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.”

Art start

Nearly half of Detroit schools offered no music or art last year. Next year could be different.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students learn to play violin at Spain Elementary-Middle School, one of 21 Detroit schools that offered instrumental music last year. Nearly half of Detroit schools had neither music nor art.

The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.

Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.

Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.

“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”

Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.

“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”

But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.

He’s now been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30-45 schools.

“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,”McAlister said.

During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.

The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.

Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.

That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.

“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do so … when we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.

“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”

Here’s the list Detroit district schools that offer music and art. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.

How I Teach

After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

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.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.