As I write this, I sit on a plane to City (La Ciudad de Panama) with my Gringo husband who has never been to Central America. Granted, I’m a Gringo, too, but I’ve been there many times with my mom who is from Panama. Already, the questions from my Hubs have come at hardball speed.
“What will we eat?”
“Do you think there will be any staff that speaks English at our hotel?”
“Should I pack a bag of snacks in my suitcase just in case?”
He is already flashing forward to our return home, talking about what he wants to eat when we get back home. Mind you, we only left the United States two hours ago.
I think to myself about the English as a Second Language students at my school and how anxious they must be when they make their journey to a new land. Their questions are likely very similar but much more extensive since their stay/move in the U.S. is at least semi-long term, if not permanent.
My mind whips back to two years ago when I saw two immigrant students of mine – one from Mexico and one from Vietnam -taking pictures of their computer screens with their phones. A few other students in the room – students who had been in the U.S. much longer – snickered. I went over to investigate.
I allowed my ESL students to have “brain breaks,” each day for about five minutes. This was a time in which they could quit English immersion and retreat back to their own language and culture on the computers or with books of their choosing. Most of the time, the students would go to YouTube to look up their favorite music artists and listen to songs.
Sometimes, they would go to Google Earth and look up old familiar areas in their home countries. This is actually what the two students were doing when I saw them taking pictures. Most of them didn’t have Internet service on their phones, and by taking pictures of their computer screens, they were able to add some photos of familiar places to their phones. It was a simple comforting move to combat their homesickness.
It really got me thinking about measures I could make to help the students feel less homesick. Of course, let’s be realistic. There is no surefire way to take homesickness away from a child or even an adult, much like you can’t take away someone’s fear or someone’s grief. All you can do is offer some ways to ease the feeling.
6 Ways to Help Homesick Immigrant Students
1. Introduce “Brain breaks”
This is a short period of time in your daily schedule in which you allow students to drop the second-language immersion and let them drop back into their familiar language and culture – either through book or online experiences. Examples: YouTube videos of their favorite artists from home, a novel by their favorite author in their native language, an email written to one of their friends at home in their native language.
2. Ask them to show you their hometown
Use Google Earth and similar sites to allow students to show you their home or places around their hometown. Even if the communication barriers are strong, you will see the enthusiasm they have for pointing things out to you.
3. Allow them to share information about their home countries
Allow time in class for students to partner together and share information about their home countries in simple pair-share style. If the students are at very low-level with the second language, this sharing may simply involving pointing and gesturing. Once the second language has developed enough, arrange for students to start sharing in front of the group. (Note, this may take a long while, depending on the student.)
4. Plan a show-and-tell
Regardless of grade level, students can bring items that mean something special to them from their homeland. This is something that could be done regularly.
5. Encourage similar systems in place for the ESL students in their other classes.
Talk to other teachers in their school to have similar systems in their classes. Students should feel their background is valued in all of their classes – not just one or two.
6. Make it a point to learn some greetings and important phrases from every first-language represented in your class.
Make a class game of it. For example, which student can say “how are you?” in the most languages first. This will allow for each student to get a small (very small – but it still counts) taste of first language even while at school.
Hopefully, these tips for helping homesick immigrant students will help with one of the difficult parts of the immigration experience. As for my Hubs, don’t worry about him. He’ll be in heaven with arroz con pollo, ceviche, and chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves for the next week!