Holiday Tears and Cheers with English Language Learners

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Life in the Classroom, Love, Social Issues

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There are many moments when I really wish my Spanish was better, and yesterday was one of those moments.

It was the last day of the semester, and my introduction level English Language Development class (grade 7 and 8) was working on re-organizing our class library and bookshelves.  They had already earned their movie day, with chips and chamoy, by being one of the hardest-working and well-behaved groups I have ever taught, but why not take care of business first? We have four periods together, after all. They had a playlist of cumbias, banda and other latino music playing, and periodically paused their work to dance.  They sang the familiar songs aloud. Books were dusted, sorted and shelved. By chance, it was all my girls; the boys’ families had left a day early on vacation.

I chatted with a few students about this, and inquired about their families and friends back home.  The thing about an introduction level ELD class is that every one of my students has moved here from another country, all within the past year or two.  Many of them live with aunts and uncles here, or with just one parent, with the other parent left behind temporarily. None of them had much of a say in the decision to leave. Most of them seem happy to be in school learning, but I know they each have a complex and usually difficult story.

In this year’s class I have students mostly from Mexico, and one student from the Dominican Republic, and one from Honduras.  I asked a couple of students if they would be able to go visit their families in the future. Immediately, I wished my listening comprehension in Spanish was stronger, because within moments they were talking about the intricacies of who in their family could go back and re-enter the country, and who couldn’t. And before I knew it, a girl was crying, being consoled by a close circle of other girls whose eyes were also red.  And then everyone was crying, including me and our instructional aide, who luckily speaks better Spanish.  The students took turns telling their stories.  I understood that some people had died, some families were separated indefinitely, and some people were simply from very far away and the prospect of having enough money for a trip was unlikely.  There was also talk of passports.

Our aide gave them a pep talk about how strong they are, and how much responsibility they are all carrying for their families to have to work hard and learn English and be successful, and how strong they are. I told them how proud I am of them and how brave they all are.  I told them how special and important it is that they have each other for support, because they can understand each other. We all cried a little bit more before eating chips and watching a goofy comedy for our remaining 2.5 periods together.  

I have had an ongoing conversation with a colleague about whether or not the legally required four-hour block of English language is simply legalized segregation. But there are moments when, at least for these beginners, I am very grateful we have that extra time together. They need to know they have a home base on campus, a place where it is okay to still be learning English, and a group of students who can truly understand a little bit of what they go through on a daily basis. I try to learn their stories and empathize, but the friendships they form with each other go beyond any kind of support I can provide.  It is conventional wisdom that the holidays can be a difficult time emotionally for adults, but I am not sure that people really think of it that way for young people.  These students go through many difficulties during holidays, and throughout the year. Part of my students’ sadness yesterday may have been that they won’t see some of their friends regularly over the winter break.  But I am very grateful that they had the time and space to talk and cry together before parting ways for the holidays.  And at least we can all look forward to seeing one another again in January!



Amethyst Hinton Sainz is National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts, and is constantly trying to live up to that standard! This year she will begin teaching at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona as an interventionist. She has taught junior high ELD and high school English in Arizona for 25 years. She has been a Stories from School blogger since 2012. Amethyst’s alma maters are Blue Ridge High School, the University of Arizona and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led her toward the College of Education, and she soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel her throughout her career. Her love of language, literature, and culture led her to Bread Loaf for her master's in English Literature. She is a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for her. As a board member of the Mesa NBCT Network, she works with other NBCT’s to promote this powerful process throughout the district. She supports candidates for National Board Certification, and loves seeing teachers realize and articulate their teaching and leadership power! She enjoys teaching students across the spectrum of academic abilities, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education. Last year she had the privilege of running our school garden, and will really miss that this year. She is currently learning more about social and racial justice and is striving to be an antiracist educator. She lives in Mesa, Arizona with her family. She enjoys time with them, as well as with her vegetable garden, backyard chickens, and the two dogs. She also enjoys reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), kayaking, camping, and travel, among other things.

Comments 2

  1. Beth Maloney

    Amethyst, this story touched my heart. You’ve really expressed why it is so essential to give our students the time and space to open up to us and to each other. Our job is so much more than the curriculum we teach. It’s about the amazing people we teach. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sandy Merz

    I’ve wondered this year, more than others for some reason, about how the holidays present many of our students with a great deal of stress. Most the kids I thought about get in a lot of trouble and have plenty of trauma at home. The hours they spend at school are often the only stability in their lives, even though their means of coping is often interpreted as disrespect or rebellion, and definitely disrupts the flow of our classes.

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