Progress, finally

I think that if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that Fatima has been in my class since January. She has since been joined by two more Afghan students, one girl and one boy, and today, finally, we had a part-time interpreter in the room with us, and I have never been more excited to meet someone in my entire life as I was this poor guy. We did some quick diagnostics stuff (a lot easier to have the kids see what math they understand when you can explain to them what you want them to do) and then I just asked him to ask them to tell him about themselves.

Fatima likes grapes. Like, that doesn’t seem like much, but it’s communication. There’s still a few days of Ramadan left but I am absolutely bringing this kid some grapes sometime soon. Two of them are from Kunar province and the third is from Khost province, which means all three of them were right on the border with Pakistan. I asked the translator to reassure them that if they wanted to talk to each other during class, that was absolutely okay– the three of them are as quiet as mice pretty much all the time— and I actually heard the other girl (who needs a code name) laugh for the first time. It was great.

I think it is actually Thursday, which is good, because I’ve thought the week was nearly over all week, and that kept being wrong, and if it’s actually Thursday than that ought to make tomorrow Friday, the actual end of the week. Nineteen days of school left.

Speaking of the end of the week, Wednesday (I think) was my nephew’s first birthday, so we’re going to be out of town all weekend to go to his birthday party in the north Chicago suburbs, so if you follow the YouTube channel, updates are probably going to be light. I didn’t post any new videos today for the first time since I started the channel because yesterday was that busy, and I think my plan right now is to do one video a day for tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, and then try and resume the normal schedule on Monday. We’ll see if I pull that off or not, but it’s the plan at the moment. At any rate, if I go radio silent over there, don’t panic. I haven’t quit anything, we’ve just hit a scheduling snag.

And now we’re getting somewhere

I am tired and annoyed for reasons that are not especially interesting, but today was a much better day at work than yesterday was, pretty much across the board. Fatima and I worked on numbers; she was already able to tell me one through about four or five, and so we worked on writing and identifying zero through nine, both as number symbols and the individual words. I have a similar process in mind tomorrow for letters, and I’ve bullied administration into letting a bunch of us out of a pre-scheduled meeting tomorrow morning so that we can all sit in my room and put our heads together to see what we can do. Apparently there are some funds available both through the program that brought her family into the country and through our own bilingual department, so we will see what we are able to get ahold of.

What we really need is to be able to secure the assistance of an interpreter. Even if it was only for an hour a day or something, some way these kids can actually talk to us would be tremendously helpful, and I’ve still had no luck in finding anything digital that can speak Pashto. We need a live person. I just don’t know yet how to find one. That’s the next big mission.

Oh, and I found something else out today that is gonna be super fun: I don’t know if this is official or not, but the word is there may be thirty more families landing in the district soon. Fatima has seven brothers and sisters, so if these thirty families are similar in size that’s quite a lot of new students to figure out. Speaking as an American, this is wonderful; speaking as someone who needs to teach these kids math, I’m shitting myself in terror.

(Mental note: try to figure out a way to ask her about her family. Brothers, sisters, that sort of thing. Second mental note: I know Islam really doesn’t like representational art; make sure asking her to draw her family or something doesn’t violate a cultural taboo. Third mental note: learn everything about everything.)

On worst-case scenarios

I met my Afghan student today. For the purpose of posting about her I’m going to call her Fatima, which is the second-most-common Afghan girls’ name, but isn’t hers.

I suspect I’m going to be talking about her quite a lot for the next little while.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything I was worried about with Fatima appears to have come to pass. She speaks virtually no English at all; she knew “hello” but I don’t think I heard her say even one other word of English while she was in class. She can read in neither English nor Pashto, although I was able to confirm after struggling with it for a few minutes that she does speak Pashto specifically basically by trying different names for languages until she lit up. As it happens, I have students in that classroom who can speak Urdu and Arabic; she understood neither language.

