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When Conflicts Follow Young Immigrants to School in a New Land

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: politics in the classroom. What an English teacher in the American South has learned from her international students.

RS: Yvette Drew was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She has taught English as a second language in the metropolitan Atlanta area for about fifteen years. Teaching young newcomers from around the world has taught her some things about the similarities and differences in human behavior.

AA: But something else Yvette Drew has learned from her high school students is to pay more attention to politics.

YVETTE DREW: "Prior to working with them, I was sort of apolitical. But then, as I worked with them, I noticed that they paid close attention to politics in their country and in the United States. And I came to understand that they were really responsive to political things, particularly to the leaders in countries, because they believed their situation came about because of some poor decision -- they believe -- on a leader's part. So they have very strong opinions about politics. They pay attention to history. They believe their success or their failures will depend on the leaders in the place where they're at."

RS: Yet even a new country and a new school may offer no escape from failures they had hoped to leave behind. Yvette Drew describes two examples at her school -- with two different outcomes.

YVETTE DREW: "When Yugoslavia was breaking up, we had students that were Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and we were having a great deal of difficulty getting the students to get along in this new place. It became so difficult to control the fights among Serbs and Bosnians that we actually had to send one group to the neighboring high school.

"In contrast to that, during the time when Ethiopia and Eritrea were having their fight, we had Ethiopians and Eritrean students that were fighting at first. And then, at some point, they decided that [they] could not mirror what is going on. So they approached certain teachers to facilitate mediation among them. They all raised money to send to help people that were hurt or displaced. It was very memorable to us as the teachers that were facilitating this group."

AA: Another story that Yvette Drew likes to tell goes back to the early nineteen nineties, when she received some Kurdish students from northern Iraq.

YVETTE DREW: "And one of the girls actually was very ill. We later found out she had neurological problems, and later found out about the gas that was sprayed on certain segments of the population. But at that time I never did understand why one of my little boys said to me: 'Teacher, if America would take care of my family, I'd go back and kill Saddam.'

"Well, fast forward about three years ago, I was in a store in one of the very ethnic[ally diverse] communities in metro Atlanta and a young man walked in, dressed in a military uniform, looking very handsome. And I'm buying something. He came over to me and I stood looking at him, and he gave me a hug and started talking. And it turned out he was that kid from ten years before.

"He was now in the military, he was a translator, he had been on several tours in Iraq. And I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' Originally he was this kid with a lot of angst and really anxious, and now ten, twelve years later, he's a grown man, trained, educated and is now an officer in the military."

RS: Yvette Drew says she and her fellow teachers try to encourage students to keep as much of their culture as they can.

YVETTE DREW: "Every Friday in my classroom, part of our classroom routine is to get online and go to your country's Web site and read the news for the week and then share it with the class. Also we have international clubs that give students opportunities to share their culture with the larger student body and the faculty. We celebrate with them, and we remind them constantly that part of being a responsible American citizen is that you be yourself, but you also respect others."

AA: Yvette Drew teaches in the DeKalb County School System in Decatur, Georgia. She spoke with us at the recent Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention in Seattle.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. You can hear from other English teachers at our Web site, And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.