Southeast Louisiana has a rapidly growing population of immigrant students, many from Central America. When students arrive at local public schools, they need to learn English, in addition to the rest of their curriculum. For our latest installment of WWNO's Voices of Educators series, we hear from Cohen College Prep High School teacher Jasmin Zobrist. Zobrist has a classroom of English language learners (ELLs). All of her students have been in the U.S. for less than a year.
The following Q&A is based on an interview with Zobrist. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Who are your students?
A: The only students that are in here are "first years" - it's their first year in the country. A lot of our students are actually not necessarily wanting to be here, but they and their families felt that they had to leave their country. Gangs have taken over areas, and are recruiting young men to be a part of gangs. And if you don't want to be a part of that life, your only option is to leave.
Q: What kinds of schooling backgrounds are your students coming from?
A: Some of them were going to school and on grade-level in their native language. But I have a few who were not going to school. They stopped going after sixth grade. But now they're here, and they're under 18, and legally, they need to go to school. We're teaching them how to 'do school' in America - how to organize your binder, how to put your name on your paper.
Q: What are your students learning right now?
A: We are reading The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. And the reason we start with that text at the beginning of the year is because a lot of the things the main character experiences are very similar to where students are coming from.
Q: You're Mexican-American, and many of your students are from Latin American countries. Do you think your racial and cultural background helps you connect to your students differently than other teachers?
A: They definitely opened up when they realized we spoke the same language. I think that being Mexican-American has definitely allowed me to have that relationship with the kids where we can joke, or I can say something that they completely understand because they go through it - like la chancla. There's a chapter in The House on Mango Street that talks about la chancla - it means "the sandal." Everyone in Hispanic culture knows that's the way of discipline. And it's like if your mom reaches for la chancla, you better stop doing what you're doing! [Laughs]
Q: What's the hardest part of your job?
I think the hardest part is balancing understanding the kids' situations - balancing like trying to push them, push them, push them, knowing that they might have worked all night. Or knowing that they went home and had to take care of all of their siblings. Knowing that the at-home situation is probably not the most conducive for doing homework, and still having to say 'your homework is due tomorrow.' So I think the hardest part sometimes can be finding that balance between like 'I'm here for you. I hear you. I understand, and I'm going to work with you,' but also 'I'm going to hold you to a really high standard.' I think that's always the hardest part.
Q: What's the most important thing you want your students to learn in your class?
A: I want my students to know that even though their English might not be perfect at the end of this year, their understanding of concepts can be taken for any class. I always try to teach skills that they'll be able to use in their science class, in their math class, and in their daily job - like answering questions in full sentences, for example. I tell them you always want to sound as intelligent as possible because you never know who is going to judge you on the basis of your skin color, or what you sound like.
Q: How do you help your students get over their fear of speaking up in a new language?
A: At the beginning of the year, I couldn't get one hand up in the air. A lot of them are shy because they're like "Oh my accent! It's going to sound funny." I tell them, everyone in here has an accent. That's why we have this class. It's sheltered, it's safe, and it's for you guys. Do it now, and practice now and make mistakes now. And then when you go out into the world, you don't have to feel like, "Ugh, I didn't have a chance to practice." They are going to be, like, participating in their classes next year!