Newcomer program helps immigrants learn English

By: Kory Fink and Liz Kellar The News Messenger
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In some ways, Flavia McGinley's classroom at Twelve Bridges Middle School harks back to a simpler time of one-room schoolhouses, with its mix of middle and high schoolers. But what is happening in Room 304 is nothing short of revolutionary for Western Placer Unified School District. Most of these students barely spoke a word of English when this class was pioneered in August. But sentence by painful sentence, they are learning the language and finding their place in an alien environment. McGinley was the driving force behind the district's newcomer program, designed to help recent immigrants. Her class currently plays host to more than a dozen Mexican students, several Filipinas, a Cuban teen and an Iranian. According to McGinley, there are some Ukrainian students in the district who she hopes to include next year. This is the first year of an entirely new program, she said. There are no books, no anything. A lot of what we do is visual “ see it, say it, add a context. Her goal, she said, is First, to get them out of their shell so they're not frozen “ to give them more confidence, to be able to ask for help. Annie Martel, the Cuban teenager, is the perfect example, she said. Annie, day one, (she said) nothing, she said. They go through a silent period where they're afraid to say anything. Martel is 17 and has been at Lincoln High School for just six months. She came to the United States with her parents and grandparents for a better life outside the financial hardships of Cuba, and the family currently lives with her aunt and uncle. Learning English, Martel said, is very hard “ I get confused. But, she said, McGinley is very good “ she helps with everything. Martel goes to the newcomers class every day, in addition to her regular schedule at Lincoln High. She is taking algebra, social studies and driver's education, she said. Math, she said, is easier because it is numbers. Too, she added, her social studies teacher speaks a little Spanish. Her limited English skills isolate her somewhat at Lincoln High, she said “ and so the newcomer class feels a little like an oasis. I feel good here because every student speaks Spanish, she said. The teacher helps us so much. Her burgeoning English skills have helped her translate for the rest of her family, she said. When I go shopping with my parents, I speak to the people, she said. Martel said it is easier for her because she is only 17. I can learn, she said. At Lincoln High, Martel has a Filipino friend with whom she works on her English. I practice so much, she said. In the newcomers class, McGinley spends a lot of her time explaining English grammar, basic words, sentence structure, how to ask a question and answer one. She is a kind, encouraging presence, helping students to grasp concepts of action words, time, greetings, gestures and so much more that most Americans take for granted. According to McGinley, the first two weeks, she taught survival language to get by conversationally with mainstream classmates. When this program began, she said, none of the students knew much English, if any. They've come a long way. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn, and you need to walk before you can run. McGinley works on different things every day with the students. We're doing commands right now, she said. In one recent session, the students went up to the board one by one with commands. After one student finishes his sentence in English, McGinley has the others translate it back into Spanish. After another student uses the command to wake up, McGinley discusses the difference between wake up and get up. Get up is more physical, she explained. Martel carefully writes on the board: Be yourself Very nice, McGinley said. Very deep, too “ and that's a reflexive. But, she cautioned Martel, something was missing. What is at the end of the sentence? she asked. Martel looked at the board, then quickly added a period. Punctuation is very important, McGinley told the class. Later, McGinley worked on pronunciation and the often puzzling subtleties of the English language. Ocean, sea, they are the same, she said. Sea shore “ where the ocean meets the land. In her next assignment, McGinley had the students write down something they would do in the mountains or at the seashore. This is more challenging because it's application, she said. They have to use vocabulary and verbs. Dictation is another technique McGinley uses, which she said is very challenging for these students. They have to understand what I'm saying, she said. When words fail, McGinley resorts to other techniques. Sometimes I draw “ I had to draw a squirrel, she laughed. I do a lot of pantomime, a lot of repetition “ a lot of talking. But by learning together, the students feel free to make mistakes. I wanted to create a community here “ they're all in the same boat, McGinley said. They develop respect for each other, they applaud each other. It was ground zero when I started. Liz Kellar can be reached at or comment on this story at