History Lessons

About a week ago I stood in my class working through the citizenship portion of my lesson plan. Now, for most of us, citizenship sounds like something we’d never have to worry about, but for my students, it’s sometimes as close as a phone call with a date and time for an interview in Memphis.

Can you imagine anything scarier than going to an immigration interview where you’ll be asked to answer 10 questions about a country in order to prove you should become a citizen?

I’m sure there are scarier things. I can imagine them, and you can, too. But when it comes down to the wire, these students of mine are telling me how afraid they are of this citizenship interview simply because it is a daunting task. And, well, I can see why.

If you don’t know anything about the interview portion of the citizenship process, don’t worry. Neither did I until I landed this job. Every person who goes through citizenship in the U.S. has an interview where they are evaluated on their English speaking skills as well as their listening. Now, you might expect that to be easy, but what kinds of questions are you anticipating? Not nice questions about the weather.

The interview features questions about the application a person submitted what must feel like ages ago by the time they get into that room. The application is multiple pages long and asks tough questions of a non-English speaker. So by the time they sit before an immigration official, they have to recall information they put down on paper, sometimes with a lawyer for accuracy, months prior about their backgrounds and their families.

But I digress.

The citizenship lesson I was teaching was about the actual questions that each applicant is required to study in order to pass the test for citizenship. Applicants are given a test booklet with 100 possible questions they have to study. These questions range over a number of topics from history, government, geography, and U.S. symbols. The thing is, if you go to an immigration officer, you have no idea what questions you’ll be asked, and you only get 10 questions to answer.

Applicants have to answer 6 questions correctly to pass the test.

As I was saying, I was going over as many questions as possible in class last week when I stumbled upon a topic that apparently left my students a tad confused. We were discussing federal holidays when I explained Columbus Day to my students. Admittedly, most Americans don’t care for the holiday as it’s just another mark on a calendar, a day for their kids to come home from school with strange cardboard hats and colored drawings of old-fashioned people in boats. But this holiday struck something in my students, and we had a lively discussion around one question.

If there were already people living in the U.S. when Columbus came here, why do we celebrate him as discovering the country?


I had to pin down the real question here before I could answer it, but it honestly came back to the question of colonization. The U.S. wasn’t just a hunk of land with no habitation. So why did it matter that it was discovered by some strange European and subsequently explored and colonized by other strange Europeans?

And this was where our conversation led us. We discussed Columbus’ travels and how most Europeans had no concept of the world as including these other pieces of land we now know as North America and South America. We discussed the discoveries from the perspectives of Europeans expecting Columbus to sail west and find the other side of the world containing China instead of these strange new lands.

And I rediscovered how fun it is to teach these concepts to people who have no exposure to our version of history, no exposure to our education system, no exposure to what makes this side of history so interesting!

I say that not to say that history isn’t amazing around the world. I have always been fascinated by world history. I love learning about history in different countries. But to teach something that I’ve always found so simple and such a normal part of American history to people who have never really had this education is exciting. To see them understand this discovery for what it is, what it meant in its time, was something that really made my day.

And yet, I heard from my husband this morning that contestants on a local radio show couldn’t figure out how old the country would be in 20 years. The tie answer was 450 years.

How easily we forget our history.

In fact, the answer would be 250 years.

From 1776, the year we declared independence to 2026. We are a young country, are we not?

And here I sit, enjoying my students and their curious questions about our history, our language, and their desire to understand. This is why I wanted to get out of the cube.

– RaeNezL


It’s Like Speaking Another Language

There are times in teaching when I look at my students and wonder how we can be so entirely different. It’s not because they come from wildly different cultural backgrounds, or maybe it is. I consider it a totally different type of speaking another language because I don’t just teach English, I teach culture.

American culture, in particular, is one of enormous differences from the cultures of most of my students. They come from backgrounds of patriarchal societies with heavy overtones of male dominance, female submission (in some cases female abuse), extreme religious views that color the lenses with which they see the world, and an adherence to traditional values that have been long abandoned by current American culture.

