By Colleen S. Good
Times West Virginian
Last week, Marion County Schools celebrated International Education Week.
Marion County has 19 students in its English as a Second Language (ESL) program, ranging in age from kindergarten to seniors in high school.
Erin Gripper, one of two ESL teachers working in Marion County schools, helped organize International Education Week events this year.
“It’s a nationwide celebration to educate students about the cultures that are around them, and prepare them for a global economy,” Gripper said.
As a part of International Education Week, Gripper has been working with Marion County ESL students, helping them create presentations for their classmates.
“I’ve tried my best this week to give the students an opportunity to share, and be proud of where they’re from,” Gripper said.
On Wednesday, two ESL students, Gary and Lucy Chen, gave a presentation on China for their classmates at West Fairmont Middle School. Gary and Lucy are cousins. Their families are from Fuzhou, in the southern part of China, and they run the Grand China Buffet at the Middletown Mall.
Gary has been in the United States since he was 3, while Lucy’s family moved to the United States only three or four years ago.
The ESL program in Marion County works within the teacher’s current curriculum, acting as instructional support for the students.
“So they still go to all of their classes, like science, social studies and English,” Gripper said. “But if they’re reading a story, we’ll help them learn English within that story.”
Gary worked on a poster based on a story he read, while Lucy received help with her science fair project.
“I wanted to see if water ever goes bad,” Lucy said. “It doesn’t.”
Now that Lucy and Gary have had a few years to work on their English, they sometimes have to help their parents.
“I have to explain the things they have to sign,” Lucy said. Forms, such as permission slips, can have technical or complex language their parents may not have learned through their work at the restaurant.
As they have come from a household that primarily speaks Chinese at home, learning English can sometimes be difficult for Lucy and Gary.
Gripper said that it takes time for any ESL student to learn the language.
“In Marion County, we have some students who come very young, kindergarten or first grade, and they learn to read with their peers, so they have that advantage,” Gripper said. “But it takes about seven years for a student immersed in the language at public school to be considered fluent in a second language. So that’s quite a long time.”
But the ESL students are very successful, Gripper said. At her teacher’s request, last year Lucy did a presentation to teach her classmates all about China.
“I did the Chinese New Year, what we do in class in China, how we live and what we eat,” Lucy said.
Wednesday at West Fairmont Middle School, Lucy and Gary got the chance to share their cultural heritage with their classmates again. Gripper also brought along a Chinese student from Fairmont State University named Anniwaer Niji’ati. Niji’ati is from western China in Xinjiang province.
Niji’ati taught students how to say “hello” and “goodbye” in Chinese, and also let students try writing the words on the board using Chinese characters. Lucy gave a presentation on Chinese clothing and money, and also told her classmates about the Chinese New Year. Gary told his classmates more information about the holiday, and also helped a friend try to write Chinese characters.
On Friday, Gripper led additional presentations by FSU students from Colombia, Spain and Italy at West Fairmont Middle, Fairmont Senior and North Marion high schools.
“I think it’s important for this area because they don’t have a lot of exposure to other cultures, when a lot of times there are students right in their own classes from China, Korea or Vietnam,” Gripper said.
Marion County’s 19 international students are primarily from China, but students also speak Spanish, Vietnamese, French and Korean.
Gripper said that her ESL students are inspiring.
“The challenges that they face on a daily basis — looking different, having an accent, language, culture — it’s amazing,” Gripper said. “I look at them, and they inspire me.”
Being an ESL teacher also requires a lot of flexibility from Gripper.
“Some days, I’ll have a kindergartener learning phonics, and then I’ll have students working on their senior research projects,” Gripper said. “I’ve done it for five years, so I’ve become accustomed to it, but it can be a challenge.”
Gripper said she hopes students learn something from International Education Week.
“It’s important for American students to be aware of all of the cultures that are represented within their schools and in their community, and to appreciate that, because our world is getting smaller every day,” Gripper said.
Email Colleen S. Good at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.