Students in program to teach English struggle with frustration


For students who don't understand English, a typical day at school can be frustrating and confusing, as they sit quietly in class, struggling to catch a word they recognize.

At Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia, Bernarette Dumorin from Haiti, who is referred to as Sophia, her middle name, and Yang Hee Kim from Korea, are typical.

Both came to the United States late last year with little English beyond basic words and phrases.

For them, each day starts in an English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class run by Anna Power, whose time is split among 21 students at Harper's Choice and students at four other schools.

This morning, the students are learning to phrase questions. Near the end of class, Ms. Power pulls out a cardboard picture of a dollhouse.

"When you want to watch TV, where do you go?" Ms. Power asks.

"Living room," they respond softly.

"This house has one, two, three levels, right?" Ms. Power continues, pointing to the picture. "And you can call them floors."

Class ends, and Ms. Power gives the two students a drawing of a blank house, asking them to draw pictures and label the furniture that goes in the different rooms. The assignment is supposed to make them familiar with basic English words.

Later, in Ardalia Taliaferro's math class, two girls hunch over Sophia, reviewing for a test. The class of about 15 is quiet, as pupils copy problems from the blackboard and work on them independently.

Sophia's corner is full of whispers. Fellow student Blaire Richardson struggles to show Sophia in broken French how to solve the problems. But Sophia doesn't know the French words for divide, multiply or even numbers.

"Comprendre? A little bit?" Blaire asks tentatively. She asks classmate Jessica Roberts to pull out her seventh-grade French book to look up a definition.

"Oui," Sophia says softly, with a smile of uncertainty. But she does the next problem incorrectly.

"We usually take her to the French teacher, but sometimes she's too busy or she doesn't know how to explain it to her, and it's hard for us," Blaire says. "Sophia acts like she understands, but you can see she really doesn't."

Sophia's next class is social studies, where her classmates are studying geography and, on this day, South America.

Teacher Winnie McCulloch hands out an assignment requiring students to match countries with their capitals. Sophia, who had trouble with a previous assignment, gets a simpler map to fill out.

Ms. McCulloch checks on Sophia every now and then. But, mostly, Sophia sits quietly as Ms. McCulloch goes over the classwork.

Still later, in Louis Brzezinski's reading class, Yang sits quietly, head bent, her page boy hair hiding her face. She draws and labels pictures of furniture -- her homework from that morning's ESOL class.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brzezinski leads a discussion that requires the class to analyze writing style.

Yang does not participate and says nothing during the class. She appears to try to follow the discussion, and grins when the class laughs at a joke.

Mr. Brzezinski leaves Yang alone, saying afterward that she gets different work assigned to her by her ESOL teacher and that he often doesn't know how to help her.

"It's difficult, bordering on impossible, because not knowing what the course of instruction is and having no training . . . I have no idea what would be understood," he says. "It would be wonderful if there were translators for these children."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad