A dynamic ESOL math teacher, Lena Pryzinski helps recent immigrants adapt to life in the United States. She engages students with practical activities and real-world applications. But how can she reach students whose lives are so different from those of other students in mainstream classrooms?

Lena Pryzinski reflects on teaching newly-arrived international students.

Some say it feels a little like a tin can on the inside. It is true, when I pull the door closed behind me each morning, the walls shake momentarily, and my walk across the mottled carpet to the thermostat is punctuated by a rhythmic rumble. Godzilla Meets the Newcomers, a former student once joked. Though some teachers complain about it, I love teaching in the trailers. I know they are a little isolated from the rest of the school, but they also offer privacy, easy accessibility on evenings and weekends, and a sense of community among the self-contained ESOL students and their teachers.

All of my high school students are fairly new to the United States. When they first entered our district, they were placed in a centralized transition program where they learned the very basics of life in an American school. After a few weeks, they transferred here, to Lucas High, a mainstream school. That’s where I come in. With me and my ESOL-certified colleagues, they begin content-based, self-contained ESOL classes with the goal of both language acquisition and development of academic skills.

This is a tall order: some of my students never attended school in their home countries, making them, in essence, first-graders with young-adult minds. This phenomenon is hard to convey to those who have strong academic backgrounds. I tried to explain it to Mrs. Rowan when she volunteered to help grade papers the other day, but I don’t think she saw beyond the wrong answers.

Because they are older, I know my students have fewer years to acquire skills than younger arrivals. I constantly feel the pressure to move them quickly through the curriculum so that by the time they leave the system they are able to function at the highest possible level. Our time together in our make-shift community building skills and learning cultural norms provides the foundation for their transition to the mainstream classroom—and the ticket to their future success and a high school diploma.

Graduation ceremonies are particularly meaningful to me; I can celebrate the achievement of students who have made it, knowing just how high the hurdles were when they entered our school. It’s also a poignant day for me; I know who isn’t there. I wonder how these students, the ones who haven’t mastered basic skills, will manage without the formal support that school provides. What will become of them?

See demographic data from Lucas High School below: 

Lena Pryzinski prepares for her ESOL practical math lesson on percentages and discounts.

One thing I did NOT like about being in the trailers was the lack of services. On rainy days my trash wasn’t emptied; and if I hadn’t hauled in an old vacuum cleaner, I could’ve planted flowers in the rug. What irritated me now was the clock, which had been malfunctioning for over two weeks. It was confusing for my students who did not know how to tell time, and frustrating for those of us who did. Even though I knew it was off by several hours, I was startled almost every time I glanced in its direction.

I checked my watch just as the bell signaled the end of my planning period. I hadn’t come close to finishing my brochure soliciting parent volunteers. I closed that file and plugged my laptop into the projector just in time for my first arrival, Amaka, who had moved from Nigeria five months ago.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Pryzinski.”

“Good afternoon, Amaka,” I smiled. “How are you today?”

“I am fine,” she responded. I smiled at the textbook phrases she had worked so hard to master and carefully articulate.

“Do you have your homework?” I asked this more as a rhetorical question, since Amaka always went above and beyond the requirements.

She quickly whipped out her notebook and opened it to display neatly organized columns of math problems. “Look. I did extra work last night. For practice. See?”

Lena enjoys helping her highly motivated students like Amaka adapt to life in America.

As I took her notebook, I smiled. One of the things I love about teaching international students is their motivation and their appreciation for their education. Perhaps because I am a fellow immigrant, I can empathize with their desire to learn and their willingness to take risks in the unknown entity that is American school culture. But not all of them fit the mold of enthusiastic over-achiever.

Two months into the term, I had yet to engage Reza, whose blank look masked experiences I shuddered to imagine. His refusal to participate bordered on outright hostility. He strolled into the room now, just seconds before the bell rang, and slouched in his seat.

“Good afternoon, Reza,” I smiled, although his attitude made me grit my teeth. He looked up and made brief eye contact before dropping his head. “Do you have your homework?” I continued. He shook his head without looking up from the desk. I crouched down next to him to get his attention, but he looked over my head and waved to Bahmir across the room. “I need to speak with you after class, Reza. I want you to succeed in here and we need to talk about ways for you to do that.” Still, he did not acknowledge me. This lack of respect was troubling; it made teaching him almost impossible.

Lena is frustrated by Reza’s continued disengagement
in her class.

