Como Park Senior High School teacher Jeff Caulum gives his first-year English language learners a hands-on field trip that includes taking a city bus to a restaurant and a trip to the state Capitol. (Park Bugle photo by Marlee Leebrick-Stryker)

Imagine learning a new skill in a language you barely know. Every fall, Jeff Caulum helps a group of students do just that.

Caulum, an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at Como Park Senior High School, takes his first-year class on a field trip that includes taking a city bus and learning how to order food at a restaurant. The day ends with a tour of the state Capitol, where the students get a crash course in Minnesota state history and government.

This year, Caulum took nearly 20 ELL students and school service volunteers on the Nov. 26 trip. “It’s a great opportunity for [the new students] to put what they’ve learned in class to practice and to learn real-world skills,” he says.

Participation has grown since Caulum started the annual trip four years ago. This year’s students are recent immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, Laos and the Ivory Coast. Their time spent in the United States ranges from about six months to as little as three weeks. One Ethiopian student, Tahiro Ogato, arrived at Como Park on Sept. 13, just after the school year began. His class schedule includes science, math and the requisite English. English is not his second language but his fourth. His repertoire includes Arabic and Amharic, one of the primary languages of Ethiopia. Tahiro’s studies are difficult, he says, but “it’s OK; I am learning.”

The day starts early and cold as Caulum leads his students out to the bus stop on Maryland Avenue just a block from the high school. “It costs about $350 to rent a bus from the district like this,” says Caulum. “It’s cheaper and better to just take the city bus.”

When the bus arrives, the students line up as Caulum hands out bus tokens to each student. “Don’t forget to get your transfer [pass],” he says, his voice raised so that the very last student can hear him. “You’ll need it later.”

The ride is marked with student laughter and jokes. When they get to University Avenue, the get off the bus and walk to McDonald’s, where students practice their English skills by ordering their food at the counter. Sitting down with Tahiro and his sister Mariy, the conversation ranges from favorite television channels to how coffee is gross, especially black coffee.

After a breakfast of hash browns and soda pop, the group heads to the Capitol for the tour. “What a nice church,” one student says, once inside the rotunda.

The students pull their cameras out and begin documenting their visit. The chaperoning teachers give the kids 10 minutes to explore the main hall, then Caulum divides the group in two and herds them off with two Capitol docents. The tour includes a look at the house of representatives and Gov. Mark Dayton’s pressroom.

A student who has just arrived from the Ivory Coast leads a miniature French lesson with his peers, defining “L’Etoille du Nord” (Star of the North)— Minnesota’s motto—for everyone else.

The field trip ends with a bus ride back to school. Caulum’s students now know how to catch the bus in their new home and are learning how to ask for what they need. At some point, all this will become old hat, but for now it’s one discovery after another.

Marlee Leebrick-Stryker is a recent graduate of Beloit College.