In the Classroom

The first thing schools often get wrong for English language learners is their names

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with Ngae Reh, 6, at the BCCE after-school learning time at Nora Elementary School in Indianapolis.

Easter Day, a North Central High School sophomore, was named after the religious holiday.

But when she first arrived from a Thailand refugee camp about 10 years ago, the Burmese student’s name was mistakenly recorded as “Ea Star Di” — a mistake that has stuck with her all throughout her school career.

Day said the mistake essentially has made Ea Star Di her official American name. It’s a surprisingly common error and an example of the confusion and chaos that most English language learners experience during their transitions to living in United States.

“I was nervous, confused, and I didn’t know what was going on,” Easter Day said of her first few weeks at Nora Elementary School.

Such errors also show the troubling level of cultural misunderstanding that immigrant students face at school. Would an American-born student’s name remain that badly jumbled for a decade? Almost certainly not.

Experts who work with Indiana’s growing population of English language learners say that taking the seemingly simple step of learning the correct spelling and pronunciation of students’ names is critical to helping them adapt to what is often a drastically different environment from what they knew in their home countries.

“Your name is your identity,” said Jessica Feeser, who directs the English language learners program at Indianapolis Public Schools. “It’s how you relate to yourself. The easiest thing you can do to build relationships with your students is just to pronounce their name accurately and correctly. We cannot underestimate the importance that acculturation has in a child’s success in school.”

Neineh Plo, who helps lead the Burmese Community Center for Education on the city’s North side, said most of his students’ names were misspelled in the process of coming to the U.S.

Since Burmese families don’t use last names, and because there’s often no easy or obvious English translation, mistakes are common during the resettlement process. Sometimes they’re further confounded by typos and confusion at the school and district level.

New residents often don’t go through the hassle of changing the spelling because of the work that goes along with jumping through bureaucratic hoops, Plo said. He said many people straighten out their names when they apply for citizenship years later.

“There have been families who are reluctant to correct their names because they did not want to have to deal with the consequences, like updating your birth certificate, telling the school or hospital,” Plo said, “so they just live with their own wrong names.”

Plo said what worries him is when teachers don’t ask their students about their real names and their meanings. After being called the wrong name for years, students start to lose a connection with the names they were given at birth.

“Because there’s no conversation about names, Burmese children do not get to talk about their name and explore the language,” Plo said. “Students just forget their own names. It hurts their confidence.”

The Indiana Department of Education trains teachers to help new students manage the change that comes with learning in a very different place, said Rachel Davidson, the department’s English learner and migrant education coordinator. Getting names right is part of that.

“We always start by emphasizing the importance of understanding where the student comes from and their cultural background,” Davidson said. “We talk about honoring the native language.”

Trish Morita-Mullaney, who is president of Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said the common mishaps with English learners’ names represent a larger problem: We aren’t accepting as we could be to immigrants.

“We adapt to the dominant audience, but in that, what we are giving up?  What is being evacuated from our identify?” Morita-Mullaney said. “My name is my history and my legacy. It’s important that people get it right.”

Miriam Soto Pressley, who is an elementary school teacher in Hammond and sits on the American Federation of Teachers’ national advisory board on English language learners, said teachers should make a point to have a conversation with the student if they notice a student being called by a nickname or Americanized version of their name.

Soto Pressley said she once had a new student named Jorge come into her class mid-year, and noticed that his classmates started calling him George. After talking to Jorge’s mother, she decided to bring it up with the whole class and turn it into a lesson about respecting other cultures.

“We had a long conversation in my class with all the other children,” Soto Pressley said. “We all had a talk about proper names and what it meant to be given a name at birth and what the outcome was as far as how they felt, the respect issue.”

A few days later, his friends started calling him Jorge again.

“A name can do a lot,” Soto Pressley said. “A name can make you or a name can break you.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.

school for love

Long hours, shared goals, and unbelievable stories: Why so many teachers fall in love with each other

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Timothy Brown

When Carrie and Kevin McCormack married in 2011, they quickly became known as the “teacher parents” of East Bronx Academy, the New York City school where they both worked.

But they didn’t stay the only couple on staff for long. Soon after, two other teachers paired off. Another relationship bloomed shortly afterward.

