`I couldn’t take tests and I couldn’t write,’ ESL teacher remembers of own school days
Joyce Tena moved to Carbondale with her family from Mexico in 1992 when she was 14. She didn’t speak English.
Now, she’s a college graduate, and a bilingual teacher at Carbondale’s Crystal River Elementary School.
“It was really hard,” she said of her early years as a non-English speaker. She was only one of three Latino students at Carbondale Middle School. “At that time, we had ESL class for 45 minutes a day, twice a week.
“Other times, I would just sit in the regular classroom and guess what was going on. I couldn’t take tests, and I couldn’t write.”
The only thing Tena could do was math.
“I knew numbers,” she said, smiling, ” so I did well in math.”
Tena’s mom spoke a little English, and was very literate. She wanted her daughter to learn the language.
“She guided me,” Tena said. “But it was difficult. If you’re learning a language, you’re not learning academically too. Kids need to get supported in their language studies so they don’t get left behind.”
Crystal River Elementary School principal Patricia Waddick is dealing with a different Carbondale today. In this school with 224 students, a little over half are not native-English speakers.
“What we’re looking to do here is to educate our students, and help them become productive members of society,” Waddick said. “Our ESL and bilingual language classes give kids a chance to acculturate.”
Inside Tena’s Crystal River Elementary School language classroom Friday morning, groups of first graders were busy in a literacy period, writing letters of the alphabet, putting together English-word puzzles and talking in both English and Spanish. Some of the children spoke flawless English; others were learning.
At 23, Tena has a bachelor’s degree, teaching certificate and emphasis in bilingual education from a partnership program with Colorado Mountain College and Metro State College in Denver. Now, she’s helping children get a leg up on their language skills.
Next door, teacher Amy Nicholson was busy with her charge of first graders. She said it’s important that she know how to talk to the students in both English and Spanish.
“Imagine taking a French class, and then having to learn subjects like history in French when you hadn’t learned the language,” she said. “Each child is learning at a different pace and in a different way.”
As class comes to a close, Nicholson told her students in English to put away their papers and crayons.
They lagged behind until she said “You’re going to miss your recess!” in English. Suddenly, everyone rushed to the front door and stood at attention in a line.
“Good-bye!” they called out as they filed outside.
Not one child said, “Adios.”
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