`We are the voice of the voiceless'

Workshop: A Patapsco Middle initiative could be a model to meet needs of parents and pupils in the `limited English-speaking population.'

October 31, 2001|By Donna Payne | Donna Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Call them the voiceless parents. Officially, they are the "limited English-speaking population," or LEP, with children in Howard County schools.

"It's not that they physically don't have a voice," said Min Kim, ESOL Family and Community Outreach Liaison for county public schools. "It's that they cannot express their thoughts and needs in the language of English, which is the language of instruction and conversation in this country."

In an effort to help teachers and staff members better understand the needs of parents and pupils with limited English proficiency, Patapsco Middle School recently made that topic the focus of its staff development day workshop.

The session drew community liaisons, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers and top school system brass, including Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, Associate Superintendent Kimberly Statham and Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett.

"We have to find a way to meet the needs of all students, and this is an initiative which is a model for the schools to replicate," said Plunkett.

Educators have no doubt about the importance of such programs. Debbie Espitia, the school system's foreign language resource teacher, said 83 countries and 58 languages are represented in the county schools. The ESOL population has doubled in the past five years, she said.

Countywide, such students attend ESOL classes to develop proficiency in English language and culture. In addition, the "community liaison" program offers four part-time liaisons, two of whom speak Korean and two of whom speak Spanish. "We are the voice of the voiceless," said Kim of the liaisons' role.

But it was the presence of Patapsco's "voiceless parents" that made the session more than an ordinary morning of lectures and exercises.

The parents of the school's 70 Korean-speaking pupils prepared an elaborate meal of a dozen Korean delicacies for those who attended the workshop. The parents decorated the tables with flowers from a Korean florist and gave corsages to each of the dignitaries.

"The LEP Korean parents are so excited about [this] opportunity to show the school system how much they care for their children's education," said Young-Chan Han, a community liaison and one of the workshop organizers. She said that 90 percent of the Korean families at Patapsco Middle require ESOL services.

"They want to do something to appreciate the teachers [for] what they do with the children," said Jennifer Lee, who is Korean, speaks fluent English and has a son at the school. She volunteers there as an interpreter.

The workshop participants frequently clapped and laughed and nodded in agreement as the speakers provided advice on culture and language.

The teachers learned, for example, that a Pakistani child might think it improper to be asked to sit next to a classmate of the opposite sex, and that a Korean pupil who does not look directly at the teacher is not being disrespectful. Polite Korean children lower their eyes in front of their elders.

Han told the teachers to avoid using slang or abbreviations on take-home papers. She said that phrases such as "way to go" and "rdg [reading] homework" are meaningless to a non-English speaker. And a parent cannot find a translation for such terms in a language dictionary.

In what she called "Korean 101," Han taught the audience simple Korean phrases to use in welcoming a parent to a teacher conference. Han also advised teachers to never use children as interpreters. She told the story of one mother who was embarrassed and ashamed when a teacher asked the woman's child to interpret their conversation. Han also said that children are sometimes selective in their reporting or understanding of a message.

The workshop was "outstanding ... extremely informative," said Serafina Sama, a teaching assistant at Patapsco. "It even became emotional at times. I had to get my tissues out."

Before lunch, Principal Carol Mohsberg led the group in a newly learned skill. The teachers bowed to the Korean parents and, in unison, tentatively pronounced: "kam-sa-haam-me-da" - Korean for "thank you very much."

Speaking through an interpreter, Sun-Hee Hong, a LEP Korean parent, said she "hoped that teachers would see beyond [the language barrier] to the strengths of the children .... so that they can pull them up from where they are."

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