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Interview with Lerida L.E. Powell

Powell, Lerida L.E.
McLaughlin, Sarah
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming obstacles; Relationships with people and places
Lerida "L.E." Powell talks about learning English and language assessment.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Sarah McLaughlin interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
SM (Sarah McLaughlin): OK. The date is February 16, 2003 and I am Sarah McLaughlin and I am interviewing Lerida Powell. OK. And, oh yes, [laugh] I, um, uh, we're going to be talking about, um, Lerida's, um, experiences with language classes that she has had, um, and also with assessments and language assessments that she's had. OK. So um, where are you originally, where, what, what country are you originally from?
LP (Lerida "L.E." Powell): I'm from Panama. No, I'm kidding. [Laughter] I'm from Colon, Panama-.
LP: -Which is located right smack in the middle of Central America.
SM: Oh, OK, OK, good. And, you came to the United States how long ago?
LP: It's been a good 28 years.
SM: OK, so, uh, you were how old when you came?
LP: I was going on 13.
SM: OK, OK. So you had some experience. Did you have any experience, um, learning English in Panama, or just here in the United States?
LP: No, just United States. In Panama, yes and no. I say yes and no because in the Canal Zone, which is like, once you're in the Canal Zone, that's American territory, so that's like considered American even though you're in Panama.
SM: Right.
LP: So we went to the Canal Zone first.
SM: Um-hmm.
LP: And that's where I had experience with the English language.
LP: But it wasn't like, like, you know, like the, uh, uh, um, you know, coming to America.
SM: Right.
LP: But it's still considered American soil.
LP: But not like in my native place.
SM: OK. So you weren't actually going to like school and learning English at any time while you were there?
LP: Never.
SM: OK, but you were just exposed to it a little bit.
LP: Uh-huh.
SM: OK, OK. All right, well, OK, so your first experiences with learning English, like officially, were once you came to the United States, you were in like middle school right?
LP: No, well, they we were officially like in the Canal Zone.
SM: Oh, oh, OK. So.
LP: 'Cause that's considered American, \\ the American side. \\
SM: \\ Oh, \\ I got you, I got you, I got you. OK.
LP: You know.
SM: And how, how old were you when you?
LP: Three years before.
SM: \\OK.\\
LP: \\ So \\ I was like, ten.
SM: Yeah, OK.
LP: Going on ten-.
LP: -When I started going to American schools.
SM: OK. \\ OK.\\
LP: \\ But \\ I didn't come to the United States until I was going on 13.
SM: OK, OK, I got you. All right, so what, were, were the classes different there than they were once you came to the United States or it was very similar?
LP: No, it was very similar, yes.
SM: OK. So what were your classes like? Like, were they typical, um, like, like, when I go, when I took Spanish in high school, I mean, could you tell me a little bit about what the classes, the English classes were like?
LP: Well, to be honest with you, I, I don't really know what kind of programs they had back then-.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: -Because I wasn't concerned. I was just a kid going to school.
SM: Right, right.
LP: But I was in school, like regular school.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: I wasn't treated special.
SM: Right.
LP: You know, I was treated special in the sense like everybody knew I couldn't understand English-.
SM: Right.
LP: -But I wasn't treated special like, oh, fragile \\ and all, \\ "She doesn't know."
SM: \\ Right. \\
LP: I was just, I was immersed.
SM: Right.
LP: And I did everything just like a regular \\ English native speaking \\ student did.
SM: \\ Oh, \\ OK, OK.
LP: But once a day, as I recall, it seems like an eternity ago, my God. About once a day, um, I had a special teacher. And I was only with her, you know, learning, you know, how to read, or write, or anything about the English language.
SM: Oh wow.
LP: But she didn't speak any Spanish. She only, she taught me in English.
SM: OK. So it's kind of like, like a, was it like a pull-out type thing?
LP: Yeah.
SM: So you were in \\ English? \\
LP: \\ Regular, \\ yeah.
SM: Like you were immersed in English all day-.
LP: Yeah.
SM: -And that you were pulled out \\ once a day? \\
LP: \\ Yeah,\\ uh-huh.
SM: OK, that's interesting, wow. So that's, I mean, how, how long did it take you, do you think, to like really start to understand and be able to?
LP: See, that's what I'm saying, that my case is a little different.
SM: Yeah.
LP: I, it's almost, I don't want to say immediately but, do you know that little girl Rosa in your-.
SM: Yes.
LP: -Well, no not Rosa, Karen.
SM: Yes, uh-huh.
LP: She doesn't speak yet.
SM: Right.
LP: I was like that.
SM: Yeah.
