Three years ago, Kim Bowman was teaching English to the sons of a Saudi Arabian prince, a Guatemalan leader and the governor of Mexico City.
But after six years using her English as a Second Language training at Culver Academy boarding school in Indiana, the teacher decided she needed a change.
This year, Bowman was selected to lead the Intensive Language Center at Henry Moss Middle School.
The program is designed to bring students who arrive to the district without any English exposure and prepare them to integrate regular classrooms by giving them a year of intensive language classes.
At least six languages are spoken in Bowman’s classroom as students come from Myanmar, Burundi, Jordan, Yemen and Thailand.
Most of the students had never touched a computer when Bowman handed them a laptop on the first day of school, and aside from first trying to read sentences written without a space bar, Bowman said other challenges are what makes her job enjoyable.
“They would rather be here than anywhere else,” Bowman said. “I have 15 kids who want to learn. When you have 15 kids who want to learn, it is a gift. They’ve been exposed to a lot of stuff and when it comes down to it, they just want to learn.”
Since August, Bowman said her students have risen to three very distinct levels with some reading and writing better than others despite all arriving with zero English skills.
With the help of a teaching assistant, Bowman said she makes up three lesson plans and three activities for the different levels that she accommodates by having the students rotate through stations.
A recent lesson about sentence structure involved Bowman tossing a ball to students, repeating “I throw the ball to you, you throw the ball to her.”
She added her job has taught her a lot about patience.
“It’s hard sometimes to separate the teacher from the person,” she said. “The person gets impatient but the teacher must remember that they’re learning. It’s a daily exercise in patience for me and you have to have a certain level of awareness about that.”
Bowman said her students constantly surprise her and are more globally aware than most American students.
“They are just amazing, intelligent kids who just don’t have the English language right now,” she said. “My kids know more about the world and things going on the world and there are some Americans who don’t know where their country is on a map.”
In Bowman’s classroom, English is the only language spoken, but the teacher’s love for language and desire to help her students encourages her to learn about her students’ languages as well.
She said it helps her assist students when she remembers Arabic is written from right to left, so Alvaton, for instance, would appear as notavlA.
“I have to learn how to teach a lot of stuff and have to be a student while teaching,” she said. “When I received my (ESL) master’s, they assumed the students could read and write. Teaching reading is a skill different than teaching ESL. I’m always trying to figure out what I don’t know and to know what I need to know.”
Bowman said her goal is to bring her students to a proficient level in English so they can feel comfortable and understand how to ask questions and communicate in classes next year.
Already, students who could not spell the name of their own country are writing paragraphs about their weekends. Some have come to enjoy writing, Bowman said.
“You try to be a cheerleader and a teacher,” she said. “This is where my heart is - these kids are something special.”
Ali Jaber, a 14-year-old student from Jordan, said he enjoys learning how to use the computer and seeing his country through satellite images on Google Earth.
The students said they have learned about each other’s cultures and languages - Ali said he has learned to speak some Burundi from his friend, Mfatiye Selestino, 15.
Once a day, Bowman allows the students 30 minutes to “blow off steam” in the gymnasium, where the diverse group has developed their own games, juggling sports from each culture.
Just before winter break, the students played a game where one carried and tossed a football as the group also chased a soccer ball.
Bare feet patted the floor, chasing the spotted ball into a guarded goal as cheers erupted when the football was tossed.
While the rules are not evident to a spectator, Bowman said it’s fun to see what they come up with as the plethora of languages echo throughout the gym.
“It’s neat to watch - sometimes you’ll see one of them doing a squat when they mess up,” she said. “They get really into it.”
Bowman said American students often come to school with developed speaking skills and have a “confidence in English skills that doesn’t necessarily translate into academic skills.” Her students must focus daily on academic English, she said.
And while working in translation can be difficult enough, Bowman said she occasionally has to remember that her students are still students.
“I have to remind myself that they are 12 and 14 and it doesn’t matter what their first language is, they’re still teens,” she said with a smile.