Holiday Tears and Cheers with English Language Learners

There are many moments when I really wish my Spanish was better, and yesterday was one of those moments.

It was the last day of the semester, and my introduction level English Language Development class (grade 7 and 8) was working on re-organizing our class library and bookshelves.  They had already earned their movie day, with chips and chamoy, by being one of the hardest-working and well-behaved groups I have ever taught, but why not take care of business first? We have four periods together, after all. They had a playlist of cumbias, banda and other latino music playing, and periodically paused their work to dance.  They sang the familiar songs aloud. Books were dusted, sorted and shelved. By chance, it was all my girls; the boys’ families had left a day early on vacation.

I chatted with a few students about this, and inquired about their families and friends back home.  The thing about an introduction level ELD class is that every one of my students has moved here from another country, all within the past year or two.  Many of them live with aunts and uncles here, or with just one parent, with the other parent left behind temporarily. None of them had much of a say in the decision to leave. Most of them seem happy to be in school learning, but I know they each have a complex and usually difficult story.

In this year’s class I have students mostly from Mexico, and one student from the Dominican Republic, and one from Honduras.  I asked a couple of students if they would be able to go visit their families in the future. Immediately, I wished my listening comprehension in Spanish was stronger, because within moments they were talking about the intricacies of who in their family could go back and re-enter the country, and who couldn’t. And before I knew it, a girl was crying, being consoled by a close circle of other girls whose eyes were also red.  And then everyone was crying, including me and our instructional aide, who luckily speaks better Spanish.  The students took turns telling their stories.  I understood that some people had died, some families were separated indefinitely, and some people were simply from very far away and the prospect of having enough money for a trip was unlikely.  There was also talk of passports.

Our aide gave them a pep talk about how strong they are, and how much responsibility they are all carrying for their families to have to work hard and learn English and be successful, and how strong they are. I told them how proud I am of them and how brave they all are.  I told them how special and important it is that they have each other for support, because they can understand each other. We all cried a little bit more before eating chips and watching a goofy comedy for our remaining 2.5 periods together.  

I have had an ongoing conversation with a colleague about whether or not the legally required four-hour block of English language is simply legalized segregation. But there are moments when, at least for these beginners, I am very grateful we have that extra time together. They need to know they have a home base on campus, a place where it is okay to still be learning English, and a group of students who can truly understand a little bit of what they go through on a daily basis. I try to learn their stories and empathize, but the friendships they form with each other go beyond any kind of support I can provide.  It is conventional wisdom that the holidays can be a difficult time emotionally for adults, but I am not sure that people really think of it that way for young people.  These students go through many difficulties during holidays, and throughout the year. Part of my students’ sadness yesterday may have been that they won’t see some of their friends regularly over the winter break.  But I am very grateful that they had the time and space to talk and cry together before parting ways for the holidays.  And at least we can all look forward to seeing one another again in January!



Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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