At least I knew what it stemmed from; in his home country he had played a man’s role and he was having trouble respecting me as an authority figure, a female one at that. Slim and youthful though he was, he had faced gunfire – and possibly killed people himself – as he was caught up in a guerilla war. I knew what we learned in our class was irrelevant to his experiences, but I also knew that if I failed to draw him out, he would end up living in, and perhaps dying from violence, whether in the United States or back in his home country. I knew one of my colleagues had taught a child soldier before, and so I made a mental note to brainstorm ideas with Melvin Jones, whose trailer sat catty-cornered to mine. I then turned my attention back to the lesson at hand.

After greeting my students, I opened the PowerPoint presentation I would use with them for today’s practical math lesson, and moved to the front of the room.

See Lena’s lesson plan below:

Click here for information about the Math Regents exam Lena is preparing her students to take.

Click here to view the PowerPoint presentation Lena used.

Lena confers with her colleague, English teacher Melvin Jones, about her difficulties reaching Reza.

I finished checking through my students’ portfolios, noting Amaka’s perfect scores on the math practice problems and Reza’s barely scribbled-on worksheets.

See Reza’s worksheet below:

Plucking Reza’s portfolio from the pile, I tucked it into my laptop case and headed out the door. Halfway to my car, I noticed the open door to Melvin’s trailer. Maybe he was still there?

Melvin provides support and feedback as Lena seeks his advice.

Picking up my pace, I turned and walked briskly up the steps. Melvin sat at his desk, clearly engrossed in the large stack of papers in front of him. He looked up and smiled broadly as he saw me and gestured toward his desk.

“Hey! First essays,” he said. I knew what that meant: finding content to praise while noting patterns of errors, all of which needed to be recorded so that students could receive individualized instruction. “What’s up, Lena?”

“Oh, I’m just stumped by one of our students.”

“Uh-oh, if you’re stumped, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help!”

I brushed aside his intended praise and got right to business. “It’s Reza. How is he doing for you?”

“Not so great,” Melvin replied, shaking his head sympathetically. “You should see his essay.” He thumbed through the papers and then handed me Reza’s paper. “This is his first draft.”

See Reza’s essay below: 


“And, yes, we went over the assignment and worked on it in class and the skills that go with it, first,” Melvin explained a bit defensively.

“At least it’s not just me, then.” I’d been afraid that his lack of respect for women had been the problem, but obviously there is more going on. “Didn’t you have a student a few years ago who’d been a child soldier?” He nodded. “How did you reach him?”

“So you think all we have to do with Reza is give him time?”

Melvin shrugged noncommittally. “He’ll come around.”

“But he doesn’t have time.” I was exasperated by Melvin’s laissez-faire attitude. “We have to figure out how to reach him now or this year will be an academic waste.”

Melvin shuffled through the folder on his desk, looking uncomfortable. When he looked up, he smiled. “Lena, you know, we could work together to build his skills.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” I replied.

“I mean truly integrate our teaching so that we’re both incorporating literacy and math in our courses.”

“Don’t I do that already?” I didn’t want to insult Melvin – he’s a fine teacher – but I really didn’t think he did much to include math in his language arts course. “I’m teaching vocabulary all the time.”

“I know, but I meant more writing, really using that as a tool to increase achievement.”

“What did you have in mind? Math novels?” I laughed.

“Well, there are lots of things we could do together. Like journals about math.” He rolled back in his chair and opened a file drawer as he continued talking. “Somewhere I’ve got an article on that. Let me see.” He pulled out a stuffed folder labeled “Interesting Articles” and began rifling through its contents while he talked. “Okay, what are you working on now, for instance?”

“Discounts, rounding.”

“So you could have them write about whether discounts are always worth waiting for. Why round? When shouldn’t you round? When should you round?” He fired off these questions in a sing-song voice.

I joined in. “What does discount mean? Why do stores offer discounts?”

“There you go.” Melvin smiled broadly, still holding onto the file folder. “And then I can have students write about a purchasing experience. Maybe a personal narrative with skills I’m working on in English, like developing paragraphs.”

“And they’d incorporate vocabulary from the lesson?” I prompted.

“If you want,” rejoined Melvin. He set the file down. “I can’t find the article, but you get the idea, right?”

“Sure, but we have to find the time to plan a unit together.”

“Just give me the vocab and topic, and I’ll work it in somehow.”

Melvin was much looser in planning than I was. I liked to have lessons charted in detail and assessments carefully outlined. I’d seen Melvin’s plan book, and it was usually just a list of topics or just the title of the story his students were reading that day. I’d teased him about it, and he’d responded that in the private sector – he’d worked as a legal assistant for five years before pursuing certification through an alternative program – he’d had to think on his feet. I respected his work with our students, but I was not so sure that our collaboration would be as successful. Maybe our styles were just too different.

Leaving his classroom, I didn’t feel much better. Maybe we’d come up with yet another way to build our students’ skills, but I was no closer to figuring out how to earn Reza’s trust.