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One Word

Tim Shaw shares an inspirational account of teaching refugees English from scratch

When I stood in front of a room of adult refugees with a wide range of life experience who spoke five different languages, and then tried to teach them to speak English, I was struck by how much of what I said was just noise. I saw polite, confused looks. For the first time in my teaching career, it felt like I had students who gave me their undivided attention and I didn’t know how to communicate with them. At the Resource Center for Refugees I once again found myself guiding students I felt unprepared to teach, and even though the staff was supportive and gave me a lot of materials, I was not a certified English as a Second Language teacher. Since my students were not young children, adolescents, or teenagers, managing misbehavior was no longer required, and didn’t slow down my teaching process. My new challenge was figuring out how to create a common language that could be consistently referred to because I would not be able to give them brand new directions in English on a daily basis, and I did not speak the many languages my students spoke. We needed routines that didn’t have to be explained every day.

At first, we were getting to know each other without actually being able to talk to each other. We understood through body language and facial expressions most often. For a while, we were most effective at communicating that we had agreed to take a moment away from what we were trying to say and come back to it. We started with one word. Any word. And a matching picture. Survival English words to describe things in the house, school, and community—words about food, money, medicine, and time. Words like toilet and toothbrush, pencil and paper, teacher and student, emergency, and any word that ended with the suffix -ache. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Before. During. After.

I began speaking very slowly, in phrases with only nouns and verbs, and repeated myself often. We smiled at one another a lot. I asked them to do the same thing fifty times in five different ways, and they did. They prodded each other to perform, teased lovingly, and ultimately encouraged each other to persevere.

“Dah Gwae, go-o-o-o!” Thuy said daily, to volunteer her friend to write on the board.

I’d always smile and hand Thuy the dry erase marker and the class would enjoy the brief amusing drama. Though they sometimes seemed tired and occasionally frustrated, they didn’t seem dissatisfied being there. We were all present together, even when we struggled to understand one another.

“Man is morai,” said Khaing Rama Soe, a Buddhist monk from Burma wearing the traditional orange robe, but also long white tube socks and boots to keep his feet warm in the Utica cold he was not accustomed to. He kept repeating the phrase one morning during his first month in class while I struggled to comprehend that last word. He often spoke words aloud to himself and repeated them ten times, and on occasion would hold his translucent lead pencil above his head and look into it, silently staring for long stretches of time. I wondered what he was thinking and if this was an exercise in concentration but knew it would take months in class together to get a definitive answer. Khaing Rama Soe started asking for assurance that he pronounced a word correctly.


“Penci-LLLLLLLLLL.” I would stress the sound and show him how my tongue touched the back of my front teeth.



Repeat ten times.



From this exercise we began to build an understanding of one another beyond our bodies and faces; I often used what I learned from working one-on-one with Khaing Rama Soe to help the class. After looking at pictures, identifying words, and categorizing them as people, place, action, or thing, we had a continually growing dictionary of words we had worked together to learn, recall, pronounce, and write. We put up large posters around the room and added new words in each category every day. We looked at pictures of people doing things in places and made long run-on sentences to say as much as possible. I started drawing brackets above each word they knew and the class began singing the category to me like a choir. I say word. You say category. Woman, People. Standing, Action. Outside, Place. Shirt, thing. We began to spend up to three hours on one photograph. Label it. Categorize the words. Solicit sentences. Label the original sentence again with the same four categories.

My confident students gave us the sentence and beamed with pride at the length of their descriptions as I dramatically counted how many words they had written about each photo. I had a cup of people-shaped tongue depressors with names on them to solicit my less confident students to come to the board and label the words. The class would watch and help if it needed. I would conclude the exercise by looking at my student and saying, “Thank you, teacher.” I would then look to the class and say, “Next teacher!” My Karen Burmese students would not even walk into the classroom in the morning until they had greeted me as a sign of respect, so this always made them laugh when I granted them such authority.

“Sa say ya yo thé ba,” they’d say to tell me good morning and respectfully address me as their teacher. They wanted to demonstrate that they were grateful for my help.

After practicing like this for weeks, I decided to add a new category with new words. Time. We looked at two pictures of a life progression. Baby, to the right of the baby was a young girl, then a teenager to her right, then a young woman, then a woman, and last an old woman. Baby, to the right of this baby a young boy, then a teenager to his right, then a young man, then a man, and last an old man. After realizing I needed to explain there were not six different people in each picture and in fact they were viewing six pictures of the same person, I began to teach before-yesterday, during-today, after-tomorrow. I used myself as an example. Today—man. Yesterday—young boy. Tomorrow—old man. Though the categories were imprecise, it worked to build a foundation.

