Dreaming in English

By learning writing and photography from a "crazy uncle" of a teacher, a group of ESL kids at one high school broke through the wall

Written by Van Miller
Photographs by Miller's ESL Students 

Alejandro and his younger brother, Jorge, are soccer fanatics. They both played on the South Meck junior varsity team. Like most teens, they drive their  mother crazy. In this case by playing soccer in the living room.

Alejandro and his younger brother, Jorge, are soccer fanatics. They both played on the South Meck junior varsity team. Like most teens, they drive their mother crazy. In this case by playing soccer in the living room.

The darkness at 5 a.m. is profound. It surrounds you with a hushed silence. The sky is blacker than my coffee. Blacker than the long, inked columns that cover the newspaper, which has not yet arrived, and this darkens my mood. Instead, I read magazines printed on glossy paper.

At 6:20 the surface roads I drive are still empty. The darkness is broken only by the moon. This excites my primitive soul. I am an early-rising cave man with a driver's license, driving empty streets through waking neighborhoods—Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth, Myers Park. The only vehicles on the roads are giant yellow school buses and sensible, dependable cars driven by what must be schoolteachers.

On Park Road near Quail Corners, vehicles come from all sides and the traffic slows. School buses rumble by like military convoys. Cars driven by loving parents do the drop off at the side of the road. Students get out slowly, very careful not to appear uncool. Backpack slung over one shoulder. Limbs too long. Skin aching with acne.

This is the morning rush at South Mecklenburg High School, where I come twice a week to teach photography and writing to English as a Second Language students. The program is called My Family, Our Stories: Photography and Literacy Project and is offered to schools by The Light Factory, with support from ArtsTeach.

The blend of photography and writing is perfect for ESL kids. I can personally attest to the power of photography as a means of expressing yourself when language is an issue. I became a photographer because of my experience as a foreign student in Paris in the early 1980s. My French was from textbooks. I knew how to read it and could conjugate a verb or two, but when people spoke to me, it rushed over me like whitewater. I had the vocabulary of a six-year-old, and I felt like an idiot man-child. I spoke haltingly. Nobody understood me. They laughed at me and called me a foreigner. I have never been so frustrated.

Photography saved me. I used my camera to express myself by taking narrative photos on the street. I tried to make every photo express ideas I could not verbally articulate. I told stories through photos. Eventually, I cracked the language. I knew I had when I began dreaming in French.
When I tell people I'm teaching ESL kids, the first thing everyone asks is, "So you must speak Spanish since all the kids are from Mexico, right?"
I speak only English with them. Yes, there are a lot of Hispanic kids, but the Latino world is huge and diverse. To say that all Spanish-speaking kids are alike is like saying a kid from Texas is the same as a kid from Yorkshire, England, or Wellington, New Zealand, or Trinidad or Jamaica. The language is the same, but the culture and customs can be completely different. I have taught kids from all over the world: Chile, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Liberia, Mexico, Portugal, Somalia, South Africa, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Vietnam. Three things unite them: they are all teenagers, they all speak English, and they have left the place they call home and their friends and relatives (usually because their parents have made the decision for them), moved to a foreign country, and enrolled in a school taught in a strange language. ESL kids must take the same courses as American kids—in English—in order to graduate. This takes courage.

There are 16,000 ESL students in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools; 1,400 are high school students. South Meck has seventy. The class I teach, Joan Lafleur's 7 a.m. English class, has ten. Ms. Lafleur has been teaching for twenty-five years, with ten years at West Charlotte before coming to South Meck a decade ago to head the ESL department. She radiates warmth and strength. Her students seek her out and trust her. She listens very carefully as students talk about their projects, homework, jobs, and family. She acts as a mentor and helps the kids through the rough spots and the daunting challenges of integrating into American society.

"ESL kids are sweet kids," she says. "They appreciate it when you take a special interest in them." Ms. Lafleur has to keep her eyes on the test scores and stick to a lesson plan. My role is easy. I come in twice a week with my cameras and slide shows and teach them about photography and writing. I'm like the crazy uncle who comes for a visit, spoils them, fills their heads with creative fun ideas, then leaves Ms. Lafleur to straighten it all out.

Teaching is a lot like stand-up comedy. You have to sense the mood of the room. When you're bombing—a lot of sighs, far-off stares, heads on desks, and the sound of your own voice bouncing off the back wall. You cannot walk unprepared into a classroom full of teenagers at 7 a.m. and keep their attention for two hours.

My technique is inundation, full sensory surround, a mixture of documentary and landscape photography slide shows, video, and personal (and highly embellished) stories. I give them a photography assignment each week, which they shoot with 35mm film cameras provided by The Light Factory. I work them hard on writing. I make them write in class and give them writing assignments as homework. I call on the students to share their own stories. It's the only way to get the painfully shy kids to talk. Once the ice is broken and the blood rushes to their cheeks and ears, they become emboldened, and they start to volunteer.