I gave her this when she came into the room:

The top language is Pashto; underneath that is Urdu, as Google Translate doesn’t have Dari available. I thought about adding Arabic but ran out of room, and it looks like Urdu is more common in Afghanistan anyway. It was immediately clear that she couldn’t read either. Later in class, I had her write her name (I wrote mine, then an arrow pointing to me, and handed her the pencil) and she was able to mostly write her first name, in shaky, second-grader’s handwriting, but it wasn’t quite spelled like it is in the computer and didn’t quite line up with how she pronounced it, so … yeah. Later I wrote 3+4 on the page; she did not recognize them as numbers, as far as I could tell.

Effectively, I am unable to communicate with this kid via anything other than gestures until I discover some sort of resource– an app, a website, something— that is able to speak Pashto. I’ve found several that can translate it (with who knows what level of quality, since I’m not able to evaluate it) but she’s effectively illiterate as far as being able to communicate grade-level content or anything close to it. So we need to work on nothing but getting her up to speed in English and basic literacy. I literally can’t teach her any math right now.

You can imagine how easy it is to find something that translates written English text into the spoken version of a language that is only spoken by maybe fifty million people worldwide and only about sixteen thousand (as of 2010; the number has certainly jumped recently) in America. I can find dictionaries and auto translators; they’re useless to me if they don’t speak, unless I learn to read Pashto.

On top of that, I had to bite some heads off in the morning, from kids who should have fucking well known better, for enthusiastic and obnoxious use of the word “Ay-rab” and jokes about the kids blowing up the building. I made it clear in all of my classes today that I’m landing on anyone bullying these kids like the wrath of God. We’re putting a stop to that shit with a quickness.

So, if anyone can make some suggestions for some “learn the alphabet” types of activities that work well for ESL kids, I’d love to hear it. Because our ESL teacher? Is out with Covid right now.

2022’s awesome so far.

As if this year wasn’t challenging enough

I discovered today that I have a new student coming into my class on Tuesday. And by “my class” I mean “third and fourth hour,” the class I have repeatedly begged that no further students be added to, the class that is both my biggest and my by an exceptional margin most poorly-behaved class.

The student is an Afghan refugee. I have no idea if she speaks any English; I sure as fuck don’t speak either Pashto or Dari. I have no idea what her educational background is. Hell, I have no idea what her personal background is; if she’s coming out of Afghanistan there’s almost certainly some fucking trauma in there somewhere. She has a brother, and her brother’s teacher told me today that he thinks that her father worked with the Americans in some capacity or another, which could mean fucking anything. It might mean she speaks some English, it might not. For all I know, he’s making assumptions– which, okay, as they go, that’s not a bad one, but it’s still an assumption. And if I hadn’t seen her name and started asking questions today this would have happened with no Goddamned warning of any kind at all.

To be absolutely clear: I’m glad she’s here, if that’s what her family wanted, and yes I’d be perfectly fucking happy to have an Afghan family move into the house next door and replace the family of the dude who took one look at my white skin and told me he was happy “the right kind of people” were moving into our house when we bought it. I’m glad she’s in my school. But this is not a regular fucking transfer student! I’m just as responsible for her education as every other kid in the room; I don’t get to just shove her in a corner and ignore her, and if it turns out that she’s a hijabi I’ve got to prepare the students for her to be there as well. Now, granted, one can probably assume that any Afghans looking to flee the country and enroll their kids in public school in bloody Indiana are probably on the less religiously conservative end of the scale, but even a simple head wrap combined with the language barrier is going to set her up for bullying if we aren’t careful, especially in the class they’ve got her in. If she’s wearing anything more conspicuous than that the kids are going to treat her like a Goddamned alien. Can we at least get a parent meeting before this kid comes into school? Shit, Google Translate isn’t even going to help, because you can’t type in Pashto on a Chromebook. I can get it to translate– probably poorly– from English to Pashto (not that I have any way to figure out if she speaks it, since fucked if I know the difference between it and Dari, or Arabic for that matter) but not the other way around. So if she’s got no English at all we’re limited to gestures and sign language.

It’s entirely possible that she’ll turn out to be Westernized enough already that none of this will be an issue; again, I know nothing about her. But if she isn’t?


1/16 EDIT: It has only just now occurred to me that even if this girl is literate in her home language, which is not guaranteed, her home language is not going to be written in Latin script, and therefore she may not even know the alphabet. And I’m supposed to teach her 8th grade math.