MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's head to the classroom for this next story. At San Francisco International High School, students speak some 18 different languages from around the world. While there are many ways to teach students whose first language is not English, a classroom full of so many different languages calls for some special techniques. KQED's Katrina Schwartz has this report.
KATRINA SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Heather Heistand is standing in front of her 25 senior English students asking them to agree or disagree with this statement.
HEATHER HEISTAND: It's OK for leaders to bend the truth if it is good for all people.
SCHWARTZ: The students in her class speak Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Tagalog, Portuguese and Arabic. Heistand isn't fluent in any of those languages, but she uses that to her advantage teaching them English. Today's discussion is all about how the pigs grabbed power in George Orwell's novel "Animal Farm."
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: The truth might cause a chaos in our society or the country, so it's better to hide the truth.
SCHWARTZ: This is a pretty typical activity. Students have a chance to think on their own first, and then they share their answers and have a discussion in groups. And Heistand says she can spend up to 45 minutes planning out those groups in advance. She goes for a balance of advanced English speakers with those who are just beginning. She's making sure they have to use their English.
HEISTAND: Where they sit in the classroom is super important. My goal with heterogeneous groups is to make sure that there is at least one speaker of a different language in each group.
SCHWARTZ: When students don't understand, she often uses mime and language to explain confusing turns of phrase like to bend the truth.
HEISTAND: Can you imagine that the truth is like this. The truth, right? It's right.
SCHWARTZ: She starts with her hands upright over her head.
HEISTAND: What if you bend it a little bit?
SCHWARTZ: Then droops sideways.
HEISTAND: Is it still the truth?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: No.
HEISTAND: No, it's more like a lie.
SCHWARTZ: Julie Kessler is the principal here. She says no matter their language background, students are dying to talk with one another. That's motivation itself to get kids learning English fast.
JULIE KESSLER: You know that a kid has reached a certain point in their language development when they start dating somebody across language lines, right?
SCHWARTZ: Kessler says working with teenagers is actually one of the school's biggest assets.
KESSLER: They are naturally social. They're naturally curious.
SCHWARTZ: Those instincts can help them learn English, but it can still be difficult to navigate so many different cultures.
AMEL: I came from a place where I only have, like, only the same people and same religion.
SCHWARTZ: Amel is from Yemen and says when she first arrived, she constantly worried about offending other kids.
AMEL: It was really hard for me to know different people. And I couldn't even understand why they think this way and why they wore these clothes and why they talk this language.
SCHWARTZ: It wasn't just big cultural things. Everyday things would trip her up, too.
AMEL: Or, like, learning math, it was, like, different, like, the letters - I mean, the numbers because we write from the right to the left right, and they write from left to right. And I don't even know how to do the notebook. I always mix it up.
SCHWARTZ: And Amel's not the only one who feels mixed up.
KESSLER: Every single kid in that room is a language learner. And so if somebody's making a mistake with pronunciation or struggling with a word, everybody has been there.
SCHWARTZ: That's Principal Kessler again. She says that's one way this school and its approach to teaching are so unique. Immersion and collaboration, these practices seem to work. This year, almost 80 percent of graduates enrolled in college. That's one of the best rates in the district.
KESSLER: For our school to be fifth in that line, we feel pretty proud.
SCHWARTZ: And they don't stop there. Teachers keep in touch with their former students the entire first year of college, offering emotional and academic help. As Kessler puts it...
KESSLER: We believe that our responsibility is not about a high school diploma, it is about a real life.
SCHWARTZ: For Kessler and her team, that means not only helping kids get to college, but making sure they stay there. For NPR News, I'm Katrina Schwartz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.