ESL English class shares narratives in “Humans of Riverside” series

By Genesis Smith-Lopez and Mijalen Poole

High school can be a tough experience for kids who were born and raised here. Now imagine adapting to high school  and a new country all at the same time. 

Lesli Maldonado Martinez, a sixteen year old sophomore who came from Honduras three months ago and does not feel completely comfortable yet. 

“I feel supported but at times,” she said. “I also feel strange because everybody speaks English and I mostly do not.”

One of the teachers Martinez and other students said are supportive and responsive to their needs is Alex Ramirez. 

“I have a hard time interacting with teachers,” Martinez said, “[but] Mr. Ramirez really has helped me a lot.” 

Ramirez teaches ESL English II. Many of his students are new to the US, so in addition to teaching them reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, he also wants to help build a sense of community. 

 “We are working through the narrative unit, so basically talking about how to tell stories,” Ramirez said.  

He gave an assignment to the students in his first period where he asked them to write about an experience or story in their life that has impacted them in any way. 

“I needed a form of story that was short but still powerful and interesting.”

Ramirez was inspired by the project called “Humans of New York,” Created by Brandon Stanton, a now famous photographer. Stanton finds people going about their days and asks them questions that can shed light on their personal lives. Finally, he takes a portrait of them and posts their story on a website and Instagram

“I didn’t know anything about Humans of New York until I met my wife many years ago and she showed me the website.”

Ramirez designed a similar project for his students. “It’s a shameless rip-off,” he wrote in an email to Riverside faculty. “Students picked from a list of questions to focus their narratives, and there were two rules for the photos: 1) It had to be on Riverside’s campus. 2) No filters.”

Ramirez compiled students’ work and posted it on a Padlet page. 

“This was an easy way to show that powerful narratives do not have to be long,” he said. 

According to the data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of ESL students in North Carolina is 7.5 as of fall of 2018. 10.2 for the United States. Riverside’s ESL students make up approximately 21 percent of the school’s total population.

Sophomore Emily Rican Salvador, a student in Ramirez’s class, thinks the project showcases Riverside’s diversity.

“Riverside High School is diverse in all categories and I hope everybody in this building knows that,” she said. “I state that because everybody should feel included, accepted, and heard throughout all the differences and similarities.” 

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