A Community of Learning: English Language Learners

By David Han, Gabriel Schneider and Shayna Sage
Published: October 2009

The reasons seemed logical: better education, broader opportunity, more independence. Yet sophomore Alex Chen, who had lived in Guangzhou, China, all his life, was reluctant when his parents told him that the family was moving to America. Although he understood his family’s rationale for moving, Chen, 14 years old at the time, did not feel ready. He had never traveled before in his life, and his entire knowledge of America was based off of picture books he had read as a child.

“I had to go to a place I had never been to, he said. “I had to stay there for the rest of my life. He was given two weeks to pack his bags.

In an era of increasing cultural diversity and globalization , Chen’s story is not uncommon for students coming from foreign backgrounds. The English Language Learners (ELL) program provides support and guidance to students like Chen by helping them adapt to American culture and environment. The program offers sheltered English and History courses, as well as English pronunciation and support classes for students in the program. The courses range from beginner to advanced levels.

The Transition

ELL Director Carol McNally understands her students’ struggle of leaving their home country and entering an entirely different world.

“The kids are not here by choice, and that can make a transition period tough when you are 15 years old, she said. “It’s socially a difficult transition, and we try to help with that piece.

Junior and former ELL student Jessica Kang of South Korea remembers crying once during her first months at South because of the cultural disparity.

Having come to America only able to articulate simple expressions like her name and age at first, Kang claims the ELL program served as her central support group and “second home.

ELL students easily relate to one another despite their cultural differences because of their shared experience in America, according to Kang. She feels more comfortable speaking in English to ELL students because of this connection.

“People get the sense that they can rely on and trust people here, regardless of what language they speak or what background they come from, ELL teacher John Conte said. “Our goal as a program is for them to get that [support] from any student in the school.

Chen also believes ELL has helped with his cultural and educational transition. He recalls that speaking out loud was a challenge for him.
The program’s use of visual aids and interactive exercises has helped him adapt. ELL teachers not only teach, but also supportively push their students to succeed, Chen said.


Graphics by Chenzhe Cao

Another student in the ELL program, junior Tatiana Shallop, moved to Newton from the West African country Sierra Leone last January. While she was by no means poverty-stricken in her home country, a combination of political turmoil in the region and poor educational resources led Shallop and her family to make the move to America.

Though Shallop knew it was for the better, she was reluctant to leave.

“Africa is my home, and it is where I grew up. It was really hard for me to move to a different place, Shallop said.

Shallop came to America with a basic understanding of English from her studies in Sierra Leone. She is also fluent in Arabic and Krio (a mix of English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Jamaican). In order to excel at South, English, the last language she learned, would be crucial.
“The school that I went to offered English and Arabic’€like how South offers French and Spanish. I am happy I learned English because it made it easier to come to South and learn with my peers, Shallop said.

Shallop is thankful that she can now enjoy the opportunities and personal freedoms which America offers. “When I lived in Sierra Leone, there was a lot of pain and suffering, because of the lack of facilities we all suffered, especially when the rebels came to overthrow, Shallop said. “Suffering went on in Sierra Leone a lot, but now, thanks to God, everything is fine. There is peace, love and harmony.


Both Chen and Kang, though they miss their home countries, also value the educational system offered in America.

“In Korea, the mothers bring their children to Hangwons [Korean private tutoring institutions]. Afterwards, it’s studying, studying, and studying, Kang said. “Regardless of what you want to do, you should study.

Currently a first violinist in the school’s String Orchestra and the keyboard player in her church’s youth group, she believes that there are many more activities to choose from in America than in Korea.

According to Kang, the intensely competitive nature of Korean schools did not provide a good learning environment.

“Even though I’m in a school with students, it seems like my friends are my rivals, she said. Kang remembers that her peers would pretend as though they hadn’t studied for exams to give others a false sense of confidence.

Chen shares the same concern with the Chinese educational system, where strict teachers expect students to memorize large amounts of information in short periods of time.

He also believes that the American educational system gives students more freedom to discover and pursue their interests.

“I feel privileged to teach ELL at South because students are really invested, Conte said. “They are at a place that they can get that information.

McNally agrees with Conte and believes that families usually come to America for the education opportunity, “often making great financial sacrifices to be here.

Preparing for the Future

Kang does not take ELL classes this year due to schedule conflicts and must attend mainstream History and English classes.

She credits her confidence and strong foundation in basic English to the ELL program.

“Even though mainstream classes are a lot more work than ELL classes, I feel good about challenging myself, she said.

While she no longer takes ELL classes, her former teachers are always available whenever she needs help. The ELL staff hopes that their students will gain the confidence and skills necessary to enter mainstream courses.

“The most important challenge is ensuring that students are not just learning content and language skills, but also learning to figure out the skills on their own so they can leave ELL and be successful, Conte said.

Even though Kang is not in ELL classes this year, she finds time during lunches or J-Blocks to maintain the personal relationships she formed in the program.

For now, Kang’s goal is to attend a good college, and she believes that she can do so thanks to the ELL program.

Chen, however, aims higher. “I will do something American and be successful and want to help my country, he said.

Having left behind their friends, family, and countries, Chen, Kang, and Shallop came to America to pursue their dreams.

“For most of my students here, their short-term dream is to get into a good college, Conte said. “We definitely help them get on the right road considering where they come from.

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