book excerpt

How one word bound together a classroom of Denver high school students learning a new language — and a new country

Eddie Williams's classroom at Denver's South High School (photo provided by Helen Thorpe).

The following is an excerpt from “The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom,” by Denver journalist and author Helen Thorpe. The book follows the lives of 22 immigrant teenagers in an English Language Acquisition class as Denver’s South High School. Though the story unfolds during the 2015-2016 school year, its themes are timely now given the intense national debate about immigration and refugee policy. This excerpt introduces readers to the man at the head of the classroom and explains how his students found common ground in one word. 

Eddie Williams felt a sense of kinship with students who struggled to determine their place in American society. The English Language Acquisition teacher had been born in a tiny border town in southern California. His mother had grown up nearby, in a Spanish-speaking household. Her parents had immigrated from Mexico, and when she was a child, Mr. Williams’s mother had learned English in ELA classes. For her, the experience had been searing. As an adult, she had not taught her children Spanish, for fear they would encounter the sort of virulent prejudice she had experienced in school. When her children were small, she did not even share with them the complete story of her own background, because of the degree of prejudice toward those of Mexican descent. She had married an American, and when her children were small, they believed they were Anglo.

One day, while we were standing on the front steps of South, chatting about his background, Eddie Williams recalled that when his mother had finally revealed her Mexican identity, his sister had cried. In her mind, to be Mexican was to be dirty or unlovable. It was not something she wanted to be. Although he did not say so, I thought perhaps he, too, might have struggled to embrace fully the part of himself that had been treated as inferior by white society. I could see why teaching the beginner level ELA class to newcomer students at South High School might make him feel more whole.

With the advent of spring, as more and more interactions were taking place, I found myself able appreciate in an entirely new fashion how all of the different languages represented in the room converged in ways I had not previously recognized. I glimpsed this convergence one afternoon in the middle of April, when I was sitting with Shani, Jakleen, and Mariam, who had teamed up to work together. They were talking about a book that Mr. Williams had started reading out loud with the class. The book was called Cesar Chavez: Fighting for Farmworkers, and it was a nonfiction graphic novel, told in cartoon strips.

For Mr. Williams, the story of Cesar Chavez held tremendous power. He got a little emotional, trying to explain the significance of this guy his students had never heard of—trying to put into words why Cesar Chavez mattered. At one point, as I was listening to Shani, Jakleen, and Mariam discuss a poster they were making about the book, I found myself wondering how the three girls were managing to communicate. Shani spoke Tajik, Russian, and a little Farsi, while Jakleen and Mariam were Arabic speakers—in other words, they did not share a common language. Yet they seemed to understand one another, and they were not using Google Translate, nor were they speaking in English. How were they interacting? I could hear all three of them saying the word kitab. What was that? “Book!” Shani told me. “My language, their language, same.”

In their home languages, the word for “book” was virtually identical. In Arabic, it was kitab; in Tajik, kitob. In Turkish, it was kitap, Jakleen pointed out, and in Farsi, Shani hastened to add, the word was kitab, just like Arabic. Initially, I thought this kind of convergence existed only in the Middle East, but as I spent more time with students from Africa, I came to realize my mistake. Dilli told me that that in Kunama, the word for “book” was kitaba, and Methusella said in Swahili it was kitabu. That was the moment when I grasped my own arrogance as an English speaker. I mean, the arrogance harbored by someone who knew only European languages, which rendered the well-laced interconnectedness of the rest of the world invisible. I was starting to see it, though—the centuries-old ties that bound Africa and the Middle East, born of hundreds of years of trade and travel and conquest and marriage. Once the students grasped that I would exclaim with delight if they found a word that had moved through many of their countries, they started coming to me to share loanwords and cognates. More than one-third of Swahili comes from Arabic, meaning the links between those two languages are as powerful as those between English and Spanish, but it was also possible to chart the reach of Arabic across the African continent, into Kunama and Tigrinya as well.

Helen Thorpe

As the kids began to discover these commonalities, I began to feel as though I was watching something like the living embodiment of a linguistic tree. The classroom and the relationships forming in it were almost a perfect map of language proximity around the globe. Generally, students chose to communicate most with students whose home languages shared large numbers of cognates with their own, which meant their first friendships often developed along language groupings. As this took place around me, I could see my own position on the world’s tree of languages more clearly. English speakers can easily grasp the vast coterminology of all the Indo-European languages—our own limb of the global language tree—but we are generally deaf and dumb to the equally large influence of Arabic, or Chinese, or Hindi across parts of the globe where English does not dominate. And we cannot hear or see the equally significant coterminology that has resulted among various other language families, such as between the Arabic and the African languages. It was to our detriment, not understanding how tightly interwoven other parts of the world are. When we make enemies in the Middle East, for example, we alienate whole swaths of Africa, too—often without knowing.

