It Takes Practice to Become This Kind of a Rainbow

My students are from lots of places: Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam, South Korea, China, and Taiwan this year. The mix is always changing. My two classes are adult-ed, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

I am lucky to have such a good part-time job working for an awesome community college. This is only my second semester to teach in this program.

Oklahoma City Community College has a very deep commitment to helping students transition to college however that needs to happen. They work hard to get grants for our ESL and GED classes that are free for the student. The materials and curriculum support for both programs are extremely good. And once some of them move on to real college, they already have a framework of support built around them.

What happens in ESL classes that are English immersion like ours is that anyone from anywhere can come to any class that fits their schedule. The upside is that we take all comers from any first language background and the teachers can come from any first language background of their own.  It provides for an amazing mix of cultures all in the same classroom.

There is only one downside: With that many different cultures represented, our students tend to start grouping themselves by their first language. So within a few weeks the observant teacher can identify the Vietnamese table, the Colombian table, the Mexican table, etc.

And naturally, one person at that table will become the de facto translator for the rest and give their own version of what the teacher just said to do each time instructions are given. It’s the most natural thing to do, and it happens almost on a subconscious level.

Trying Something New

This semester I tried something new for me. As soon as I saw that dynamic at the beginning of the next class period I talked with them about it:

When we start having translators at each table, will anyone really practice listening to English instructions, which is critical to their job and educational mobility?

“No, teacher.” (That’s what they respectfully call all of us teachers.)

When each group at a table all speaks so much in their first language, are you getting as much practice as you could in speaking English?

“No, teacher.”

Will anyone from another culture and first language want to sit at your table if you speak so much of your first language?

“No, teacher.”

Will I get better and giving good instructions that you can understand if everyone else just translates for me?  [I’m shaking my head no.] I want to get better all the time at teaching you English.

“Yes, teacher.”

So, this room represents the best of America. There are so many people from every place on the earth. That’s always been when America has been at its very best.

“Yes, teacher.”

How many of you work in a place where most of your co-workers speak your first language?

At least 2/3 of the class raised their hands. (It’s a problem with workplaces that I will write about in the future.)

So these two classes each week are important times to practice English, right?

“Yes, teacher.”

At this point, almost all of them had nodded approval, giving me and each other knowing looks, and smiling .

So, do you think that you can push each other to speak English instead of your first language when you are helping someone else? All of you can practice English more that way.

“Yes, teacher.”

I want this room to represent the best of what any of us can be in America. Let’s find what we have in common, and get stronger as we include each other.

They were eagerly nodding approval and saying “yes, teacher” and “of course.”

That’s all I needed to say.

They’re adults. They get it. They want to be here. They wouldn’t be in English class unless they wanted to learn English and wanted to be included in American culture.


Their lesson is a lesson to me and anyone else living in America: Just doing what’s comfortable is not the way that we can become that beautiful American rainbow of first cultures joining to form our unique American culture.

Rainbows in nature seemingly happen, but rainbows of this sort don’t.

These rainbows take practice.