SFA Las Americas lesson

Cerin Cengiz, a teacher at Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston, gives Hannah Tollison, a junior from Abilene studying languages, cultures and communication at Stephen F. Austin State University, a 45-minute lesson in Turkish. This exercise helps visitors to the school understand how Las Americas students feel when first introduced to a new language and culture.

Special to the News-Journal

NACOGDOCHES — About 40 English-speaking preservice teachers from Stephen F. Austin State University’s disciplinary literacy course have been learning a lesson in Turkish from an instructor at Las Americas Newcomer School, part of the Houston Independent School District, and it has unique challenges.

When the SFA preservice teachers are unable to answer the instructor’s questions fast enough, she speaks slower and louder. This goes on for 45 minutes.

“It was awkward at first,” said Aaliyah Overshown, a senior English major from Tyler who participated in the November field trip. “But it gave us a taste of what it’s like to be in a classroom where you have no knowledge or clue as to what anyone, especially the teacher, is trying to say to you. They showed us how students at this school feel every day when they are having a brand new language and culture thrown at them.”

Las Americas principal Marie Moreno calls this “torture,” and the school’s instructors believe it is one of the most important experiences a visitor can have at Las Americas, which serves 367 middle schoolers from three dozen different countries, mostly in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. They speak between 20 and 30 languages, but English is not among them.

“My teachers are doing all those things they’re told to do with English language learners, and you can see the SFA students getting so frustrated,” Moreno said. “They say, ‘I’m not stupid! I just don’t know what you’re telling me.’ So they can imagine how our middle school students feel.”

The teachers also learn how to be flexible, “not stick to the script,” and ensure everyone has equal access to learning, Moreno said.

Most of these students are younger than 15 years old, and they have experienced profound trauma that led them to seek asylum or refugee status in Texas. They are classified by six different language proficiency levels instead of grade levels.

Las Americas teachers are required to hold English as a second language certification, but most are not bilingual. They design their lessons based on the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. SIOP was created to help English learners acquire academic knowledge as they develop English language proficiency.

The lessons at Las Americas involve dynamic, visual learning. For example, to help students learn how germs spread, a teacher placed a dot of glitter on a student’s hand. By the end of the hour, glitter had spread all over the classroom, and students understood the importance of washing their hands.

For the past five years, the preservice teachers taking the disciplinary literacy course at SFA have visited Las Americas. Moreno said she has individuals who ask to visit the school and observe how the students there learn, but SFA is the only university that “brings people by the busload.”

The SFA preservice teachers are “just floored about the different areas the Las Americas kids don’t have exposure to — from sitting at desks to hearing telephones ring to getting water from a faucet instead of a pond,” Moreno said.