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Pencil Cases and Fire Drills: Musings on a New Year in a Self-Contained English as a Second Language Classroom

A hard plastic pencil case hits the floor with a resounding thwonk. As pencils and pens clatter across the linoleum, children duck to retrieve them. The abrupt noise momentarily silences the chatter of six-year olds, adding a percussive flourish to the classroom soundtrack that heralds the start of a new school year.

“As if this batch of freshly minted first-graders weren’t noisy enough,” I think, and silently curse the school supply store that prices hard pencil cases so irresistibly to the parents of schoolchildren.

I have twenty-seven new faces in my self-contained, English as a Second Language classroom this year. Even though I am entering my sixth year of teaching self-contained ESL in elementary school, very little seems rote. My students speak five different home languages, and each child exhibits a unique and complex personality. Every time I am faced with a new class, it feels, well, new, because I have to learn all about these living, breathing entities, sitting sloppily in front of me.

I spend the first few days of school wishing I had my old kids again: Karen the desk roving perfectionist, the shy and grateful Julio, and even the class braggart, William, who learned over ten long months, how not to step all over the feelings of his classmates.

Last year’s students, however, have blossomed over the summer into taller and wiser second-graders. Some have even tested out of ESL, and now sit in mainstream classrooms.

That is how we ESL teachers measure success. They come to us out of the cradles of their home culture, or newly arrived, and terrified. We teach them how to first use English to take care of their basic needs. For example; one newcomer in this year’s class has mastered the phrase, “Ms. A., pee-pee!”

ESL teachers make newcomers comfortable coming to school with a home language, by creating a welcoming, safe place for them to sample the world of English. Visits to the nurse, use of the drinking fountain, eating lunch, and behavior during fire drills are other critical linguistic challenges for newcomers. We soon encourage them, though, to make skirmishes into the dizzying world of academic English as well. Look at this, we beckon. Main idea, prediction, rectangle, thermometer, country, custom. Isn’t English fun?

Sometimes, I try to see myself through the lens of a child newcomer. I imagine them watching and wondering. Why is Ms. A. running all over the classroom with a clipboard in her hands? What is she writing? (This is when they crane their necks over my conference notes.)

Why can’t I drink water, again, and again and again? Why is the teacher mad? (Crisscross, applesauce, eyes on me.)

Ms. A. wants me to draw and to write words in Eng-u-lish.

“Ms. A. I don’t know Eng-u-lish,” I am regretfully informed, (as if it were news to me.)

“It’s okay. You’re learning.” I tell my student. I point to a writer’s drawing. “Is that you? Who is that next to you? Your brother? Here, write ‘my brother.’” And I hand the writer a post-it with those words written on it, so she can copy them. Yes, copy. “Copying,” or mimicry, is the first line of defense in second language acquisition. If I was learning Mandarin (and it is on my “To Do” list,) you can bet I would be copying the Chinese characters to learn them.

It is a new year, and I have a whole new set of kids. One of this year’s classroom standouts is Cody, a tiny package of obstinacy, who does nothing short of making demands of his teacher.

“Give me back my glue stick!” he commands after I have confiscated it because he was playing with it like a toy all morning. Not a chance, my friend.

At one point, when Cody refuses to join the rest of us on the rug for a mini-lesson, I loudly remind him who the boss is in the classroom. I count to five and he joins us, sitting (sloppily) on the rug. The first few weeks are about boundaries. Clear, firm, bold boundaries. Boundaries that a six-year old can grow to love. (By the way, Cody’s mother says he likes his class this year- touché!)

A brand new student entered my class this week who speaks only Russian. Thin and curious, with soft, short hair and small gold hoop earrings, Marina is my best buddy. Without my bidding, she comes to the front of the line and takes my hand firmly in hers. She adjusts my grip, so our hands fit snugly together. I like this. I want her to feel safe, first and foremost, and she is showing me how to make her feel that way. The English will come.

Teaching English as a Second Language is an arduous task, tacked on to the already herculean task of teaching in general. The real moments of satisfaction come in the classroom when no one is watching. No one is walking around in heels with an iPad staring at the classroom charts and bulletin boards, evaluating students or teacher; checking on how we are all progressing on our respective continuums of “measurable success.” Out of the limelight, our days are spent building trust and enjoying one another’s company, while we investigate words, acquire content and cultivate ideas.

Immersed in fruitful concentration, we suddenly hear thwonk! Heads pop up as another hard pencil case hits the floor, spraying its contents everywhere. I make a mental note, to add a “soft pencil case only” directive to the supply list of outgoing kindergartners next June. Nine months from now, I hope I remember!

Ms. Aha-Moment is the pseudonym of an ESL teacher in a Brooklyn elementary school now in her sixth year.



  • 1 Joni
    · Oct 22, 2012 at 2:03 am

    What an enjoyable article! Ms. Moment nailed it when she described their days “out of the limelight.” That’s when real education takes place, when the class can relax and no one is around summing up a teacher’s or student’s “measurable success.” There is way too much intrusion in the classroom—just let people teach, and let children learn—period.

  • 2 Carole Silverstein
    · Nov 5, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I remember the days when we all could welcome new children without being measured by test scores. It is important for all children to be accepted and their culture respected. The class teacher has the right idea and it was heart warming to read it. Good luck!