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Immigrant Student Autobiographies - 2002-04-17

English Feature #7-33821 Broadcast June 19, 2000

In recent years the Washington, D.C. area has seen a tremendous influx of immigrants from all parts of the world. Schools in the area have had to accommodate children of many backgrounds and cultures, and develop programs to help them adjust to life in America. Today on New American Voices you'll hear about one such program - and from the kids who participate in it.

Marshall High School on the outskirts of Washington, D. C. has a large population of immigrant students. Out of a student body of 1200, almost 40 percent speak a language other than English at home. And so Marshall High - like many area schools - has an active program of teaching English As a Second Language, or ESL, as it's called. However, at Marshall it has one rather unusual feature. Lindsay Spooner, an ESL teacher, explains.

"One of the things that we did last year that was rather interesting was that we got some funds from the U.S. Department of Education - about $600 -- to get students to write their autobiographies. These were students who were in the ESL program in their very first year. There were approximately 20 students who at the end of the year were able to write simple sentences, enough to explain their journey to the United States, why they had come here, and what some of their impressions of the United States were."

In their stories the students expressed their feelings both about their native country and about their new life in the United States. The chapters had such titles as "My Childhood", "My Last School in My Country", "Saying Goodbye", "My First Days in the U.S."

"The students worked and worked and worked over these books. They were done on computers, they were heavily revised by the students, the students illustrated them, often scanning pictures and sometimes drawing their own pictures. We sent them to a publisher, and we produced beautiful hard-bound books. And now this year we use these books as textbooks, as a teaching tool. And this has given us beautiful, high-interest reading material, reading material at a level that the students can understand."

Listen as Linh Vu, born in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam sixteen years ago, reads from her book. She had been in this country only three months last year when she wrote "My First Days in the U.S."

"When we came to the U.S., my family lived in my grandfather's house. It is a small house. There were eleven people living in that house, so it was very crowded. About one day later, my parents decided to move and live in my uncle's house. His house is also small. There are three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one living room and one kitchen.On the first day, I felt very tired. I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to sleep. A few days later, I went to a U.S. market. I saw many strange things and I wanted to touch everything. I didn't understand when the American people asked me questions. I only said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand", and they didn't say any more and went away."

Linh Vu's classmate Rodrigo Baires was born in El Salvador nineteen years ago. His "autobiography", written in Mrs. Spooner's English As A Second Language class nine months after he came to this country, includes this poem.

"Rodrigo in the North.

In El Salvador, Rodrigo's life was one of

papusas,( typical food) and joy,

warm days, and green forests.

But one day

Rodrigo had to come to the U.S.A.

He left his country,

he flew to the north

where everything is full of technology

and everybody speaks English.

But Rodrigo doesn't know

how to speak English

he can say a few things

but that's all.

Rodrigo is sad

he misses his country

he wishes to go back to his country."

The "autobiographies" written by teenagers in Mrs. Spooners ESL class are not only effective textbooks. They are also mementos of a defining period in these young people's lives, as Mrs. Spooner points out.

"And of course we also had each student receive a copy of the book they had authored, so that they can save it for their family, and show their grandchildren what it was like for them when they came to the United States as an immigrant."

Next week on New American Voices you'll hear Marshall High School students born in Korea, Pakistan and Peru describe their first steps in the United States.