Mention English as second language learners to most teachers, and visions pop up of students who work hard but still struggle to learn English. When most of these students arrive in our classrooms, we know they will encounter tremendous obstacles.
What happens to those students the following year?
Or two or three years later?
Certainly, many students who learn English as a second language continue to struggle years later, and we often hear of their low test scores and high drop-out rates.
We don’t, however, often hear about the students who learn English as a second language who not only learn to converse in English; they excel.
I begin each semester with 75-90 high school seniors who take AP English. Most of them are hard working, intelligent, and ambitious kids.
Amid such students, each semester I also know I will have one, two, three, or more students for whom English is a second language. That’s right! Some of those young students who enter ESL classes as young children, finish their high school careers in Advanced Placement English, the most challenging high school English course. At the end of the year when these students take the AP exam, many of them will also make passing scores and receive college credit for freshman English before they ever set foot on a college campus.
When I think about ESL students, I remember a special student I taught a few years ago. In one of her essays, she reminisced about her struggle to learn English.
Upon arriving in America, I entered second grade. Imagine my shock when my parents introduced me to an education system and environment almost diametrically opposed to what I was used to. At first I could not keep up in school, for I knew no English. Used to getting A’s before, I now got F’s instead, and for the first time, I was at the bottom of my class. When asked on a test, “Where did Columbus live,” I wrote “10 B Daniel Drive,” my address, upon seeing “where-live.” Afterward, I shamefully tried to hide the poor grade from my parents and could not understand why they chuckled in amusement at my answer. Because of the distresses of constant failure, I even resorted to cheating on the bonus word of one vocabulary test: launch. The word has since been etched into my mind, and the incident taught me a great lesson in integrity.
With encouragement and help from my parents and my teachers, I began to dedicate much of my time to learning English, beginning with simple vocabulary that any native three-year old would know, like “cat,” “dog,” and “fish.” My first English sentences were “I’m hungry. I want ice-cream.” I had to put more effort into my education than most other second graders, hours of memorizing hundreds of vocabulary words and practicing speaking. I dissected various textbooks, finding words I did not know and then memorizing them. While rummaging through the boxes, I found evidence of my endeavors: a little booklet with lists of big words in the eyes of an eight-year-old like “appropriate” and “tremendous,” dated June 30, 1994. I continued to improve my vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing skills through constant practice and exercise well into high school. There were times when the daily routine became boring and burdensome, but I persisted, and now, more than a decade later, I have fully grasped my new language and life.
I don’t think any of Chun’s teachers will ever forget her because she was was one of the hardest working and kindest students that any of us ever had the pleasure to teach. She may have struggled to learn English when she first entered an American school, but she ended her career as one of our Class Valedictorians after making straight A’s and achieving a perfect score on the SAT.
That’s right! She achieved a perfect score on the SAT.
We teach hundreds and hundreds of students during our long careers. Sometimes, however, we have students who teach us and give us more than we could ever teach or give them. I remain in awe of AP students whose native language is NOT English.