More than 20 teachers and learning support staff gathered in the library of Halethorpe Elementary Tuesday evening to listen to a lesson given to them by students.
The lesson was on teaching students new to the country and learning English for the first time.
First of all, said Phobee Kung, an Arbutus Middle School student who moved to the United States from Myanmar in southeast Asia seven years ago without knowing any English, "we don't all speak the same language, so please don't have just one translator."
The concept may seen simple. But southwestern Baltimore County has seen a major influx of immigrants from Myanmar, also known as Burma, over the past decade, and many educators are still grappling with how to help the students, many of whom walk into public school classrooms with little to no knowledge of the English language.
From 2008 to 2012, Maryland saw a large jump in immigration from Myanmar, with many immigrants qualifying as refugees or being granted asylum.
According to the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees, 27 percent of all refugees and asylees, or asylum seekers, who settled in Maryland in that five-year span came from Myanmar, which has been plagued by civil wars for more than 50 years..
In each year from 2008 to 2012, the Burmese population accounted for at least 13 percent of all refugees and asylees seeking English learning or vocational training.
Kung, along with a dozen other Burmese students from Lansdowne and Arbutus middle schools who have gone through their schools' English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, gave teachers a brief lecture about Myanmar before fielding questions. The queries ranged from what it was like to come to school in the United States for the first time to how much teachers should press new English-learner students to participate in class discussions.
"In Burma, we were taught to just listen to the teacher, memorize everything and do well on the test," Kung said. As a result, many new Burmese students are initially uncomfortable participating in class.
"It took me about four years to learn [English]," said Van Peng Hmung, an Arbutus student to came to the U.S. at age 9.
"When I first came here, it was very hard," said Ngun Par, who attends Lansdowne Middle School. "At school, I didn't know what to do, so I would just sit there."
The students recounted for the teachers stories of immigrant students not knowing how to ask for permission to go to the bathroom and even having accidents in class because they were too scared to ask.
Making friends was extremely difficult, and partner work was painful as no other students wanted to work with them because the language barrier, they said.
Robin Franklin, who teaches language arts at Relay Elementary School, was excited for the opportunity to hear from students who have been through the experience of starting life in a new country, at a new school and learning a new language at the same time.
She told the students about one of her own students whom she has been pressing to read aloud in front of his peers. The student came to the area less than two years ago, she said, and she wants to push him to feel comfortable speaking in front of a group, but she wondered whether her tactic was helping or hurting him.
Students still working on their English are under a lot of stress, said Rem Sui Iang, an Arbutus student. While they should be expected to do everything any other student is expected to do, there is a point at which pushing a student too far too soon could cause the student to become even more shy or nervous about speaking publicly.
Not used to being called on to speak by teachers in Myanmar, Kung added, being called on in class was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of coming to school in the U.S.
"This was wonderful," Franklin said after the presentation was over.
She has had a number of non-native-English-speakers in her classes before, but her current student is the first who has immigrated recently from Myanmar.
The chance to hear from some of the Burmese students who have come through the ESOL program, she said, was incredibly helpful.
She was struck by how outgoing and comfortable the students who presented were.
"This is so much fun, because when we get them, when they're younger, we don't get to see that," she said.
Arbutus Middle School principal Michelle Feeney said she was happy to see the students taking an advisory role to help teachers and staff.
"It was the perfect opportunity for them to really take on a leadership role," she said. "They're a conduit between the community and the school."