OAKLAND — For homework, they finished drawing their "cartoon self" with five different emotions. In class, they put their heads together to figure out what the terms "caption" and "speech bubble" might mean.
Then came a short exercise in creative writing and character development.
—'Hi, my name is Anupa. I'm from Nepal' is a fine way to introduce yourself to me, but when you write for my class, I want you to do better than that,'"" Oakland International High School teacher Thi Bui explained before they began. "I want you to reach down, pull your heart out and show it to the world."
Through drawing exercises, writing lessons and personal story swapping, Bui is preparing her art students to depict their lives in a short graphic novel. The best works of last year's artists, featuring heartbreaking goodbyes and first impressions of the United States, were published in a book, "Immigration Stories," which the school is selling as a fundraiser.
The teenagers in Bui's classroom, with their hooded sweatshirts, jeans and baseball caps, would blend in at almost any Bay Area school. But they are newcomers from around the world; just a few months ago, some Oakland International students were living in refugee camps or rural Central American villages without schools.
They have no shortage of experiences to illustrate.
"I had no idea how many of them walked the desert to get here," Bui said.
Oakland International High School opened in 2007 on the old Carter middle school campus in North Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. It's part of the Oakland school district, but it also belongs to a network of public schools, mostly located in New York City, designed for high school students who have lived in the United States for fewer than four years. Its roughly 230 students come from dozens of countries and speak 29 non-English languages; half are Latino and one-quarter have refugee status.
English literacy is a key component of every discipline — not just English, explained Carmelita Reyes, the school's founding principal. Reyes said a math teacher recently turned a lesson about percentages into a cultural discussion about tipping at American restaurants, followed by lively skits that students wrote and performed.
"At this point, for these kids, their English language development is the key factor," Reyes said. "Because if they can't read, write and speak English, it doesn't matter what they know about math."
Edwin Abarca, who came to Bui's class with a big stack of sketches, arrived in the city three years ago from Guerrero, Mexico. On his first day at Oakland International last fall, he said, he understood only a few words of English although he had attended a year of middle school in the United States.
Edwin, 15, said he had no choice but to learn it quickly once he started high school; with so many different native languages, the teachers didn't explain things to him in Spanish like they did at his East Oakland middle school.
Madan Rana was born in Bhutan, but he has spent all but a year of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal, attending a school made of bamboo that had few books and pencils. About seven months ago, his family was allowed to resettle in the United States.
Madan, 17, said he was surprised to discover how much he had in common with the classmates he has met: missing faraway friends and family, learning a new language, adjusting to a new educational system, and having endured conditions in their home countries that most native-born Americans could hardly imagine.
"Every story matches with ours," he said.
To view and listen to an audio slide show of Thi Bui's class, go to InsideBayArea.com.