“My principal always jokes that we’re the hookup school,” Carrie McCormack says. “So many couples have met here.”

But East Bronx Academy is hardly the only school with love in the air. According to recent U.S. Census data, the most common marriages in America are between two grade-school teachers. And nearly 20 percent of people who work in education have spouses who do, too. Many of those couples met while working together.

Carrie and Kevin McCormack met as teachers at East Bronx Academy in New York City.

This Valentine’s Day, Chalkbeat has been looking at the love stories made possible by American education. Now we’re trying to answer the question of why schools are such fertile territory for love.

There are practical explanations: People who work in schools typically get started when they’re young, work together intensely, and have little time to meet other people.

“I always joke, if I hadn’t met Cornelius, I might be alone,” said Kassandra Minor, who met her husband in the bagel line on her first day teaching at a school in Brooklyn.

The benefits of pairing off with a fellow educator accumulate over time, especially as partnerships yield children. “It doesn’t hurt that we have the same vacation schedule,” says Grace Loew, a New York City teacher who met her husband when they were both first-year teachers in 2005. They’re now raising two sons together.

But educators say it’s about more than logistics. The shared task of trying to reach students who depend on schools to change their lives, they say, forges special bonds.

“Working in education, especially urban education, is an all-in job: emotionally, physically, spiritually and everything in between. The only people who can possibly understand the reward and sorrow of the work are fellow educators,” says Sally Jenkins-Stevens, who met her husband, Alex MacIver, when they taught together at a Bronx high school.

“You understand the stressors, the schedule, the unexpected days, and sometimes long nights that are associated with it,” says Brittany Monda, who met her husband Grant in a graduate program in Memphis, where they were both teachers and now each leads a school. “It’s great to know that someone has had a similar day to you without saying much when you get home.”

Or as McCormack puts it, “If I have to go home and talk to a husband who’s not a teacher, he’d probably think I was crazy.”

The possibility of falling in love has become lore at Teach For America, the nonprofit that draws many young adults to the classroom. Teach For America teachers have mentored their colleagues on the pros and cons of dating within the corps, and the number of relationships born at the organization’s summer training institute has even inspired a new piece of slang — “instiboo.”

The group’s founding CEO, Wendy Kopp, married an educator she met through Teach For America, and so did her successor, current CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard.

“Anyone seeking out a woman partner at Teach For America has a pretty good shot at finding someone, given the incredibly brilliant majority-women environment they find themselves in,” jokes Villanueva Beard.

About her own marriage, and the increasing number facilitated by Teach For America, she said, ’“There’s something powerful about being with a partner who deeply gets the urgency and the possibility, and who’s on a shared mission of being part of the solution, alongside our communities, to ensure educational equity and excellence for all.”

That work can bring together people who might otherwise not connect. Even though schools across the country struggle to attract as many male teachers and teachers of color as many would like to see in classrooms, they remain among the most diverse workplaces in America.

Ybelka Medina and Geoffrey Schmidt bonded at the New York City school where they worked.

For Geoffrey Schmidt and Ybelka Medina, a shared passion for reaching students who had struggled in their previous schools bridged what seemed like an insurmountable culture gap.

“I am a Dominican immigrant that grew up in a blue-collar family that depended on social welfare to make ends meet in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn,” says Medina. “Geoff is American, comes from a solid white-collar family … and initially came off as a total frat boy more interested in socializing than actually teaching. I really liked hanging out with him … but didn’t take him seriously as a teacher nor as someone to date.”

Then they spent time getting to understand what had drawn each of them to the classroom, and romance bloomed.

“Education by its nature draws people who look at our world and want to make it better,” Schmidt says. “It makes sense that this kind of intense thought partnership would lead to bigger things. I know for us, it gave us an opportunity to see one another in a different way than I think we ever might have otherwise.”

The experience of seeing someone doing work they’re deeply invested in also worked its magic on Cornelius Minor, Kassandra’s husband, who said he considers teaching an art.

“When you’re doing your art, you’re your purest and best self,” he said. “If people are in your company when you’re being that person and they notice you, that’s really powerful.”