LP: I was taking everything in.
SM: Yeah.
LP: And I wouldn't speak to anybody. I think she speaks more than I spoke. I think I never \\ spoke to anyone. \\
SM: \\ Yeah. \\
LP: And then it seems like one day within the year before the year was over of my first year going to the school, before it was over. I was like, "Hey." [Makes jibber jabber noise, mocking non-stop talking]
SM: [Laughs]
LP: You know, and it just came out. You know, and the teachers were like, "What?" You know, and everything, you know, within six months that I was there. 'Cause you know how in schools, I don't know if they still do it now, they have, like different reading groups-.
SM: Right.
LP: -Of people's reading abilities?
SM: Right.
LP: Within six months I was in the middle reading class.
SM: Yeah.
LP: You know, I was reading like normal, like everyone even though I wasn't speaking English yet.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: But I could understand it-.
SM: Wow. ().
LP: -And I could read it.
SM: Wow.
LP: I could read it better, understand it next, speak it next, you know later.
SM: Right.
LP: In that order.
SM: Oh, wow.
LP: And, it was, it just, like I said, it just kind of happened. That's why, I don't know, because I'm the only person in my family that speaks like this.
SM: Oh, really?
LP: Everyone sounds like they just got here ().
SM: Now, are they older than you?
LP: Yeah.
SM: They're older than you?
LP: Yeah. The oldest one, I mean, the youngest one is older than me and we're apart, like, just under two-and-a-half years. But they're all older.
SM: OK. That sounds like what Thiede was talking to us about-.
LP: Yeah.
SM: -Like how after a certain point you're not going to lose your accent, or whatever, and maybe you, you know what I mean, you started \\ speaking. \\
LP: \\ I work, \\ I work on not having one.
LP: It comes out-.
SM: Right.
LP: -You know. But I, I think I'm not speaking with it. [Laughter]
SM: I don't notice it. I like that story you told us the other day about, was it your mother, or your grandmother that says?
LP: My mom, she says "beesh."
SM: [Laughs] OK, all right. Well, um, so you, you, like, like, you were happy? Like did you every feel, like, lost or, I mean, like I know you said you were just kind of just like that quiet period for six months-.
LP: Yeah.
SM: -But were you, did you enjoy your, I mean the, the experience you had learning English?
LP: Yes, I did. I never felt, um, pushed. I never felt embarrassed, you know. Well, I felt embarrassed, 'cause the teacher always made a big deal when I did something. They would like, wow. She always acknowledged it. And had the other people would clap. And I was like, "Oh God, everybody's looking at me." You know? [Laughs] So that was the only embarrassing thing, but like the kids didn't tease me.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: They were very helpful. I just think that I got lucky that I was in the right place at the right time with the right environment-.
SM: Right.
LP: -And the right people, \\ you know. \\
SM: \\ Now, \\ were, was your school primarily American children?
LP: It was all American.
LP: It was all American children.
SM: How did you get in, how did you, how were you able to get into that program?
LP: Well, my mother remarried.
LP: She married my step-dad.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: And my step-dad, he's Puerto Rican but, you know, that's considered American.
SM: Right, right.
LP: You know, so and he was in the military at the time. And so.
SM: OK, I get it. I got you.
LP: That's why we went to, you know, we came to America-.
LP: 'Cause he had to come back to America.
SM: OK. So by the time you came to the United States, you had had like three years of, of this immersion?
LP: Yes, yes.
SM: So you were pretty fluent by the time you came to the United States?
LP: I would say so.
SM: Yeah.
LP: Yeah.
SM: Did you have to take any type of classes once you came to the United States when you got to school, to school here?
LP: No, \\ I was just regular. \\
SM: \\ You were regular. \\
LP: I was just, I think I was, I think that that special treatment was that one year for me.
SM: Right.
LP: 'Cause I don't recall it that after that.
LP: It was only that one time-.
LP: -When I first, you know, went to the school.
LP: And it was like, well we don't have to teach her anything, you know? [Laughs]
SM: Right. Now how did they, as far as, our class, our class is about testing, and like doing, you know, language testing, and what's the best way to test people who are learning a second language-.
LP: Uh-huh.
SM: -For that first six months that you, you know, were just learning and, and, you know that first year, you know, where you were really taking it all in, did they do any kind of modifications on tests for you? Did they read the test to you, rather than you having to read them? Or do you remember anything about that?
LP: I don't really remember any of that.
LP: I don't remember having to take, like, some sort of special test for anything.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: I was just in regular classes.
