Rawan Al-Hourani shies from speaking much in English, quiet under her black headscarf. The Palestinian teen has spent just eight months in the United States, trying to pick up English at Mira Mesa High School. But a poem she wrote in summer school reveals things she sometimes struggles to say out loud.

“I am speechless and hopeful,” it reads. “I wonder how the terrorists intimidate the people.”

Some of her classmates are even newer, straight from Vietnam or Guatemala. Others have spent years here and gab readily in English. They trade jokes and American slang, but struggle with academic vocabulary on tests and in textbooks. Some are confident enough to flirt in English or rattle off pop lyrics, but still risk failing the high school exit exam, which can decide whether they graduate.

These teens don’t have to be here at Mira Mesa High, but they’re here. They’re trying to catch up in English — or at least avoid losing ground. Educators fear that summer can be a setback for English learners who stop using English at home when school lets out. So San Diego Unified keeps summer school open to all high school English learners who want it, even if they ace their classes.

The class lasts four hours a day for six weeks, one of nearly a dozen summer classes in San Diego Unified designed specifically for high school English learners. Instead of sitting idle, these teens have sat side by side, learning about Sudanese refugees, how “assimilation” is different than “acculturation,” analyzing and finally writing poems of their own about immigration and identity.

“You feel something and you just say it,” said Gladys Lapada, a bubbly teenager who moved here from the Philippines three years ago, and hopes to someday go back there as a nurse, helping the poor. She claims — somewhat unconvincingly — that she used to be shy. “It’s emotional.”


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These lessons on immigration and refugees are a relatively new take on summer school for English learners. San Diego Unified used to give little guidance to summer school teachers for students learning English, leaving them to patch together their own lessons. Sonja Gagnon, a resource teacher who helps coordinate the summer program, said as a result some summer school classes were repetitive, dull or lacked specific lessons for English learners.

And if summer school is boring, immigrant teens may avoid it entirely. “Unfortunately, summer academic programs don’t have a particularly good track record,” said Claude Goldenberg, an education professor at Stanford University who focuses on language issues. “It really depends on what’s going on. It is much harder to keep them engaged when there are 50 million things they’d rather be doing.”

So Gagnon and her co-workers worked with teachers to create a new curriculum. They zeroed in on topics that struck close to home for their students. Now teens read about the Lost Boys of Sudan and Vietnamese boat people. They discuss the specific problems facing immigrants and how they could be solved. They read poems about immigration that are understandable but not babyish — poems that Gagnon often had to write herself, describing loves split by oceans or feeling alienated in a new place. One begins, “I feel you staring at me/eyes poking at my insides.”

Schools started using the new curriculum last summer. This year, San Diego Unified added something new: Teens began to express themselves through halting, sometimes striking poetry. They showcased those poems Thursday night in front of parents and the public in Balboa Park.

While skeptics might think poems are frivolous for English learners, Gagnon pointed out that poems are a big part of the California exit exam, a test that students must pass to get their high school diploma.

“I see the zombie in my dreams/I want lots of health/I am tall and thin,” wrote Tai Dao, a Vietnamese teen who turns to another Vietnamese classmate to translate when someone asks him questions in English. He has only been here for four months, and his teacher Marsi Holmes had to act out the word “laughter” for him when it cropped up in a love poem. “What’s laughter, Tai? Ha ha ha!” she said, faking a laugh.

Holmes juggles an astounding range of students, from newcomers like Dao to immigrant teens who’ve spent years in San Diego and are almost ready to switch to mainstream classes. Teen volunteers help coach the newest students while Holmes rounds the room. One of them, Andy Nguyen, is an English learner himself. He just graduated, but is still waiting to see if he passed the exit exam on his fourth try.

Sometimes students help each other, translating words like “imprinted” into Tagalog for less fluent classmates or explaining instructions on an assignment in Vietnamese. “How many girls do you need to help you do this?” Holmes chided one boy who seemed to be doing more flirting than studying as she circled the room. Eight languages fly from 30 different mouths, from Arabic to Japanese.

One of the most fluent students is Christian Lazo, a 15-year-old who moved here four years ago from Mexico. He complains that some of the books are “too childish.” When he deftly explained the meaning of a love poem, a girl said admiringly, “Dude, you are a smart guy. Can you give that to me, like a gift?” Yet Lazo insists his English is terrible and quickly gives up on classwork that others finish.

“I don’t know what to say,” he protested when he was supposed to present his poem to the class.

“Be confident,” Holmes said.

Gagnon and Holmes hope that by focusing on immigration, they can build up teens’ confidence by equipping them to talk about their own histories. Some are still painfully shy: A Korean girl hid her face with her paper when she went up to read a poem. When she dropped the paper to read from it, barely audible, her hair hung in front of her eyes, cascading down to the American flag on her T-shirt.

“Talk like you’re yelling!” Holmes urged her.

San Diego Unified has not analyzed how much test scores improve for teen English learners after summer school, or whether this new curriculum has changed that. Gagnon hopes to do that this year by comparing teens’ writing exams before and after summer school.

But more English-learning teens are going to summer school in the first place and teachers say teens are now more fluent and confident. Holmes hopes that will translate into passing the exit exam, which stumped five of her seniors last year.

“It really matters to me to graduate,” said Maia Narciso, a ponytailed teen who emigrated from the Philippines about two and a half years ago. In her poetry, she compares herself to the maya bird of her home country, “dark red as my thoughtful heart,” which sings at a high pitch. “I was surprised that I can do poetry like this.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

    This article relates to: Education, Immigration, News

    Written by Andrew Donohue

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