This is why there are times when I wonder if I’m speaking another language to my students entirely.

I have certain groups of students who are rather loathe to accept instruction from a woman. The fact they’re male is only a part of the equation. The rest of the equation is very much decided by their country of origin and background. They tolerate the teachers but are hard pressed to understand why they fail tests when they refuse to do homework or participate in class activities.

I have other groups of students that are determined to speak in their native language to ask questions about my teaching. I would understand that if they’d already asked my assistance with their question, but they, by and large, ignore me and speak to one another to try to understand whatever grammar topic we are covering. The result is usually lackluster writing and a number of raised hands asking for help to write their sentences.

There are other students who come to class with one purpose and one purpose alone: to have me sign a piece of paper so that they can continue receiving public assistance. These are some of the most entitled, privileged students I’ve come across. And while I would never assume this to be the case for the majority of my fellow Americans on public assistance, especially as I’ve had to rely on unemployment before, I’m seeing that for some of these students it’s no problem to come to class and demand that I sign a paper to verify their class time daily. It is a problem, however, for them to be asked to do homework, come to class regularly, or even participate in class like normal students.

This is the student I want to speak to in this post.

The student who comes only to fulfill credit for public assistance is the student who should find another program. It’s not to say that they have no business being in our program. It’s simply saying they take advantage of a program that other students rely on to help them advance in their education.

I have seen several students who have very little desire to be in the classes come simply to have a paper signed. They sometimes ask me to sign their papers at the beginning of class, but I refuse and only sign at the end. I’m not stupid enough to believe they would stay to the end of class with the paper already signed.

One student came to me and said she would no longer come to our classes because she no longer needed to get the paper signed. I said it was her choice to come or not to come, and she never returned. Another student asked me to fill out her paper but said she couldn’t stay for class that day. She needed the entire previous month filled out and hadn’t bothered to bring the paper to class for me to sign before, so I had to pull up my records and fill in the days she’d attended. She tried arguing with me that she attended more days than I signed.

But my greatest one happened last week.

A student who has apparently never brought in paper or pencil for class moved to my class. He’d been told by our tester she expected him to have his materials for class that day. He came in and brought nothing with him except the paper he’d need signed for public assistance. When we asked about his materials, the same excuse of having forgotten them came to his lips.

The tester called him out and told him it was an expectation. Now this particular student isn’t fond of the women who teach him and the authority they carry as teachers. He’s less fond of a little old lady calling him out for not being prepared. Essentially she angered him so much he skipped the next class.

I have no idea if he’ll be back this week.

If he comes back, I doubt he’ll bring his materials.

And really, if he can’t understand why it’s important to bring a paper and pencil to class, it really is like I’m speaking another language to him.

– RaeNezL

You’re Never Just A Teacher

One of the interesting things I’m learning about being a teacher is that you’re never just a teacher.

I can be teacher and teach English to my students, but I’m serving other roles as well. I’d like to examine a few of those other roles today.

I always knew teachers did so much more than just teach. As a student, I always held teachers up in this higher plane of existence from other fields of employment. Why? Because many of my teachers did things for me that were above and beyond teaching.

Now I know what it looks like in my own experience of teaching adults, and while it’s not quite the same, it’s still true that teaching is never just teaching.

Here are just a few of the roles I have played as an ESL Teacher:

I am test preparer. 

This may seem self-explanatory, but it falls a bit outside my role as teacher. My official role is simply to prepare students for the test they take in our program. Following that and our curriculum, what I do outside it is on my own time, and I have a student who has come to me on several occasions during class breaks and before class to discuss a test she plans to take in order to get accepted to a local community college.