Qalb was the word that the students wanted to teach me about most of all. One day over lunch, Shani got very puppylike about this concept, bouncing around in her chair as we were sitting with Rahim, Jakleen, and Mariam. “Qalb! My language, qalb! Arabic, qalb! Farsi, qalb!” Shani announced. Okay, I thought, I get it; they’ve found another cognate. But what was qalb? “Qalb means ‘heart,’” Rahim explained. “This word, it is the same in all our languages.” I tried to get a better sense of this concept, which the students and I discussed over a series of days, first with Rahim and later with Ghasem. Could you say that their English Language Acquisition teacher, Mr. Williams, had a qalb that pumped blood through his body? Yes, Ghasem confirmed. Could you ask, “How much qalb did it take for Mr. Williams to do this, year after year, with such infinite patience, for room after room of newcomers?” Yes, the students agreed. When two people fell in love—was that qalb again? Yes.

I left South High School that day thinking that qalb and heart were one and the same. I used one word to refer to a muscle in my body and the concept of falling in love and the idea of what it takes to raise a family or to teach an entire classroom full of teenagers from all around the world, and the students from the Middle East would use one single word for all of that, too. Qalb and heart seemed identical. Then I looked up qalb on Google Translate one weekend, while the kids were missing me and I was missing the kids. When I asked Google to translate “heart” into Arabic, it gave qalb, as expected. But when I asked Google to translate qalb into English, I got transformation, conscience, core, marrow, pith, pulp, gist, essence, quintessence, topple, alter, flip, tip, overturn, reversal, overthrow, capsize, whimsical, capricious, convert, counterfeit. In addition, the word meant: substance, being, pluck.

I am in love with this word, I thought. What is all this movement about? My own concept of heart did not include flip, capsize, or reverse. Our two cultures did not seem to have the same idea of what was happening at the core of our beings. There was something reified and stolid about my sense of heart, whereas the idea of heart that these kids possessed appeared to have a lighter, more nimble quality. Whatever it was, qalb seemed more fluid and less constrained than anything I had imagined happening inside of me.

Helen Thorpe is the author of The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom (Scribner, November 2017).

language learning

Westminster district signs agreement to better serve students learning English

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Teachers in Westminster schools will get new training for educating students who are learning English as a second language, and the district will have to create a way to evaluate how they are providing that education.

Those are just two of a long list of changes the district will make after the superintendent signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to change the way Westminster Public Schools educates students who are identified as English language learners.

The settlement agreement is the result of a federal investigation in which the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the district was in violation of non-discrimination laws. According to a brief summary online, federal officials, “examined whether the district was identifying and serving its English learner students in compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act,” and entered into the agreement “to resolve the District’s noncompliance” and “ensure that (English learner) students receive the support they need to succeed.”

The original complaint was not immediately available. The agreement also notes that the district disputed the claims and argued its schools were in compliance with the law.

School district officials were not available to comment on the agreement.

Other districts in the region have had issues with the federal government related to educating English learners. Adams 12 officials signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010. The Adams 14 district reached a settlement agreement in 2014 after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Denver Public Schools has been under a court-ordered agreement for more than 30 years.

In the current school year, about 40 percent of Westminster’s almost 9,500 students are identified as English learners. The agreement, however, suggests that the district might not have properly identified all the students who need English language services.

As a whole, the Westminster district has struggled academically on state criteria. The district was one of the first to face state accountability hearings last year and was put on a state-ordered plan to show improvement.

In the latest round of state test data, the Westminster district was one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. In the previous round, there was no gap in growth scores on English tests.

When it comes to graduation rates, the district’s English learners outpace the district overall. In 2017, for instance, 59.3 percent of students who speak limited English graduated in four years, compared to 57.8 percent of all district students. Looking at six-year graduation rates, the district’s English learners also outpace the state’s English learners.

Among the most detailed changes in the settlement agreement are changes to how teachers are trained to work with students who speak a language other than English.

The agreement states that “all English language development instruction will be provided by a CLDE-endorsed teacher or one who is “on-track” to complete” the state certification.

According to data provided by the district in December, 83 district staff members at that point had that state certification to teach culturally or linguistically diverse students. The district has more than 1,000 staff members including about 500 teachers. The agreement lays out a timeline for when teachers must complete the certifications, when the district must revise their internal training for new teachers and when they must complete their training program for existing teachers.

The training materials for those programs must be submitted to the federal government for review within 60 days of the agreement.

Some of the other requirements laid out in the agreement:

  • Within 45 days, the district must identify students who after five years of services have not yet become fluent in English, and must ask the parents whether they want their children to get additional help.
  • The district will have to train employees to review whether parents need translation services, and will train them on how to explain to parents how they may get access to qualified interpreters.
  • Except in an emergency, the district is not to use students, family, or friends of parents for interpretation or translation services.
  • The district must review its procedures for identifying students who are English learners — including students who are new to the country, and students who are long-term English learners — and must review files of all students enrolled in the district during the last four years to find students who might have qualified as English learners and who weren’t tested or identified.
  • The district must also staff each school with a specialist with a state endorsement for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, including at the district’s Colorado STEM Academy and Westminster Academy for International Studies, in order to “provide an equal and meaningful opportunity for (English learners) to apply” and participate in the schools.

Read the full agreement below.



pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.