Fish Can Really Help: Transitioning From One Culture to Another

Mika came to us a little bewildered nearly halfway into the school year. She was aggressive in her body language and in her volume. She didn’t speak any English at all, but she was in a place where her parents thought she would learn English quickly because she was immersed in it all day. “After all,” her teachers said, “she is young, so she should be learning English fast.”

Well, she pushed, shouted, and kicked. She glued her tablemate to her chair, stuck out her tongue at her teachers, and simply refused to do anything. In the ESOL classroom, she turned her back on the teacher and ranted at those who spoke her home language. All this and yet she was also very lucky. She came to a school system that has bilingual services for families, counselors who specialize in transition issues, and a mantra that says, “We won’t give up on you.” Two years later, she is still full of fire, but she is learning and making great progress with her peers.

All Hands on Deck
We secured the support of everyone to address the challenge. The parents, the school counselor, the teachers, the administration were all actively involved with efforts to pull this student “through the eye of the needle.”

Finally, I engaged the support of a counselor who specifically works with issues of transition in the ESOL population. He eloquently and simply said, “Work with the mom. Build her trust in you. She must be struggling, too.”

Parent Engagement
This advice was keen. I invited mom and the two younger siblings to an afterschool play date in my classroom. The daughter read while the others played with my classroom stash of toys and drew all over the whiteboard. They shared a few healthy snacks with me while mom and I talked. We talked about her home country and her new experiences in the U.S. We laughed about the food and the soda as she admitted to drinking a little more of it in the U.S. than she ever did before. We laughed and shared. I no longer felt helpless in the effort to engage her daughter, but this feeling was not enough.

Despite the Effort
Despite the effort, it would be weeks before we began to see any clear change in behavior or a willingness to interact. There were class meetings when other students felt like she was being disrespectful and unfair. When she called them names, I knew I was losing what little ground I had gained. I wrote a behavior contract with her. She told me what she wanted me to do or stop doing. I told her my ideas for her behavior. She chose to work for a small stuffed bear. I was working for a folder full of work samples. She earned her bear and I did get some samples. Unfortunately, the school year was about to end.

Let’s Try Again
So in August we started again with Mika, ready to go. I invited Mika and her brother, now in kindergarten, to meet with my daughter to learn how to set up an aquarium for our classroom. They made a huge mess, but the deed was done. Mika had something of her “own” in our classroom. She took ownership right away and came every day to ask if she could feed the fish. With no one else around, she seemed to relax a bit. She had a reason to be there and her edges were beginning to soften.

Pull It Together
Mika had a very small pull-out group that year. I felt safe to incorporate issues of interpersonal challenges into the work that we had to do to achieve the objectives outlined in the curriculum. At first, we spent some time observing the fish in the tank. Mika wondered why there was only one goldfish. We compared the community tank of fish to the solitary betta fish. We talked about how the goldfish was purchased and the daces were collected from a local stream. Mika wondered if they didn’t want to be in the tank. “Maybe they want to be in the stream,” she would say.

We talked about how the betta fish displays his lovely tail and makes bubbles when his tank is close enough that he can see the orange flash of the goldfish as he darts to and fro. We even worked to understand how the water evaporates from the tank over time and makes it harder for the big fish to dart around. We looked online to learn more about daces, betta fish, and goldfish. There was even time to use diagrams from a book to help us learn the vocabulary for describing the function of the dorsal fin and the swim bladder. My daughter created a flipchart for ActivInspire that helped the students understand how to take care of the fish in our classroom.

Once we began writing a problem/solution story using a beginning, middle, and end, the students were able to talk about fish and fish habitats, both real and manmade. They knew they were about to write a fictional tale and how it differs from nonfiction.

So we set about writing and illustrating a book about a huge goldfish that argues with and bites a smaller fish. The smaller fish decides that he doesn’t want to be friends with the huge goldfish because he is so mean. When he leaves, the goldfish is lonely. He thinks about following his small former friend, but finds that he has already been replaced by others. In the end, the fish settle their differences and the smaller one invites the mean one to join in the games. We explored story structure, grammar, past tense verbs, ordinal numbers and phrases, and vocabulary related to literacy. We used graphic organizers. The students learned the structure of a procedural text when they had to bind their book and make a hardcover. The language objectives were just as important as the content and the context of our work together. (Read and download a lesson plan for this project)

Did It Matter?
Mika didn’t change overnight or permanently. There are still wrinkles to iron out and days when she aggressively refuses to engage in our work together. What matters is that she knows the fish are hers. She knows that we studied fish and their habitats because she likes the fish in our classroom. Her mom knows that we are not giving up on Mika. She has learned a lot in our classroom about language, herself, friendship, and school. She has learned about strategies she can use to “grapple” with complex text and demonstrate her ability to understand classroom instruction and school expectations. Equally important to all of this is that Mika knows that “we won’t give up.”

About amfoersterluu

Anne Marie Foerster Luu is currently a National Board Certified ESOL teacher working in a public K–5 setting and serving as an adjunct in a MA-TESOL program. She is the 2013 TESOL Teacher of the Year.
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One Response to Fish Can Really Help: Transitioning From One Culture to Another

  1. John Foerster says:

    As an educator, I find learning by doing is a superior approach. The problem is finding common ground and formulating a simple, solvable problem. The approach by Ms. Luu is a workable solution that an instuctor can use to both build and expand the student’s learning experience. Please keep us updated and if possible collect some metrics that will support your students learning quest.

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