Monday, September 18, 2006

no comprendo

This is the story of the girl who didn't start school until the third week. It is important to note that she didn't come to this school last year. And she just got back from the Dominican Republic last night. Oh... and one more thing: she doesn't speak a lick of English. Nothing. Nada.

She has three cousins in our school (one of whom was in my class last year). Before her arrival, the cousins had assured me that she's "very smart" and "well behaved" and "a quick learner." They failed to mention that she only speaks Spanish. She showed up at my door this morning with the oldest cousin (8th grade). Cousin tried to leave the room, but Dominicana would have none of it. She started to follow her out the door, but I stopped her and showed her to her desk. I talked to her the whole time, showed her the name tag, helped her unpack. I assumed she was quiet because she was nervous, and figured she'd adjust after she got to know the class.

I asked her (in English), "What's your name?"
She told me her name.
"Did I spell it right on your name tag?"
Blank stare. So maybe she can't spell it yet. No big deal.
"Why don't you come to the rug with us for calendar?"
No response.
I waved her over with my hand and she shook her head no. Okay, I'll let her sit this one out.

When calendar was over, I split my class into groups for literacy centers. I tried to put Dominicana into a group, and she began talking to me in Spanish. I shook my head.
"No Spanish," I replied. "I speak English."
Quizzical look. Followed by another stream of rapid Spanish. I know VERY LITTLE Spanish, but I hung on her every word, trying to find something I could understand.

"Ooookay...." I said, very slowly when she finished.
"Okay," she echoed cheerfully, and then began to walk out the classroom door.

Um... what?? I bolted after her and caught her just as she got to the hallway. I directed her back to the classroom and grabbed the first one of my bilingual students I could see (commonly referred to by the kindergarten teacher and I as the "class actress"... she's an extremely dramatic child).

"Can you talk to her for me? See what she needs," I begged. Actress began chattering to her in Spanish. Dominicana answered her and then started for the hallway again.

I followed her into the hallway and managed to snag Miss W (2nd grade) to come translate for me. She sat with Dominicana for several minutes, questioning her in English and in Spanish. Then I asked Miss W to tell her a few things. "Tell her I don't speak or understand Spanish. I'll give her a buddy to help her ask questions. When she needs something, she can ask Actress to ask me. Tell her she can NOT leave the room without asking me first."

Miss W's assessment? She doesn't speak any English. Which I knew already, but at least now I had a teacher who could lay some rules down in a language she could understand. I told Actress to stick by her like glue and help her as much as possible.

I tried to resume teaching. No dice. Dominicana kept calling out in Spanish, "Maestra!" followed by more Spanish. She got out of her seat and wandered to the reading corner. She picked up a few books, put them back, walked to my desk, played with my Koosh ball.

I decided it was time to pull out what little Spanish I know.
She looked at me and smiled.
I tried again. "Sientate aqui," I instructed, this time tapping her chair.
She sat.

The rest of the morning was no different. I tried to teach, she tried to understand. It just wasn't happening. She copied from the board and from the other students, but it was clear that she didn't understand what she was writing. I threw my lesson plans out the window and just tried to get through the morning with some review work so I could keep an eye on things.

At snack time, she came to me with a piece of paper. Her name was carefully written on it. She handed it to me.

"For me?" I asked.
"Si," she replied. I think she wanted to show me that she knew something. I hung her paper on my cabinet, a place of honor in first grade.

At lunch, she got to play with her cousin, which made her happy. I hoped that was enough to get her through the afternoon. It was not.

She did well during "silent reading" (it's not quite silent in first grade, but at least they're looking at books...), flipping through the Clifford books I had put on her table. When it was story time, however, she decided she'd had enough. She started out on the rug with everyone else. Then she scooted backwards. Then she slid behind a bookcase so I could no longer see her. I tried to coax her back onto the rug, but she wouldn't have it. I moved my chair to keep her in my sight and kept reading. She put her head in her hands and started to cry. Several of my girls tried to comfort her (in Spanish and English), but she wasn't interested. Soon she had scooted herself into the doorway. She sat there, cross-legged, looking out. Eventually, our reading specialist happened down the hallway and saw her sitting there. She sat with her and tried to get her back into the room. When that didn't work, she just tried to get her to listen to me teach.

And I kept teaching (because, honestly, what choice did I have?), while she sat in my doorway watching me. She seemed interested in the worksheet we were doing, so I gave her a clipboard and let her do it from her spot on the floor. Eventually, she went back to her desk for crayons, and I convinced her to stay there.

Needless to say, her and I were both frazzled by the end of the day. As we were leaving the building, Miss W asked her how her day went. Her reponse? (In Spanish, of course.) "Everyone talks in English a lot. It made my head hurt." Geez. I can only imagine. If I had to sit in a room full of people speaking only Italian or Polish all day long, I'd probably cry, too.

So now I don't know what to do with her. I'm hoping she'll pick up enough English to function on a basic level, and obviously I'm going to send her with the ESL teacher... but other than that? How is she going to get by in first grade? How is she going to learn?


Pigs said...

I've had those students at the fourth grade level and it is really hard for them at first. They need to do lots and lots of listening and just taking it all in. I always found that a Spanish/English picture dictionary was one of the most comforting things for them to look at. We would print out worksheets with objects printed on them and have them write the English word for the picture, etc. You'll be amazed how fast a young child will pick up a language though!

Kristyn said...

Don't worry...she will get it...I taught a boy 2 years ago who came from Albania. He never went to Kindergarten b/c when he got to the US he was too old. His cousin was in my room and she helped him with everything. In about January I had him doing things on his own without her help. Now he is in 3rd grade and he is doing great...there is hope at the end of the tunnel.

Onyx said...

I had a kid two years ago who started with no English and within 6 months was quite fluent. It will come. She will have headaches. You could also lable some of your stuff in english and have her teach you the Spanish word. It would do wonders for her self esteem

Janet said...

Wow. I see that all the time at my school, only thing is we have a large bilingual population so a child that far behind in English wouldnt be placed in a room like mine. The silver lining here seems to be that you do have some people that can help translate and she is eligible for ESL. She is also young enough that she should pick up the language rather quickly, but at lesat for this year, she may be at a disadvantage academically. It sounds to me though that you are doing all that you can do. If I were you, I'd also probably invest in a few pocket phrases in Spanish in an effort to communicate with her. It might make her assimilation easier if she sees you are tying to meet her halfway. Just an idea....:)

Anonymous said...

"Needless to say, her and I were both frazzled by the end of the day"

That should be "she and I". Hope this helps.

Grammar police

Oh, by the by, your situation is not all that unique. We have tons of non English speakers in my school. Get used to it, deary.