What is this test? Not ours by a long shot. It’s called the Michigan Test, and it is similar to the TOEFL or other tests that are designed to test a foreign student’s English language acquisition and skills. The student who plans to take the Michigan Test has signed up for this test in May and is feverishly studying using a book similar to Baron’s study guides to try to pass this test, but she comes to me for help in deciding how to approach the test.

I mainly give her advice about how to approach her practice tests and tips we have heard over and over as students. “Take one of the practice tests and just answer all the questions with your first thought. See how you do.” This was one piece of advice I gave her. “Try to find ways to relax and stay calm. You forget things when you get tense, so try some breathing exercises.” She talks about being nervous, and one of the big concerns she has had is not being able to remember what she’s learned.

As her teacher, even though she’s already left my class for a higher level class, she continues to come to me for advice and support, and I gladly try to give her what help I can.

I am a researcher.

As with that last role, you might think this one is obvious, but until you have adults asking for information that you’ve never even considered searching out, you can’t begin to question the role of research as a teacher. Certainly I research facts, grammar rules, and information I plan to present to my students. However, I have students come to me for more information about things unrelated to class topics on a semi-regular basis.

With my student above, she came to me with questions about how to enter a community college as a foreign student, and having never been in the position myself, I set to work finding the information from the particular college’s website for her. It was certainly worth the research as I had no idea how different the procedures were depending on the varying visa types.

Another student recently came to me and questioned me about adoption. She asked if she could adopt a U.S. born child as a non-citizen. As this was not a normal circumstance, I decided to look into some of the information on adoption laws and discovered a wealth of information I’m still trying to wade through for her to pass on to her husband.

Being a researcher doesn’t just mean research for my lesson plans anymore. It means finding answers to tough questions that are hard for my students to research on their own with their limited English skills.

I am an advisor/counselor.

I think all teachers feel this at some point in their careers. I am just blessed to feel it at this stage in mine.

My students come to me frequently with questions about how to pass the test. This time I am referring to the program test. They come to me with questions about things they have heard from their American friends. They ask me how to respond when American employers say certain things to them. They ask me how to be confident about their oral tests. And they ask me about passing the citizenship exam and how to stay calm in the middle of the exam.

This is perhaps one of the great responsibilities and privileges that comes with teaching. I love this and love the opportunity to share ideas and advice with my students. I do everything in my power to give them answers that will help, and many of them have come back to thank me for the answers I’ve given them, even if it was just an answer that helped them pass the test.

I am emotional support. 

One thing that teachers see is life. Life plays out no matter what kind of classroom a teacher heads. With my adults, I see things from the perspective of parents, lovers, friends, and enemies. There is a tension that exists in a classroom of adults, similar to that in a classroom of children but with a depth that comes from knowing the bills must be paid, the work must be done, the children must be cared for, and the food must be cooked.

When life goes haywire or when things get sketchy, I find myself at the head of people in line for requests of emotional support. My student who plans to take the Michigan Test constantly asks for my prayers for her success, and I am happy to offer them on her behalf. This week I learned a student has a medical condition she cannot receive surgery for until she returns from her home country, and she had asked for my help because the condition was scary and new.

And yesterday a lovely student asked me and my boss for not only emotional support but for a ride home from the hospital after an exploratory surgery she will have to try to determine what’s going on internally. She has no family here and reached out to us because she had no one else to ask. She asked for help, support, and prayers. I can’t imagine doing any less for her.

All these roles and so many more have been a blessing.

Sometimes teaching is hard, but when I think of the ways I get to be more than just a teacher, I can’t help thinking it’s a wonderful thing to be in such a position as this.

I’m never just a teacher.

– RaeNezL

Things My Students Have Shown Me

I haven’t even been teaching a full year yet, and my students have shown me a world of amazing things. I don’t get to see the world from a child’s perspective like elementary school teachers. I don’t open young minds and help students learn what they’d like to do with their lives like middle and high school teachers. I don’t offer students the ability to learn in unique ways and communicate in different ways from regular people like special education teachers.

