A Pot Leaf, Some Glasses, and a Fisherman

Sunday Reflections by Pamela Broussard

January 3, 2021

“Don’t be afraid to start over.

This time you are not starting from scratch.

You are starting from EXPERIENCE”


I often tell my new arrivals that the best part of being new to the USA is that you can choose how you want to show up. You can redefine yourself. Regardless of any negative thing in your past, (being too shy, too loud, not studious, a class clown, a trouble maker, a gangster, a dealer, unmotivated, mediocre, not good at _____ , or any other thing you didn’t like) you can be any kind of new student now. No one knows your past. No one knows that embarrassing thing you did in third grade. No one knows when you didn’t make the team, pass the test or got into a fight. You get to create the new you, the YOU you have always wanted to be.

The speech all started with a student I had years ago, I’ll call him Miguel. He had straight A's on his transcript but I saw large academic gaps in his performance. One day while having a heart to heart conversation with him, I asked how he had all A’s but yet he didn’t know some of the more basic material those classes would have covered. He told me, “Because I was in the cartel, the teachers were afraid of me. They asked me what grade I wanted and I told them ‘A's’, so that is what they wrote.”

Miguel showed up the first day in my class with a chip on his shoulder and a look in his eyes that told you he had seen more than a child should have seen. He also had a pot leaf on his hand that I thought was a tattoo. As I got closer, I asked him about the pot leaf. He said it wasn’t a tattoo, it was drawn on with a marker. I pulled him aside and asked if he did drugs. He said, "Yes, in the past." I told him to go wash the pot leaf off and gave him the speech above. I told him he could leave all that behind. No one knew him. He could start over. After months of glares that kept all the students at bay, he began to relax. Fast forward to the end of the year, he had straight A's, and this time he had EARNED them. (Oh, and by the way, not one day did he get into trouble or drugs.)

After that, the speech became a yearly tradition. One year, a few weeks into school, *Carmen came to class with glasses. I complimented her on them and her new look. She wore the glasses all year. It wasn't until one of the last days of school that she came without them. When I asked her why, she told me they had broken.

I responded, "Oh, no! That has to be hard as you are preparing for finals."

She replied, "It’s ok, I can still see."

"I know but it must be hard to not be able to see as well."

To which she disclosed, "Oh, they were not real. I wanted to change. I was wearing them to look smart."

Guess what? That “looking smart” helped her “become smart." Her report card looked completely different than her profile from her last school. (We all know she always had it in her, but to her, it took fake glasses to achieve it.) She worked hard and was very focused. She became a leader.

December 2020: This week with a mask on I went to deliver Christmas gifts to my students. When I arrived at *Samuel’s house, he wasn't there so his uncle came outside. The uncle and I have texted often, but this was the first time I met him face to face. We talked for a few minutes and he said, "We are all so, so happy at how well Samuel is doing. The whole family is happy. We ALL talk about how HAPPY we are that he is doing well." I could hear the zeal and even the surprise in his voice.

Samuel is a compassionate, responsible, straight-A (online) student. He has stolen every teacher's heart. He’s one of the purest hearted students I have ever had. Our last Zoom before break, I "kept him after class." I asked for his parents’ email address in Mexico and read a letter I wrote to them. In the letter I was praising all the wonderful qualities about him and his academic achievements. I asked what he thought his parents would think when they read it.

He humbly looked down, took a moment then looked up at me and said, “I think they will be surprised.” Then pausing one more time he said, “Ms. you don’t know my story…”

Samuel spoke about “being rebellious.” Back in front of his house, his uncle spoke about Samuel quitting school, being from “a small pueblo with nothing...and a fishing village where his family are ‘just fishermen.’” Today, Samuel is thriving. He learns everything the first time it is taught. No one would have ever guessed his back story.

I like the saying and have decided to put it up in my room:

“Don’t be afraid to start over. This time you are not starting from scratch. You are starting from experience.”

There are so many challenges our new arrivals face, but one of the beautiful opportunities of being a new arrival is the opportunity to “start over with experience.” When Samuel was surprised at the lack of discipline one of my other students had, I talked about how his routine of getting up at 3:30 AM every day to catch/sell fish, his required midday walking of the goats, and his evening routine of setting shrimp nets taught him how to work hard. “It was a gift your parents gave you. You know how to work hard.”

Samuel replied, “Yeah, I didn’t understand why my parents were the way they were, now I understand it.” Quitting school and working full time with his parents, gave him the experience he needed to start over in school.

These three students and the thousands of others in our classes have the opportunity to “start over with experience” when they come to the USA - and we can learn from them. This past year, everyone was new to dealing with the challenges COVID brought to us. For some, things went well. For others, we really struggled. We were all beginners. Soon the school bells will ring and we will be heading back to the second half of the year. When we come back though, this time we come back with experience. It is a great time to apply what we learned and start fresh. There is an old proverb that says, “Where there is no vision, people perish.” As the new year starts, students don’t need nor want “toxic positivity” (Pretending that the challenges didn’t/don’t exist and weren’t/aren’t hard.) But with their experience, students can create a vision or goal they can optimistically work towards accomplishing. Through intentional social and emotional support, we can help our students be their best version of themselves. We can help them have a vision for 2021.

How do you help students have a vision for 2021? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Teach students how to write S.M.A.R.T. goals. Do a quick search on the internet and you can find many examples of creating S.M.A.R.T goals (Specific. Measurable. Attainable/Actionable. Relevant. Time-bound).

  2. Create vision boards. Using pictures from magazines or the internet, students cut out pictures of what they want to accomplish or how they want to see themselves in the future. After students present them to the class, post them around the room to keep the goals in mind. (While slides and ppts might be useful for many visual activities, I would discourage using it for this unless you print it. The idea is to have a visual reminder students see often.)

  3. WIDA/TELPAS/state exam goals: Some teachers share testing scores and help students write goals to move to the next level. Students examine “can do descriptors” or “TELPAS PLDs” to see what exactly they need to do to improve. There are various forms on teacher websites for doing this.

  4. Speakers: Another powerful way to help students with their vision is to bring in live or online guest speakers to inspire them. Former students, community leaders, college students, and multilingual professionals can often impact and inspire students to go beyond what they thought was possible. One gift of COVID is that more people now know how to do online video calls so it is easier than ever to get a speaker.

  5. Books and articles: Find books and articles that contain “windows and mirrors” (Places students can see themselves and others) that can be used to read and write about visions and goals. If you need a place to start, I have a list in the files of my Facebook group: Leading ELLs. Go to files and search keyword “Success”

  6. FREEBIE from the AMAZING Esther Park: Esther has created great slides for goal setting. Go here: www.mrspark.org/free

Whether it is through goal setting, vision boards, or introducing inspiring people live and in print, teachers can help students clarify their goals and visions for this new year. We are still facing the COVID challenges, but I am encouraged we too get to “come with experience.” I am grateful so much of the “new” of “COVID teaching” is behind us. Grateful that our students, and we, start 2021 “with experience.” Happy New Year!- Pamela