By Carmen George The Fresno Bee
Amal Qasem pulls up a mathematics app on her phone that she programmed then displays the computer coding that went into its creation, a sequence of data that resembles a line of colorful puzzle pieces linked together.
She understands this complicated computer conversation in cyberspace exceptionally well although she’s just 15 years old and still learning to speak English.
Amal finished making her app, which earned a perfect score in her computer science elective class at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Selma, days before her peers.
In another class, called Newcomers, where Amal is learning to speak and write in English, the eighth-grader fittingly sits at a desk in front of a large poster of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs with this quote: “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.”
Amal was at the top of her class in Yemen before fleeing civil war in her home country and coming to Selma in December 2017. She’s continuing to excel in the U.S. with help from teacher Efrain Tovar, who teaches her Newcomers and computer science class.
She’s become a success story for what is possible with technology and passion.
In Newcomers, she’s learning English alongside 20 other students born in six different countries who speak Spanish, Arabic, Punjabi, Hindi, and Zapotec as their first languages.
Tovar said these newcomers, students born in other countries, make up a small percentage of around 300,000 English-language learners in the Central Valley.
Tovar communicates with them with help from translation software and literacy applications. Educators from other schools frequently visit his classroom to watch his innovative approach to teaching. He said he’s the only Google-certified innovator, trainer and administrator in California to work with newcomers.
Teaching is a passion for Tovar, who left his post as Selma Unified School District’s coordinator of information and technology services a few years ago so he could return to the classroom.
Around half of the students in his Newcomers class were born in Mexico or the United States. Students from Yemen, where Amal is from, and India each make up 19 percent of the class, followed by students from Guatemala and Egypt, each around 5 percent. They attend Newcomers instead of a traditional middle school English class.
Amal’s computer science class is also going a long way in helping her learn English.
“Because of the success that Amal has had in computer science, as well as other newcomers, that has actually helped her self-esteem in being able to take risks,” Tovar said, “in being able to collaborate with other students and communicate with other students, which ultimately is my goal.”
Translator Sally Alamri, a district employee who is also a friend of the Qasem family, said that Amal has “always loved apps.”
“She’s always on her phone. She’s always learning about different programs in Arabic. So now she was able to transfer that knowledge into her computer science class.”
Amal says Tovar “helps me a lot.”
The app she built through MIT App Inventor displays math questions and answers, telling students whether they answered a math equation correctly or not.
Tovar said Amal’s work in computer programming is the equivalent of her learning another language.
He’s a big proponent of electives for newcomers. He personally knows the alternative. His parents came to the U.S. from Mexico, and he learned English in school.
“Traditionally, as a former second language learner, they would put us in a cubicle, give us headphones, put on a tape, and just listen and repeat phrases. That was tech back in the day,” Tovar said. “And unfortunately, that might not be the best approach to language acquisition.
“So getting them to talk, getting them to converse, getting them to be producers of content is really important.”
That was the focus of a recent class session. Students answered questions about a book and came up with questions of their own. They wrote and read their responses aloud, always followed with applause from the entire class, no matter the pronunciation.
The soft-spoken Amal was among the students who stood up and read a sentence aloud.
She’s been through a lot to get to where she is today. She’s in the U.S. with her father and four younger sisters while her mother and three older sisters remain in Djibouti. They fled to the African country because there was no working embassy in Yemen. Her older sisters and mom face a different review process than the younger girls in the family.
Amal’s father, Fadhl, has been working at a Selma market to support both households. He previously worked in shipping for the LAY’S potato chip company in Saudi Arabia because he couldn’t find work in war-torn Yemen.
Alamri said with Amal’s mother in Djibouti, Amal has “taken on a mother role with her four younger sisters. She’s an old soul. She feels so responsible for her younger sisters.”
Amal’s father is thankful for Tovar helping Amal navigate middle school as the family remains in limbo.
For one class assignment, Amal decorated a sheet of paper with her photo in the center with words that describe her: Loyal, brave, strong, small, happy, good, modest, nice, smart, careful, crazy, loveable, singer, random, mindful, fast, and her favorite adjective, smiley.
Her father is very proud of her.
She is “very smart,” he says with a smile, “number one, A-plus.”