Most of the time, I do the learning.

Because I teach English as a Second Language, I spend a lot of my time learning. If I’m not studying up on my history, civics, and grammar in order to teach a new lesson, I’m learning about different countries and cultures straight from the students in my classes.

I know other teachers in different classroom settings learn, too. It wouldn’t be teaching if there wasn’t a certain level of continuing education that was required of educators. But sometimes I learn things from these adult students that I would love to share with even a fraction of the rest of the world.

If I could share it with even a small amount of my fellow Americans, I would consider that to be an honor.

Why? Because I’m teaching immigrant adults who have had some intense experiences upon coming to the United States of America, and they work every bit as hard–and sometimes harder–as American citizens to find a sense of belonging, a little bit of income, and a place to call home.

I won’t make the controversial statements I’d like to make in this post. I will share some of the lighthearted moments that I think are worth sharing.

Things My Students Have Shown Me:

  • Hospitality isn’t just a Southern notion. In the US, we like to think that the Southern states have a corner on hospitality. We have that Southern hospitality down, right? Well, I have some students who could teach us a thing or two about hospitality. These students band together and offer gifts and food at the drop of a hat. They invite me to their homes and are warmer than some of my fellow Southerners have ever been.
  • Giving the teacher an apple is old hat. We grew up with ideas about presenting teachers with apples. We have printable gifts featuring apples for our teachers. All the cards for teachers are apple-themed. My students? They give me everything but apples. How about chocolate-covered espresso beans from Trader Joe’s or bringing in homemade dolma (stuffed grape leaves)? I have one student who brings me Biscoff cookies regularly despite my telling her it’s not necessary. When I tried to explain this to her, she took it as an insult, and I stopped immediately.
  • Charm can come in all races. This never ceases to amaze me. I don’t consider myself to be a person who’s easy to impress in the sense that I’m easily flattered. Unless you’re my husband, you aren’t going to simply flatter me and get your way. But when I started teaching, I was highly entertained by all the students suddenly trying to charm their way out of homework or doing writing exercises in my class. Most of these were the younger men, but they came in all shapes, sizes, and races. I had to laugh or else I’d be too mad to teach.
  • A little change goes a long way. This may sound vague, and it is. However, the little change I’m referring to is in the way I wore my hair. Yep, that little. I’m typically a dry-and-straighten my hair kind of girl. I’ll wear my hair straight and down or pulled into a ponytail. The first time I changed this and scrunched it into a bit of curls, the reaction was instant. I had the attention of most of my (male) students and had other students doing double-takes and throwing me compliments in the hall. Ever since then, I get compliments every single time I wear my hair that way and told I should always wear it that way. I’m always surprised how quick they are to voice their thoughts about that.
  • If you grew up as a US citizen, you should feel very, very blessed. It doesn’t matter what country they come from, almost every student I’ve met has told me they feel lucky to be here in the US. They’ve been here a short time or a long time, but they’re excited to have the opportunities available to them in this country, opportunities most of us know nothing about. They know all about these opportunities and are happy to remind me that most Americans take these opportunities for granted. When I hear that, I remind myself to be thankful again and again.

These are just a few of the things my students have shown me. I think it’s special to have the opportunity to see the world from their eyes. I’ve learned so many things just from listening to them talk about their lives.

If anyone reads this and wants to tell me that these students have no business being in the US, then I suppose part of me can understand the frustration. But I also know that I have students who survived the horrific torture of citizens in Cambodia, who escaped war-torn parts of Africa, who left parts of China for university scholar programs here, who moved from El Salvador with no hopes of visiting home until they can achieve citizenship, who moved here from Guatemala only to be stalked and almost killed by crazy ex-boyfriends, who came from Iraq and Saudi Arabia only to be cursed and flipped off and told they are terrorists.

It must be hard to live in a country where freedom of speech allows us such liberties.

These are the things my students have shown me.

– RaeNezL