Esperanza Cyber Charter School has seen an increase in immigrant students during the pandemic. Impacto sits down with Cyber School teacher Sheila Gonzalez to hear about her experiences and those of the students. Ms. Gonzalez is Puerto Rican and still lives and works on the island.
What has your experience been, as a teacher of immigrant students in a cyber school?
My experience has been very positive. I have seen that immigrant students face a lot of challenges when they move to the United States, because they not only have to contend with moving to a new country, but they also lose everything they are familiar with. They lose their friends, their house, and the language they know how to speak. It is a complete and total adjustment, on every possible level. When they get to the cyber school, sometimes they are very shy to share their experiences, because they don’t think other students will understand. Kids are kids – they want to be friends with their new classmates, but they don’t know how to bridge the gap. And if we can help them, it makes a huge difference for both the immigrant and the native students. So, it has been very meaningful to see how we can serve these students and have an impact on the immigrant community of Philadelphia.
Are there any particular students who have stood out to you over the course of your time teaching them, from the standpoint of overcoming struggles, or something they taught you about their unique experience?
Absolutely. I have a fourth grader, whose mother is not living with him. He had to leave her behind when he came to the United States. He came to this country to be in a better place but couldn’t have his mother with him. This student is from the Dominican Republic, and he has never been exposed to the English language or American culture. In the beginning, he didn’t want to speak or share, didn’t even want to turn his camera on during our online classes. I told him someday he was going to learn English, and then things would be better for him. I remember, on that day, he turned on his camera and he said to me, “I need to learn this language, because if I learn this language, I can figure out how to pay for the visa to bring my mom to this country. And I’ll get to see her more than once a year.” He only sees his mother once a year, during the summer. Now, he’s one of my students who works harder than anybody else, and he is actually speaking English – not to a point that we could call him bilingual, yet, but he is able to communicate, he understands instructions and assignments, and we can understand him. He’s fighting hard for his dream.
How does it work in a cyber school environment, in terms of being able to provide support to the students, and help them get support from their classmates and peers? In a cyber school, you’re not in the same physical space – and it’s been even harder during the pandemic. How are you there for the students, in this context?
We work closely with the families of our students, to build small learning communities within the larger learning community of the school. We see our group of immigrant students as a family, and since it’s a small group, we can cater to their specific needs and their English language levels. For them to become adjusted is not an easy process, but we work in a way that assures they can set and achieve their goals – whether it’s language, technology literacy, or other skills they need for success.
What are your secrets for helping immigrant students stay engaged?
We make the learning experience fun and engaging for them, and we help them see the growth they’re having. When they see others that speak their native language and have similar life stories getting better at speaking English and succeeding in their coursework, that’s highly motivating for them. They try harder. We don’t make it a competition, of course, but when they see each other succeeding, they think “If my friend can do that, I can do it too.” We have that motto, that we reinforce with them continuously – that anyone can do this, if they try hard and don’t give up. I’m an example for them, too. My parents don’t speak English either, and I had to learn it in school just like they are.
Even though you are not an immigrant – you are Puerto Rican, from the island – you understand the immigrant experience, in a way. What are some of the ways you can relate to these students?
I tell them my story. When I was learning English, I had to work very hard, and study more than anybody else. I had to look at people’s lips when they spoke. I didn’t have help at home; my parents couldn’t help me. But motivation and perseverance are the keys to success, and the English language opens doors for them. They need to understand how useful these skills will be for their futures. I have a student who wants to be a doctor, another who wants to be a cop, and as I mentioned, the student who wants to pay for his mother’s visa. The students see their futures in a very bright way, and I think that helps them. Most of my students want to stay in the United States, because life is harder in the countries they came from. They want to stay here and make a difference.