LP: The only time, like I said, that anything was different, was when I had to go and see this lady. I can't remember her name, but I can picture her right now as I speak to you.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: And she was just, you know, her, her whole reason for being there with me was to teach me, like, phonics, you know, everything, vocabulary, you know, putting things together, you know, things like that. Whatever she was called, I'm sure she was an ESL teacher-.
SM: Right, \\ yeah. \\
LP: \\ -Because, \\ you know, from what we're doing now, I know she was an ESL teacher.
SM: Right.
LP: But I don't necessarily recall taking a test, you know, like to see that my Spanish, my English was getting better, or anything like that, 'cause I was so, like a normal student-.
SM: Right.
LP: -Only I didn't speak the language just, just yet.
SM: That's really good, 'cause that's what we're like, learning in this class, is really like, that your tests should reflect \\what you are-.\\
LP: -What you're doing. Exactly, not concentrate on the \\ language for crying out loud. \\
SM: \\Right, right. \\ So, OK, so say you were taking, like, you know, that grade, say you were taking a math test or something, and you couldn't read the word problems yet, or you could read them, but you, you know what I mean, at the beginning, very beginning when you couldn't understand them, did you have someone, you know, doing oral?
LP: Yeah, oral math-.
LP: -You know for numbers and things like that, and yeah I did have somebody, 'cause you know, math is kind of hard for you to transfer-.
SM: Right.
LP: -Like, language, so you really have to, you know, so I did have math instructions, you know-.
LP: -For like, to be able to know what I'm doing.
SM: OK, so they would read the test to you.
LP: Um-hum.
SM: And you would respond? OK, um, that's really good. Um,
LP: Another reason why, I think it was so easy, my dad, when we had to start going to English school, he did not allow us to speak Spanish in the house.
SM: Oh, wow. Yes.
LP: We didn't get in trouble, but he was very firm. We, we'd lose bicycle privileges-.
SM: [Laughs]
LP: -You know, TV privileges, you know, things we liked to do, if he heard us speak Spanish.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: And he was very, very rigid about it for like, a good year.
SM: Wow.
LP: We were not allowed to speak Spanish in the house because, what happens with kids is they have this English thing at school for those few hours when they go home they go back to their native language. At home we weren't allowed.
SM: OK, yeah.
LP: You know, and I mean my Dad was really good about, you know, and we didn't want to lose bike privileges. [Laughter] So this is how we spoke and if we could not say it we could not speak.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: It was like [imitates struggling to get the words out] [laughs].
SM: Oh, wow.
LP: So it was forced.
SM: Right.
LP: You know, like, we had to like, you know, say [speaks in Spanish]. After you know, you're a student and-.
SM: Right.
LP: -Playmate or whatever in Spanish you speak to them so I said [speaks in Spanish] you know, they don't understand what you are saying-.
SM: Right.
LP: You don't understand what they are saying. And then at home you can't say anything 'cause you're like [imitates struggling to think of a word]. [Laughter] So I think that that's very good.
SM: OK. \\ So you. \\
LP: \\ That it should be enforced, \\ yeah, that you don't speak your native language at home. Because you don't break out of that mold as fast.
SM: Do you feel like, I mean, I guess at your age, you were able, like, I mean, you had, you knew Spanish well enough that, like I, I teach kindergarten and I have children that, like, they'll say to me, "Oh I'm, I'm forgetting how to speak," you know, their, their parents are concentrating so much on them learning English-.
LP: Uh-huh.
SM: -They're forgetting their home language.
LP: Spanish, I know.
SM: Do you think that, um, if you were a little bit younger, would you feel the same way? Would you feel that, that it was good, or I mean, 'cause you really had your Spanish down, and you weren't going to lose it by that time.
LP: Yeah, I still think that it was a good idea, and I know that I wouldn't have lost my Spanish because at home, Spanish was spoken. Like that was just while we were supposed to learn it. It wasn't like forever, and ever, and ever, you were only going to speak English in the house.
LP: And my parents always speak Spanish.
SM: Right, OK. \\ So it was a good mix. \\
LP: \\ You know. \\
SM: \\ So you were getting it at home. \\
LP: Yeah. I knew that that, I wasn't going to lose that, I mean, we speak 'Spanglish.'
SM: Right, right.
LP: You know.
SM: [Laughs]
LP: And it, 'cause, you know its easier because sometimes you have to find your word whether it's in English or Spanish or sometimes you just say whatever \\ language comes out first. \\
SM: \\ Yeah, that's good. \\ I think that's so cool. I have a friend who is from Senegal and he speaks like five different languages and I'll listen to phone conversations and I'll hear a little bit of French-.
LP: Everything.