I assign a lot of essays, because in every academic career there will be many essays. I emphasize detailed descriptions, lots of narrative, and ideas. I tell them writing is thinking: when you're alone and deep in thought, you are writing. When you're driving on the highway, no radio, deep in thought, you are writing. When you're lying on the couch noticing the late afternoon sunlight bathe the walls, you are writing. When you are in biology class, staring into space, day dreaming, you are writing. The trick is getting it from the folds of your mind to the paper, and making your ideas interesting to other people. I tell them to forget about spelling and grammar—just get it out. If it's good writing, then we'll clean it up later. I read samples of good writing by Faulkner, Hemingway (Faulkner baffles them. They understand Hemingway and find it easy to mimic his simple style.), Dickens, Bradbury, and poetry by Billy Collins, Robert Hayden, Octavio Paz. Then I make them write their own. A paper each week.
In the beginning everybody resists. If they don't do their homework, I make them write in class. They whine, moan, and make excuses. They become too careful, afraid to make mistakes, they choke up and turn in two or three sentences. Eventually, they find a voice. Caelia Park, a Korean girl who was raised in Japan, wrote this about a childhood memory:

One day, it was a nice summer day. My Mom, her friend and I went to a temple where they used to like to go. It was in the middle of green woods that make fresh airs. We breathed deeply and took a walk. It was an evening so I felt a little bit of fear to the darkness. We found a bridge over a small narrow stream. And when we got closer, I could see a small flickering light. I ran to it quickly and tried to get closer. I screamed and grinned widely. It was the glow of a firefly.

Each week we work on different forms of writing. One week I'll have them write a haiku. Loyda Rodas from Guatemala wrote this:

We must accept a
finite disappointment but
we must never lose hope

The next week we'll focus on similes and metaphors. Jorge Rodriguez from Honduras came up with this:

The sky looks like an infinite sea with huge waves. The mountains are like sleeping monsters.

This is by Anjali Patel from India:

The river is a mirror of the mountain's reflection and the air clean like the heart of the honest person who never says a lie.

Sieu Diep from Vietnam:

The iceberg is crystals of ice in the sunshine, thus, its shadow is described by pure water.

Lizet Muniz from Mexico:

Sometimes I think my hands are a sky that creates its own clouds.

Anna Petrenko from Ukraine:

Nature is an oasis for my mind and my body. The rising and setting are like my changing emotions.

Their experience as immigrants is a recurring topic. This is by Jorge Rodriguez from an essay on xenophobia:

Immigrants come to this country to work and have a better life; immigrants don't even know that while they're working they're helping this country economically and socially.

From Irene Nicolas:

Being an ESL student is really difficult for me. Some teachers think that you get bad grades because you are "Latino" or "Mexican" like most people said, and that is not the reason most ESL students get bad grades. It's because English is not our first language.

In the quad area of South Meck on a cold morning just before the first bell, a hundred or so students gather in small, loose circles. Some of the boys wear baggy shorts that come down to their upper calves. Their knapsacks hang as loose and low as possible. They don't wear coats or socks. Some of the girls' shorts are as high as the dress code will allow, and they wear short skimpy tops that show off their midriffs, which are covered by flesh-colored leotard material. The scene takes me back to my own awkward high school days and how such large gatherings overwhelmed me. Today it looks so small.

South Meck reminds me a lot of the public high school I graduated from thirty years ago. It's better, though. Cleaner, safer, and better organized. The quad at my high school was a supervised "smoking area" clouded by a blend of tobacco and marijuana smoke. Our public schools today are much maligned, so much that you'd expect them to be lawless detention centers. The truth is there's nothing wrong with our schools. These kids have access to excellent learning opportunities and curricula. They are getting a good education. The problem is dead rooted in our society. Why is everybody so shocked when a gun shows up on campus? If our society is full of guns and violence and drugs, then of course they will show up in our schools. The student's home life has more to do with how well they do at school than anything else. It always has and always will. If families are not communicating, not sharing meals, if parents are not involved with their children's education, then there are going to be problems with our schools.

Last year after the Virginia Tech shootings, the father of one of my ESL students, a Korean girl, apologized profusely for Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter. "I'm so sorry. We apologize. He's Korean." I told him not to apologize: "What happened at VT is an American problem. Cho was a product of our culture."

It's hard to say which kids will walk away with the skills I'm trying to teach them. A lot of times I feel like they aren't listening, but I know, because I was once a teen myself, that they're always listening. They want to learn and are hungry for guidance—for someone to notice them. One of my students from last year, Charlena Garcia from Mexico, told me that she now keeps two diaries, one in Spanish and one in English. Her Spanish diary is filled with the minutiae of daily life. She uses her English diary to express her fantasy life. She's broken through the wall. Her writing has become creative and daring. Her verbal English skills are excellent. She spoke eloquently last year in front of a crowd at the gallery opening of the class's work. During the summer she saved her money working as a waitress to buy a camera, and she now works on the South Meck yearbook. She wants to study educational psychology.

Another student from last year, Irene, seemed not to be listening. She missed a lot of classes and was slack about turning in her homework. She's in my class again. This is the beginning of her first essay this year:

My life in Charlotte is kind of boring. Nothing new, everyday is the same. My life is a routine. In the morning I wake up at 4:45 a.m. I sit down in my bed for three minutes, just to stretch and thank God for giving me another day to live in this world. After thinking and stretching in bed I take my dog out for a walk and she always makes my day. She is always trying to bite my shoes or my pants. She is really pretty. She's black and her hair is long and curly. She's a beautiful Cocker Spaniel. Her name is Totis.

I go back to my apartment. I take a shower. I always put hot water because in the morning I'm really cold and when I'm about to finish I put cold water. It feels really crazy but it brings me to life. I put on my clothes and at 5:30 a.m. or so, I go to the kitchen and make breakfast for my sister and I prepare my lunch for school. I go back to my room and do my make up and my hair while I listen to music, because I love music. I can't do anything without music.

There is a voice in those words. It sounds like the beginning of an epic novel. Irene Nicolas from Mexico has found her voice.