Thursday, July 28, 2011

Raul - The Google Translate Story

I've been asked to repeat this story multiple times (thrice in rather public places and more times than I can count privately), so I decided to just make it into a post for...posterity's sake...and lest I forget...

As an English teacher turned instructional leader who embraces global perspectives and doesn’t know any other languages (unless you count Pig Latin), my greatest professional insecurity is being unable to communicate and connect with other people. Words matter and that’s why I got into this gig and what I love so much about it.
But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge.

So when I became a Vice Principal at a public high school with a significant population of English Learners, I sought out every opportunity available to throw myself into the English Learner population. I volunteered to work with the English Learner Advisory Council and the English Language Development classes and teachers. I had been to the Google Teacher Academy and gathered the great people you have with you right now...around me...and used their support to keep my determination going.

At the start of this school year, I met Raul - no more than 4 feet 10 inches and 90 pounds soaking wet. He was an English Learner, significantly disabled and flirting with gang activity and 14 years old. I met with him multiple times each week, mostly at my own prompting and to his chagrin. He would sit, stone-faced and we would have our battle of wills in which I would usually win. But as much as he pretended that I was just some crazy teacher in an office, I was his safe place to land when he’d get thrown out of class by a substitute or he just didn’t want to get into a fight this week with another student. Raul was failing his classes. All of them. He told me he didn’t want to come to school and saw no point in being there. His attendance solidified his sentiment. I tried time and time again to meet with his mother, but calls went unreturned, notes home went unanswered.

So when I received a note stating that Raul’s mother would be coming in to meet with me and Raul, I cleared my schedule immediately. I frantically searched for someone available to translate to no end so when Raul’s mother showed up, and there was no translator still yet available, I attempted my best attempt at Spanglish until I Google Translate App.

I whipped that bad boy out and immediately began typing into it furiously (later on, realizing I could have expedited this process by just speaking into my iPad, but I was concerned with communicating in any way possible). I played my voice. But it wasn't in English. It was in her native language.  

And tears began to trickle down his mother’s face.

CRAP! What have I done?

She said to me, in her broken English - “Thank you...this is the first time in Raul’s school that there is nothing between you and me talking. Thank you.”

She wanted to see what I was typing into the iPad as I typed it and played it back - completely enthralled and fascinated by this tiny little app. The rest of the conference went well and she walked out ready to kill Raul for his grades and eternally grateful to me. I asked Raul to stay after the meeting to speak with him about how he felt about the meeting, but all he wanted to know was what that app was and what else it could do. We hopped on my MacBook and into Google Translate. His eyes lit up and he couldn’t ask enough questions about its capabilities.
When it became clear that we were done for now, he asked me two questions and the most determined statements I heard ever come from him.  “Do you think I could do something like this, or maybe be a translator someday myself?” I said “Yes, absolutely, Raul”. Then, he asked, “Do I need to graduate high school to be a translator?” “Yes, Raul”, I said with a smirk and finally, “I’m going to help my mom learn English with this.” And as he left, he said “I think I’ll come to school tomorrow.”

And then it was time for me to cry.

Raul finished his 9th grade year with improved attendance and he will not be transferred to the continuation school now because he was able to bring his grades up enough to be on track to graduate.