SM: -A little bit of Woldof, a little bit of English, \\ all coming out. \\
LP: \\ 'Cause, see, \\ your brain is like, OK, what am I speaking? [laughs]
SM: Right. And I mean, I guess that's the same way for us, we don't, you just say what comes, you know, comes to mind. And I guess if you're speaking both languages.
LP: My mom speaks a little bit of Italian, and she um, she'll speak 'Spangitalian.' [Laughs]
SM: Oh, wow.
LP: But I understand it so it's like no big deal.
SM: All right. So I have like one more question about assessment, like just in general. Um, what do you think about how it should be, language assessment should be done, um, you know, in schools with children who are learning, just learning to speak English, um, now?
LP: Well, from my experience, I think they should do just what they did to me.
SM: Like an immersion?
LP: They should just put the children in the regular class-.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: -Because, first of all, as a student, and sitting there, not being able to participate in certain things, certain times, because I couldn't speak the language, I wanted to hurry up and learn it.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: And all kids are like that. You know, they don't want to be behind their peers or something like that-.
SM: Right.
LP: -You know, and like I said, you know, if you're in the right environment, it also helps too, because all my classmates were very helpful.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: And the teacher, I mean I just, I just happened to be in, at a really good place.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: I don't know what else to say beyond that other than, I do think you do need to put the children with the regular children, not treat them special because they want to do what you want them to do.
SM: Right.
LP: And they want to do it as soon as possible. So, but I do, I feel still that they need to have the pull-out thing. All I ever hear in the class is the negative stuff about pull-out.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: I don't understand that.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: Once a day, you pull the kids out. You teach them how to read, whatever, you know, teach them how to understand this, that, give them new vocabulary words, give them some homework, you know, and then you start because this is what I did-.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: -You start putting together everything that that teacher is explaining to you with the class.
SM: Right.
LP: I'm like, "Oh that's what that is." Every, because, you're exposed to it.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: So once someone is explaining it, you're like, oh. Your bells just ring, and ring, and ring, and ring. So I think it's an excellent idea. I just think you have to have the right teachers.
SM: Yeah.
LP: That's the whole thing with this whole thing.
SM: That's what's interesting to me, and I agree with you to a certain extent too. But then, you know, I look at Karen. She is starting to all of a sudden starting to really catch on and everything is starting to come out, but these tests, these standardized tests that I have to do for my class, she's not doing well on. And I think a lot of it is the way the questions are worded.
LP: Yeah, they need \\ to be explained. \\
SM: \\ She needs to \\ have more of a comprehension and when they're so standard, I'm not allowed to sit there and elaborate on them. I have to do it, you know, every child has to have the exact same test. How do you feel about that? What do you think they could do?
LP: I, I think that she needs to be at the level where she can understand her test-.
SM: Right.
LP: -If you can not make it any simpler for her.
SM: Right, right.
LP: I would imagine that would be the best solution. Because the whole thing is about her understanding the test.
SM: Right.
LP: So unless, until she understands the test, she cannot get further, and since you can't sit there and do what you can't do with any other student, she needs to get to the place where she understands the test and she can do it on her own.
SM: That's what I'm, right, right now I, I have to, um, go ahead and give her a Language or an English Proficiency test now to see if I can, uh, to see if she tests on that a certain way then I'll be able to, allowed to modify her tests. But until she has this label on her-.
LP: Uh-huh. \\ Exactly. \\
SM: \\ I can't modify \\ her tests. And so, you know, she's, she's performing at a one, but like you said, it's, I'm not, I'm doing a math test, and I know I've watched her sit and do physically the things, you know, on her own, but when I ask her a question a certain way, I'm not testing whether she knows how to do that math skill, I'm testing whether she's comprehending my question.
LP: Exactly.
SM: And if she's not comprehending my question, she's not even going to be able to show me the skills that she can do.
LP: Uh-huh.
SM: So, I think that's a, that's a big issue that you have to get the label on them first before you're allowed to modify.
LP: Yeah, because she's a smart little girl. She, she does her natural language transfers.
SM: Right.
LP: 'Cause, you know, unless you haven't been educated, you're not going to be able to understand anything, of anyone of any language.
SM: Right.
LP: But you know because I had been going to school before I went to English school, you know, and you know contrary to what maybe most people think, you know, Panama is not a third world country.
SM: \\ Right, right. \\
LP: \\ You know \\ people think that. Panama is like 89 percent literate.
SM: Uh-huh. I've learned a lot about it from Roz, 'cause she, cause I know Roz went and spent some time.
LP: Yeah, she loves Panama, she cracks me up. But you know, I think that she needs to understand what is comprehension, before she can take a test. Otherwise she won't be able to take a test.
