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Montgomery Schools Find Way to Hook Kids on Learning English, Interacting

Bethesda Elementary student Sebastian Valbuena, 10, of Bethesda poses with a fish he caught during a trip for ESOL students.
Bethesda Elementary student Sebastian Valbuena, 10, of Bethesda poses with a fish he caught during a trip for ESOL students. (By Naomi Brookner -- The Gazette)

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By Bradford Pearson
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Twenty years ago, a young boy from Cambodia found his way into Debbie Birgfeld's English for Speakers of Other Languages classroom at Bethesda Elementary School.

Buna, a shy boy, had spent the previous two years living in the jungle with his family after escaping from a Khmer Rouge prison camp.

For him, a formal education was not the priority. Survival was.

But Buna did have one distinct talent that set him apart: fishing.

"I had this little boy who had a talent so different than the rest of my students, because he needed to fish to survive," Birgfeld said. "He had to share his gift."

So, Birgfeld packed up her class and took the students to a local lake, where Buna taught the rest of the class to fish. That outing started a tradition that continues today.

Almost 35 ESOL students from Bethesda and Chevy Chase elementary schools met at Rockville's Lake Needwood last Thursday to follow in Buna's footsteps, catching fish and learning about one another's backgrounds.

Each spring, the trip is a culmination of a school year's worth of pen pal letter-writing among students from each of the schools, an exercise designed to improve each child's English skills, said Gaby Epstein Yonker, the ESOL teacher at Chevy Chase Elementary.

Before casting their lines, the students learned the English words for each part of the fishing pole and had a quick safety lesson.

Sebastian Valbuena, 10, originally from Colombia, was the day's big winner when he hooked a four-inch sunfish.

"I got one! I got one!" the Bethesda Elementary student shouted as all the other students rushed to his side. "Fish, fish, fish!"

Most of the students have little to no fishing experience, Birgfeld said, but the field trip is as much about interacting with one another and learning English as it is about catching something. In addition to fishing, the students took a boat ride around the lake and went on a nature hike.


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