Sumitra Rai is quiet but smiley, as her classmates shout praises for her homemade chow mein and momo. After growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal, Rai moved to Vermont and enrolled at Colchester High School’s English Learner (EL) class, made up of kids like her–immigrants and refugees whose first language is not English.
Now, she and her classmates have written a book for the third year in a row.
The theme of this year’s class book is clear from the title, Beliefs. After reading a novel over the course of the year about personal beliefs, EL teacher, Susan Rosato, asked the students, “What are your philosophies?” Each student then wrote a short piece and submitted artwork to run alongside it, adding up to a total of 60 pages.
“I’ve always believed in the writing process, going back to when I first started teaching,” says Rosato, who has been teaching English as a Second Language for 15 years.
“It’s easier to write about things that they know, but it also adds a layer of the unknown. And when it’s a book, there’s more motivation in having good grammar,” she says. “They’re happy to do it, y’know. It’s baked into the cake, baked into the recipe.”
Two of the students grew up in the Congo and found common ground with other kids through playing soccer. “It’s a kind of communication,” says Stephane Katende, who made the varsity soccer team when he was only a sophomore.
“It’s like you live in a shadow,” says Katende’s fellow teammate, Thomy Mwali, on what it feels like to not be able to speak the same language as everyone around you. Something as simple as asking where the bathroom can feel impossible, like a trap, if you’re unfamiliar with the language, he continued.
“Everyone should have to go somewhere new, where they feel different or can’t speak the language, at least once in their life,” says Mwali.
Katende drew the cover for Beliefs, based on designs the class created together. He says he designed the cover to look like a person’s brain split in half, representing a fixed and growth mindset. The title encircles the head like a halo, with words love, hope, fear, courage, and despair radiating out.
Samiksha Gurung, a freshman from Nepal, titled her story, “The Five Stars,” to represent five of her best friends and how friendship transcends time and place. Bleonard Ademi, from Albania, wrote a lyrical piece called “What is Fear?” that critiques the rigidity of fear while using a poetic, almost rhythmic style.
Sumitra Rai also wrote her story about friendship. Following the death of her best friend who stayed in Nepal, Rai wrote about how hard it was to forgive herself. She titled it “True Friendship Never Dies.”
This year, Rosato felt a moment of self-doubt when she welcomed Beny Mulolo, a student from the Congo who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. “I was so scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I felt very incompetent,” she says. “But then this young man came into our classroom and he has been nothing but sheer joy.”
Beni, she says, learned English by watching Youtube tutorial videos for six hours every day after school. “He’s incredibly intelligent and so thoughtful,” she says. Mulolo’s story in this year’s book is called “Mind of Steel,” and is about perseverance in the midst of his family’s separation and move to the United States.
The curriculum for an English Learner (EL) class evaluates listening, speaking, reading, and writing, all towards the goal of second language acquisition. Rosato thinks that teaching an English Learner (EL) class to high schoolers is different from a foreign language or an English class because of the support and encouragement she also provides to the kids.
During a supported study hall class, Rosato is able to help out kids of all levels with outside-class homework. “It’s really nice because the class builds a nice sense of community,” says Rosato. Since the kids are all mixed together, newcomers can work with more experienced kids. “There’s a real sense of empathy; they were all in the same place at one point,” she says.
Rosato sees her number one priority as to support the kids. “You just have to struggle through it sometimes,” she says. “But I believe in these kids.”