SM: I would love to be able to like, be allowed to like put together a portfolio for her instead of her having the same test that everybody else is having-.
LP: Yeah.
SM: And show growth over time.
LP: As long as it's the same difference-.
SM: Right.
LP: -With a different way of explaining it, I don't see what the big deal is. There's too much bureaucracy-.
SM: Yeah.
LP: -In this world.
SM: Well, I think it's like they're trying to have everything be standardized, so that, it's I think, I personally, I'm going off on a personal tangent, but I think that, um, that they're trying to have everything be standard for the public to look at it, you know. And if, even though we know as teachers you don't teach that way, so why should you test that way. You know, I mean, a good teacher doesn't teach the same way to every child so.
LP: Exactly you can't.
SM: So you can't test the same way to every child.
LP: That is so true. I wish that people would just ask me questions orally.
SM: Yeah.
LP: Because when you put a test in front of me, oh, see no one understands my pain.
SM: Why, OK, why do you think you have test anxiety like that, do you know?
LP: I have no idea. I've always had it.
SM: Yeah.
LP: Yeah, but that doesn't mean I don't perform well.
SM: Right.
LP: Because I'm, I'm also, but see, I'm, I'm a strong person.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: So maybe that has any, you know something to do with like, "I just can't fail," or "I can't do this."
SM: Yeah.
LP: Or, "I can't do that. I just got to do it even if I don't know I'll just make it up. [Laughs] You know, I just can't fail."
SM: So did you have test anxiety like that even when you were a kid?
LP: Yeah. That's what I said. But I don't have a problem if I have to write something. You know, I wish the only tests were a paper.
SM: Aah, that's interesting. See, I've never, I've never experienced test anxiety. And I know I'm lucky because I know so many people, like I don't even get nervous before tests.
LP: Oh, please.
SM: I don't know why, either.
LP: I'm already nervous and the midterm's not even here. You don't even know. It's awful, let me tell you.
SM: I can imagine.
LP: And I hate it because I think to myself I can't believe I live like this.
SM: Yeah.
LP: And this is befor any test, for every test. Whenever I know a test is coming up, I'm like aaw, I get like the, the butterflies in my stomach and I'll have them until I finish that test, even if it's two weeks from today.
SM: So you would much rather like something like a portfolio where they're just gathering-.
LP: Yeah.
SM: -And interviewing \\in class? \\
LP: \\Yeah, yeah \\ and presentations and all that. I was born to show things. You know.
SM: OK, OK. Like the performance, you know, the \\performance tests. \\
LP: Yeah, \\yeah. \\
SM: OK, that's really good 'cause I mean I think that, I think for most people that's the way it is, that they'd rather just, and I think that's what smart. You know, gather what they've done throughout the year 'cause there's so many times that you hear teachers say, "Oh, well, I know they can do better than this. The test doesn't reflect what they do in class."
LP: Uh-huh.
SM: If that's the case, and they're saying that all the time, teachers should be allowed to just, you know gather information throughout the year to show their growth that they see personally, you know take anecdotal notes, and-.
LP: Like Dr. Thiede can ask me anything and I'll answer like 95 percent of the time.
SM: Uh-huh.
LP: But when he puts it on paper, I don't know what, what, \\ what he means, what he's saying \\ it's like, then I get all messed up inside.
SM: \\ Yeah, yeah. \\ Oh.
LP: Oh, it's so awful when I have to take a test because, oh it's horrible.
SM: Oh. I can't imagine, I can't imagine and I try to, I try to keep that in mind, but you know kindergarten, it's, the testing is not such a big issue-.
LP: Yeah.
SM: -Because our tests are pretty much all oral anyway, and they're more performance tests anyway, so I don't deal with much. But I watch those third grade kids and come in and talk to me about, "Oh, we've got the end of grade tests coming up." And I mean they have the pep rallies to get them ready for it.
LP: Yeah.
SM: It's crazy, I mean.
LP: But you know, I'm, as an adult, I'm not even concerned about if people think that, you know, something's wrong with me or you know, I let all my teachers know because I want them to know that, you know, whatever it is that I got on this test does not reflect me.
SM: Right.
LP: You know, I mean, I don't care if I ever get an 'F,' that's not me, you know because I know that. I don't know why I didn't write it down, but I know that, you know? [Laughs]
SM: That's rough, that's rough, but I can imagine that feeling like knowing you know something and you just can't, you know, show it.
LP: That's just all it is.
SM: Well, I think we've gotten enough.
LP: Thank you very much. I mean, like this has been really, I was excited about doing this.