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Mauro stood nervously in front of the two teachers while they talked about him. They must be talking about him!  

He had no idea what was being said, but he knew he had been brought down to this classroom for a reason.His language teacher had appeared at the door, pulled him out of fourth grade and walked him downstairs. She was always kind and encouraging, but this time Mauro was a bit nervous. 

What did they want with him?

Finally, his teacher turned to him and handed him an earbud. Thank goodness! He knew what to do with that. He pushed it into his ear and watched the second teacher take her phone and hold it towards him. He waited as she put the second earbud into her own ear. Now he knew the answer would become clear.

Mauro was a newcomer in the school, in the state, and in the US. He had arrived from Cuba just three short weeks ago, and felt as if he had landed on a different planet. English words swirled around him constantly, but he was left to just listen to the strange sounds helplessly.  

Spanish was the only language he understood, and there weren’t many people at school that he could communicate with. Thankfully, these magic earbuds made those strange English sounds turn into words. He waited for the teacher to speak, but then his fears got the best of him.

“Please, is this my new class now?” he blurted in Spanish. “Por favor, ¿es esta mi nueva clase ahora?

The second teacher’s eyes widened as the translation of Mauro’s words played in English in her ear and was transcribed on the cell phone. “Oh no, Mauro,” she replied. “You are visiting us only to show me how these work. Thank you for trying them with me.”

Mauro heaved a sigh of relief and relaxed a little bit as a few curious second-graders moved closer to see what was going on. The teacher continued. “Welcome to our school, Mauro. I hear you have come from Cuba. Is it beautiful there?”

Mauro smiled shyly and answered that his country was beautiful and that he found it was very, very cold in America. As the conversation continued, the teacher and second graders marveled that although each person spoke a different language, they seemed to understand each other. These earbuds were mysterious and wonderful!

Soon the teacher thanked Mauro and held out her hand for him to return the earbud. After wiping it with sanitizer, she offered it to one of her second graders, this time a young girl who spoke French. Although her English skills were accomplished, the teacher asked her to speak a little bit of French. She did so, then waited as her teacher actually replied to what she had said.  Her eyes popped when she heard her teacher’s reply translated in her ear into French. “Did you hear me in French?” her teacher asked, grinning. She nodded, speechless with delight.

The earbuds were quickly in hot demand by other students. One girl spoke in Hindi, the next in Lingala, a boy tried out his Tigrinyan, then another spoke excitedly in French. The excitement grew as languages flew across the room until one girl spoke up in a shocked voice, looking into the teacher’s eyes as she understood the implications of the technology. “You can use these to talk to my MOM!”

Children who come to learn at school in the US after immigrating from across the world pick up English relatively quickly. Their parents, however, have a more difficult time, especially if they are simultaneously trying to learn a new job and build a relationship with an employer and coworkers. If one parent is at home with young children, they face even a tougher challenge in learning to use English quickly.  

As a teacher, I’ve seen families build networks of assistance for each other as those who have spent time here lend a hand to their newcomer neighbors in managing to navigate daily life in the US. One particular issue that presents itself immediately is in getting their children enrolled in school. This is the first priority for newcomer families, and over the years our school has finessed its welcome for students and parents in order to put them at ease and assure them their children will be well cared for as they learn in school. Despite language barriers, teachers and parents smile at each other and communication would occur without words. 

Until this point, it was nearly impossible for parents to be able to express their hopes and fears upon leaving their children at school. They could only trust these strangers and hope their kids were in good hands. But now, with this new technology of translator earbuds, it has become possible for school adults to talk to families at the earliest moments — a game changer indeed.   

For parents, their children are their hope and future. This is accentuated for parents who have come from far away to start a new life in the US. Education is paramount and highly valued.  How frustrating it must be to be unable to communicate easily and effectively with the school adults working with their child! 

Often parents arrive at parent-teacher conferences or other school events with a quiet smile and hope that they can express themselves and be understood. Even with resources like Language Line (online/phone translation services) and on-site interpreters, conversations are just a little awkward and filled with pauses while waiting for translation. Conversations are shorter and more pointed, due to the necessity of using a third party to translate every word. 

The excitement of having earbuds and an app that translates in real time means that now more meaningful conversations can be had and parents can become involved in school activities like never before.

The first use of the earbuds is, of course, to give English learners immediate access to the curriculum. The students can listen to social studies and science lessons and understand concepts as they hear them translated in real time. Teachers can give directions and be understood. No longer do students have to sit in bewildered silence as their classmates move to a new activity or assignment.  

The absolute bonus is the gift that the earbuds give to parents and teachers. Parents who are more isolated in their homes with slower-growing English skills can now come to school and hear exactly what their child has accomplished in class.

The “magical” earbuds have opened up the door of understanding each other even wider than before. At my school we are enthusiastically stepping into the delight of growing deep relationships with our newest families and their precious children.

In the words of my young African French-speaking student, “Now you can talk to my MOM!”  What a delight that will be!

Kathy Schuitema

Kathy Schuitema teaches second grade in the public schools of Ottumwa, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The Kingdom of God.

  • June says:

    His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

  • Lee Collins says:

    Kathy, I am overwhelmed with this blog! I want to hear more about how this Is working in Ottumwa.
    What a wonderful Pentecost story, I am wondering how the future of education needs to change. You are my hope for our future.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This is amazing
    I wonder how it might work at one of our Classis meetings where we have 5 languages and difficulties building community and getting participation from ESL elders and ministers.
    I would love to know more
    Thanks Kathy

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