When a student confides in an introductory letter that she has often felt like an “outsider” in her classes as an ELL learner, a high school English teacher responds by evaluating how he can best affirm, connect, and support all of the learners in his diverse classroom.
Junior and Senior English teacher Jim Hayes learned early in his fifteen year teaching career that crafting an annual introductory letter to his students is an effective way to make initial connections and find out more about his students’ lives both in and outside of the classroom. By sharing some of his challenges (trying to learn how to unicycle over the summer . . . and failing miserably) and hopes for the year, Jim insists that students seem more willing to openly share things about themselves. With questions ranging from favorite ice cream flavor to awareness of learning style, Jim manages to capture a breadth and depth of information about his students that helps him more thoughtfully plan for the year ahead. While he admits that the letters often help him to think about his teaching in new ways, he is particularly moved by a heartfelt letter from a student in his Junior Honors section this year. Emigrated from Nepal two years prior, Sajani writes about the difficult adjustment to high school and daily life in America. A top student in her native country, Sajani shares feeling “misplaced” in the ninth grade when she was put in an ELL skills class. Fearing “getting stuck” in more basic content classes, Sajani insists that she has worked “double time” just so that “my brain can be challenged with the material I am capable of doing, even if my English isn’t as good as my Nepali.” In response to Jim’s question about “what can get in the way of your learning?” Sajani shares something that surprises Jim. She confides about often feeling invisible and “left out” in her classes, not necessarily by the teachers, but by the classmates with whom she has worked so hard to join. While her peers have dubbed her as the “shy and quiet type,” Sajani insists that her “true self” longs to feel comfortable enough to participate in daily discussions, both in and outside of class. In addition to the native English speakers, she also envies other ELL students who seem to have built camaraderie with their Spanish and Vietnamese speaking peers. She claims that she spends so much time thinking about how to “fit in” socially, that it often gets in the way of her learning.
With many years under his belt thinking about how to support his ELL learners in their writing and reading, Jim admits that he hasn’t given as much thought to the social web in the classroom and how this could be positively or negatively impacting his students’ abilities to learn. He knows that collaborative work has helped connect the range of his students, but he is not sure how explicitly he has used partnerships and group work to help affirm students and create connections that could go beyond the classroom walls. He admires Sajani for her hard work and wonders how he can do diligence to the challenge that impedes her learning. He considers how many other ELL students are struggling with social dynamics alongside their reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne? While Jim is humble enough to know that he cannot fix or control the social lives and challenges of his students, he renews his commitment to creating a class collective that feels open, warm, and inviting to all. Realizing that it is the response from her peers that Sajani and other students like her crave, Jim reflects on how he can best model and set up an environment of learning where all of his students can feel affirmed and accepted by one another.
In addition to taking the time to learn more about all of the native countries of his ELL students, Jim shifts a narrative writing assignment that he usual gives in the spring to the first month of school. He tweaks the assignment so that the focus turns to interviewing, writing, and presenting about another classmate. Jim puts great care into assigning partners – so that all students in the class have the opportunity to get to know and work with another student outside of their “social group” or native country. He also thoughtfully creates various project and study groups that will give students structured opportunity to connect with each other. With a class theme of “exploring the self as it connects to the larger world,” Jim finds many avenues of readings and discussions that highlight the importance of valuing difference, even among the collective of the class. By giving Sajani and her peers many chances to share their background/perspectives with the class, he hopes they will become more visible and valued. In their study of word nuances, Jim turns to his bilingual students and asks them to teach the class the particular words in Nepali, Spanish, and Vietnamese. With the understanding that visuals are helpful for ELL students, Jim builds more into his teaching and provides multiple assignments that give students the chance to create them in their own work. An avid art student, the visuals give Sajani (and many other students) opportunities to show off their strengths. In a follow up letter mid-year, Sajani shares that while her English class remains her most challenging course, it is her favorite, and the place where she feels most “at home” in school.
- “Lonely Language Learners,” highlights the significance of social inclusion for ELL students and the various ways that teachers and schools are working to make sure that “social segregation” does not happen. From bilingual programs to connecting students together outside of school, the article shares how embracing and connecting students across languages can benefit all students (including native English speakers) by helping them to know one another and “embrace otherness” for a more harmonious society.
- In “Busting ELL Myths,” middle school bilingual resource teacher Nichole Berg shares the significance of helping ELL students see their bilingual abilities as assets rather than deficits. She discusses the myths that English language proficiency is a sign of intellect and that English must be mastered in order to learn in English. That said, she does insist on the importance of ELL students gaining proficiency with academic language in her classroom, as a source to help them succeed in their other classes.
- This short article from Edutopia outlines the “Do’s and Don’ts” for Teaching English-Language Learners as related to the following: modeling classroom work and expectations, rate of speech and wait time, use of non-linguistic clues, giving instructions, checking for understanding, and use/development of home languages.
- This fourteen-minute video, The Multilingual Classroom, takes us to a school in East London where 87% of the students don’t speak English as their first language. It shows three classrooms where talented teachers clearly affirm their students’ home languages while also using creative and engaging ways to inspire engagement with voice inflection, reading, writing, and developing vocabulary.