We took turns placing ourselves on the time spectrum and practicing the new words, laughing at ourselves often as we pretended to be babies and teenagers. My previous teaching experiences had led me to appreciate that individual lives have a woven social history connected to them from the moment they are born. Family history, financial history, and educational history. National political history, legal history, and military history. My refugee students were embedded in war-torn tapestries they did not create, while those of us born into more fortunate environments were propped up in the privileged position of being the curators of our own lives. Standing in front of the photo of a life’s trajectory were twenty-five people from Burma, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, and The Democratic Republic of Congo ranging in age from 22 to 64. Their existence had been a test of endurance and avoiding their breaking points, yet they smiled and laughed together as we portrayed our younger and older selves. In the midst of this laughter, Khaing Rhama Soe had a breakthrough he was eager to share with me.

“Everyday, everyday, everyday!”

I looked at him as he pointed to and explained the ‘man is morai’ phrase he had written that I still did not understand.

“Wake. Eat. School. Sleep.”

I shook my head: yes, yes, yes, yes.

“Everyday, everyday, everyday.”

I shook my head: yes, yes, yes.

“Wake. Eat. School. Sleep,” he paused dramatically for a moment opening his eyes gravely for emphasis and followed up by saying “Die.”

I looked at his paper and changed the spelling on the phrase he had been obsessing over for weeks that I finally understood. Man is Mortal.

“Man is mortal-l-l-l-l-l-l-l,” I stressed. Then I also showed him the ‘t’ sound that had also been missing by stressing a ‘ta, ta, ta’ and pointing to my tongue on the roof of my mouth. At that we both looked at each other and started laughing uncontrollably, to the point the rest of the class thought we were losing our minds. I had to sit down, and every time we thought we were done laughing we started up again.

Working with student refugees provided so many moments of profound joy and sadness. The joy always served to give me the extra energy I needed to absorb the sadness that plagued many of my students’ lives. I’d find myself hopping on one leg, holding one foot behind my back, and bumping shoulders with Khadka Subba, an elderly Nepali man who was teaching me how to play his favorite childhood game. First one to get knocked off balance would lose. Everyone in the class watched, cheering us on, including Khadka’s wife of over thirty years, Til Subba. They were one of two couples in the room, and their laughter was contagious. But the mood could quickly shift. One moment we would be reminiscing about childhood games, and the next someone would casually reveal something tragic that had occurred in their life. I had grown accustomed to carrying a heart full of sad stories, and my capacity to carry them had only expanded in time. However, I had never heard someone try to tell me about a tragic event that had occurred in their life with such a limited common vocabulary. Each word carried that much more significance. My students were learning as many words as they could, and just beginning to start to speak in English, so our conversations got rid of all of the unnecessary filler words, and just stuck to the main point, like the time I was teaching the words single, married, divorced, and widow to help them complete the many forms they would continue to encounter in their new lives in the U.S.

“Teacher. Widow,” Saw Kar said as he raised his hand and pointed to himself. He was one of the oldest students in the class, in his sixties, and also one of the friendliest. He came in and greeted everyone with the Karen Burmese good morning phrase, “go la gae.” He made a special point to greet everyone and smile. He was our unofficial UN Ambassador who ensured the cultural melting pot in the room was peaceful and welcoming to all. He had sustained a back injury many years ago and walked slightly hunched over, and he had very thick glasses to help him see. He sat in his chair looking eager to share his story.

“You. Widow,” I answered him, pointing for clarity.

“Yes, teacher,” he responded, followed by a long drawn out sound coming from the back of his throat. He was searching for the words to say more, and the sound stood in place of the words he was trying to find. He often did this to inform me to wait while he was thinking.

“House,” was the first word that came out, followed by the long uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh sound coming from the back of his throat. The class was silent and patient, waiting to hear the entire story.

“Wife,” he continued. This had been a new word that week while we studied families.

“Running,” he found from a list of action words in his notebook. And then he paused and put his hands above his heads to form a point.

“Tree. Tree. Tree,” he said as he moved his arms to gesture a cluster of trees. And then he got stuck. There was something else he was trying to tell us, but he didn’t know the words. Eventually, after a long pause, he looked to the Buddhist monk, Khaing Rama Soe, for assistance, who then held his hands up like he was holding a rifle, closed one eye to aim and point at me, and solemnly stated the final word of the story.


Saw Kar was a widow. His wife had been chased out of her house into the surrounding forest and shot by a Burmese soldier. Many Karen Burmese were persecuted because they were Christian, an ethnic and religious minority in a country led by a military regime with a majority Buddhist population. The British had brought Christianity as they passed through on their way to colonizing India before their eventual rule in Burma from 1824 – 1948. We stood in class together silently for a moment, feeling the effects of colonialism that have continued to send ripples through centuries, before inevitably getting back to the difficult task of learning a new language and rebuilding a new community. One word at a time.

Tim Shaw teaches and writes in Washington D.C. He is the senior expedition teacher at Capital City Public Charter School where he guides his 12th grade students through a capstone research project. His former students at the Refugee Center hold a special place in his heart.

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