photo of Las Americas teacher Ceren Cengiz and SFA student Hannah Tollison

Ceren 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. Photo courtesy of Alison Cope

NACOGDOCHES, Texas — About 40 English-speaking preservice teachers from Stephen F. Austin State University’s disciplinary literacy course are learning a lesson in Turkish from an instructor at Las Americas Newcomer School, part of the Houston Independent School District. When the SFA preservice teachers can’t 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 isn’t one of 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.”

Another important lesson preservice teachers learn at Las Americas is how to be flexible, “not stick to the script,” and ensure everyone has equal access to learning, Moreno said.

“Some students may not have the knowledge their classmates do, but they have special skills others don’t have,” she said. “You have to turn those into learning opportunities for the whole classroom. It may take a few months or years, but you can turn a hindrance into an asset.”

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.

In addition to the language and cultural challenges they face, Las Americas students and their families often don’t have the basic resources they need when they arrive in the U.S., said Dr. Amber Wagnon, assistant professor of secondary education and educational leadership for SFA’s James I. Perkins College of Education. She is an instructor for the disciplinary literacy course and a faculty advisor for these field trips.

“Since most of the families come from warm climates, they are often unprepared for our winter season,” she said.

With this in mind, SFA preservice teachers work to collect winter clothing to deliver during their trips to the school.

“We happened to visit on a very cold day, and the items we brought were immediately distributed to the students,” Wagnon said. “It was encouraging to see a need was met through our small donation. We hope to continue this service project.”

In addition to contributing to the donation center and working to understand the perspectives of English language learners better, the SFA preservice teachers were able to use what they’ve learned in their coursework with the school’s students.

“We spent time in the classrooms, working directly with English language learners and applying our skills of differentiated instruction for the SIOP environment,” said Alison Cope, an instructor for the disciplinary literacy course. “The ELL kids were delightful, and our students were quick to step in and help in the dynamic learning station activities for plenty of authentic learning opportunities.”

Las Americas students are accustomed to frequent visitors, Cope said. This helps them easily accept help from SFA preservice teachers, who benefit from more concentrated face-to-face time with English language learners at the newcomer school.

Preservice teachers also learned about trauma and its effects on the newcomer school’s students from Sarah Howell, the social worker at Las Americas. She described the experiences of some of the students, including a boy from the Congo who hid in a tree while watching his family be murdered.

“This experience was super impactful and gave me a lot of knowledge about how to approach my future students who may be overcoming a traumatic experience or background,” Overshown said. “The teachers at this school are doing way more than just presenting lessons to students. They are working very diligently to give all these students the foundation they need to come to a new country and be not only academically successful but also emotionally and socially confident.”

Students at Las Americas must be reading at a fourth grade Lexile level before entering the mainstream courses at the neighboring Long Academy School. Federal guidelines require most English language learners to be integrated into traditional classes as quickly as possible, so most students stay at Las Americas for only a year.

For more information on SFA’s disciplinary literacy course and the Las Americas donation center, contact Wagnon at