Lost in Translation

Video: Advocates for English learners discuss challenges of teaching immigrant students

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Charlie Geier of the Indiana Department of Education and Southport High School Student Elly Mawi speak on a panel hosted by Chalkbeat and WFYI at the Indianapolis Public Library.

Helping English language learners adapt to school in the U.S. isn’t simply the responsibility of specially trained teachers — or at least it shouldn’t be — experts argued Thursday.

At a panel discussion organized by Chalkbeat, WFYI and the Indianapolis Star at the Indianapolis Public Library Wednesday, key figures from a recent series of stories about English language learning in Indiana called “Lost in Translation” discussed the challenges that immigrant students face and ideas for how they can be better served in the future. The series was a joint effort of Chalkbeat, the Star and WFYI Public Media.

“I think what schools are struggling with is who owns these students,” said said Charlie Geier, who oversees English language learning programs for the Indiana Department of Education. “The answer is everybody owns these students. (Learning English) is just not something that happens in isolation for 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day.”

Along with Geier, the panel included Southport High School student Elly Mawi; May Oo Mutraw, founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education; and Eddie Rangel, an Indianapolis Public Schools teacher.

The speakers said schools need to take advantage of increased state funding, approved by the legislature in the wake of the series.

Video from the event is now available thanks to WFYI. If the video doesn’t play above, click here to watch it. You can find a shorter 10-minute version below.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the American Graduate Project also helped sponsor the event.

Lost in Translation

10 inspiring minutes on education, freedom and the American dream

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Elly Mawi expressed her gratitude for her teachers at Chalkbeat and WFYI's recent Conversation about Education focused on English language learners.

Chalkbeat’s recent series, Lost In Translation, jointly published with the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media, aimed to shed light on the challenges schools face to help English language learners, especially those newly arrived from other countries, thrive.

But helping immigrant children at school also requires understanding their lives before coming to the United States and their broader experiences as newcomers to Indiana.

For Indianapolis, one of the biggest and fastest-growing immigrant student groups is children from Burma.

Last week, Chalkbeat brought together four people who shared their stories in the series for a panel discussion at the Central Library. For the full conversation, go here. But, thanks to WFYI, you can now view a 10-minute highlight video (below).

Be prepared to be moved.

Two of the panelists, May Oo Mutraw and and Elly Mawi, spoke passionately about the hardships Burmese families have in Indiana.

Most of them, Mutraw said, were fleeing a 66-year civil war that upended their lives.

“They lived literally in the war zone, said Mutraw, founder of Indianapolis’ Burmese Community Center for Education. “Their villages were burned down. They fled into the forest.”

Schooling, she said, was also a casualty.

“We are talking about a generation who did not get to go to school — the whole generation,” she said.

But in Indiana, with the help of public schools, they had an opportunity for a much better future. They understand the American dream.

“I personally always believed that through education we can liberate ourselves,” Mutraw said. “Education, for me and for my family, is a practice of freedom.”

Mawi, a top student graduating this year from Perry Township’s Southport High School, once sat on a dirt floor to learn from volunteer teachers in a refugee camp in Malaysia, said even in her community people don’t realize what many Burmese children have been through.

“We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death,” she said. “It’s whether you die or if you fight and you escape.”

Mawi praised Southport as a great place for English language learners and Perry Township as welcoming. But still, even there, not everyone understands how common her story is.

“A lot of times, people think the reason we come here is because of greed,” she said. “We get a lot of misunderstanding for that.”

Near the end of the event, Mawi turned to the audience to praise her teachers, several of whom were in the audience.

Some of them were moved to tears.

“This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, but not just this every day,” she said. “If you are a teacher sitting here tonight, or watching on live stream, thank you for what you have done.”

Mawi then addressed English as a new language teachers directly.

“As an ENL student … we thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference. You might not get enough praise or enough pay or enough credit for what you have done. But you are making a difference every day in our lives.”

Teachers who have more challenges in the classroom, like helping kids learn to speak English, should be judged less harshly if test scores take time to catch up to their peers, she said.

“You are the unsung heroes of our society and community,” Mawi said, turning back toward the teachers. “We love you and thank you.”

Lost in Translation

A message for teachers of immigrant children: You make a difference

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A panel discussion at the Central Library tonight focused on English language learners. Pictured are moderator Hayleigh Colombo of Chalkbeat; May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Buremese Community Center for Education; Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel; and Southport High School student Elly Mawy.

When an Indianapolis school meets new students from Burma, there is a lot the teachers, staff and their new classmates can’t imagine about the students’ life experiences.

May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education, said schools often don’t understand what it means for families that come from a country like Burma, which has been embroiled in civil war for decades.

“These people lived literally in the war zones,” she said. “Their villages were burned down. They hid in the forest. If they heard boots of the soldiers, they fled again.”

For some, Indianapolis is the first place they’ve ever learned in an organized way.

“We are talking about a generation of people who did not get to go to school,” Mutraw said.

Mutraw joined Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel, Southport High School student Elly Mawi and Charlie Geier, who heads the Indiana Department of Education’s English language learning efforts, for a panel discussion tonight to discuss the challenges of teaching children who are still learning to speak English.

The panel, moderated by Chalkbeat Indiana’s Hayleigh Colombo and held at the Central Library, was a follow-up to a series of stories jointly published last month by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media.

The series, called Lost In Translation, explored the challenges Indiana schools face to serve a fast-growing population of immigrant students. The stories reported funding had fallen behind as the number of English language learners has nearly tripled in Marion County.

Elly Mawi, a senior at Southport High School, came to the United States from a refugee camp after her family fled Burma. She praised Southport for being welcoming to immigrant students, but said she and her Burmese classmates do sometimes hear complaints in the community about the cost of serving them.

“We get a lot of misunderstanding,” she said. “They think we come here because of greed. We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death. You either die or escape.”

Last week, proponents of English language learning programs got some good news: the legislature more than doubled a grant program that supports instruction for children learning to speak English. Key lawmakers said the series helped raise awareness of the need for more funding.

Geier said the funding boost was an important step forward. Another recent upgrade was Indiana’s move to higher quality diagnostic tests schools now use to evaluate English language learners called World Class Instructional Design and Assessment.

The next step, he said, was to improve and expand training and license requirements for teachers of English language learners.

Just 900 Indiana teachers have a credential for expertise in teaching children learning to speak English on their teaching licenses, he said. Programs to prepare those teachers range wildly in what they require. Some require much less classwork and student teaching than others.

“We need to think about quality,” he said. “We have to have the right person doing the right work.”

Teachers who are dedicated to helping English language learners make a huge difference, said Mawi. Her teachers went above and beyond to help her. They met with her after school. They helped her fill out her college applications.

Mawi, who will graduate third in her class at Southport and will attend Butler University next year on a full scholarship, had a message for teachers of English language learners from all immigrant children like her:

“We thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference every day in our lives.”