opened the International Cuisine Cookbook that had arrived that morning from our sister school. I knew its contents would fill me with contradictions. It happened every year.

This project from the ESOL program was completed annually by my former students and their peers. It provided a showcase for their evolving English writing skills and obvious opportunities for cultural exchange. And although it illustrated how far my former students had come, it also reminded me of how far my current students had to go. Reading it left me feeling proud, capable, and just a little overwhelmed.

See sample pages from the International Cookbook below: 

See notes from one of Mr. Gowda’s writings lesson and student work samples below: 

I joined my students in the circle of desks and asked them to open the food books I had distributed. Since my job was to teach these new arrivals functional English, I liked to use a unit on food. Despite my constant search for appropriate materials for these young adults, the only things I found looked very juvenile. But, here we were, and my students were thankfully eager to use just about anything I set before them. I was really blessed in that way. And, I guess, so were they.

Mr. Gowda’s students work to share stories from their home countries over lunch.

After reviewing the food vocabulary using the picture cues and a little pronunciation coaching from me, we walked down the tiled hall to the cafeteria to pick-up our lunches. Today we would eat in the classroom so we could practice using our new vocabulary without struggling to be heard over the cafeteria din. My stomach grumbled, and I tried to position myself within earshot as we moved through the line. “Rizwan, don’t point, tell Mrs. Schyley what you want to eat today so she can prepare your tray.”

Rizwan shares stories from India with his classmates during lunch.

Like many of my international students, Rizwan already had some English skills from his days in India’s schools where it was a required subject. He smiled and said, “Chicken. And pineapple. Chips.” He looked at me questioningly, his eyebrows arched. “Please. Thank you,” he added, and smiled some more.

This group was still shy, even among themselves. And who could blame them? Although they shared this classroom and the new immigrant experience, they came from all over the globe: India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic. Some came from affluent families, some from poverty, some fled from their war-torn homes under the cover of night. Two young men from the Ivory Coast towered over their classmates—and over me. They were fluent in two languages and learning their third, were well-traveled and worldly, and to me looked ironic sipping from straws carefully inserted in their tiny milk cartons.

As I listened to the students over lunch, I couldn’t help remembering one of my first meals in the United States when I was a younger man. The college dining hall had been full to overflowing with students: girls in leopard-skin mini-skirts jumbled with long-haired boys wearing fringed vests and jeans. As bewildering as this mix was to me, it still didn’t prepare me for eating the food. At home we usually ate with our right hand using naan – or Indian flatbread – to scoop up the curried vegetables on our plates, and when we needed one, we used a spoon. In America, we were to use forks and knives in ways that made no sense to me. A fork in my left hand made me feel uncoordinated and self-conscious, as if everyone in that hall was frozen and watching me struggle to get those mashed potatoes into my mouth.

Aside from the embarrassment of it all, what I remember most was the way the food tasted. Or didn’t. Tasteless and bland, the cafeteria food made me miss home more than ever. It was during those meals that I felt most isolated, both from my former home and my new peers. Despite the fact that I already spoke four languages – Hindi, English, French, and the Urdu I had taught myself as a boy in order to read the poetry I loved – I felt insecure and incompetent then.

Listening to my students, I felt thankful to be providing them with a place to transition into US culture – and apprehensive about what they would encounter next.