English Language Learners are often invisible in our schools when they first arrive from their countries. This was the topic of my keynote speech on Saturday's Best Practices conference at UMass Amherst, sponsored by the Western Mass. Writing Project. The speech was based on an article I wrote for our local newspaper and highlights the experience of one of my former students. Sharing it with you today!
Imagine that you are a 14-year-old girl from a warm, sunny island country with palm trees waving in the wind, and friendly people greeting you outside. Familiar foods and sounds are all around you. But, your life is about to change in ways you could not have imagined. You have agreed to leave all that you know behind in exchange for better opportunities for your future. You face many “firsts” in your life: the first time on an airplane, the first time to leave your country and all that you know behind you; the first time you will see snow and experience real cold. You arrive in a small New England town on a freezing day in March. Though you barely know your father, your new home will be with him. And although you are reunited with your half-siblings, there is a huge hole in your heart because your mother is back in your country and not with you.
A few days after your arrival, you have to take a test in English. You had studied some English, but what you know is not helpful at all on this test. The building where you now go to school is much bigger than your old one, and there is no patio to sit in during your recess and lunch. You are inside all day and it gets cold and dark so early. The days go by in a confused haze - you get lost, you do not understand your teachers, other students act as if you are not there, the cafeteria food tastes bland.
Suddenly, you feel invisible. In your country, you had many friends, but here, you are alone. There is some relief in your ELL classes, where you can communicate using Portuguese with your Spanish-speaking teachers. You have always loved math and have been a great math student, but math is really difficult suddenly; it’s not just numbers, but so many words - and all in English. In addition to all the new sights, sounds and feelings, you must now learn to swim in your physical education class. You have goals in life, and you have a burning desire to learn. Yet here, you cannot even communicate your basic needs.
This was my student 4 years ago, when she arrived from Cape Verde. She was already bilingual in Portuguese and Crioulo, but knew little English. However, she made her goals clear from the start: she wanted to do well in school, learn English, and perhaps become a flight attendant one day. Her sacrifice to come to the United States in search of better opportunities, her resilience, and her family’s support provoked awe in me. Separated from half of her family, this student understood the importance of learning English and studying hard to achieve her goals.
One day after only having been here a month, she went to our afterschool program to get help. She was told by a volunteer that he couldn’t help her because he didn’t understand her. Frustrated, she came to my classroom and cried. The volunteer didn’t mean to hurt her. We sat and cried together for a few minutes and I tried to promise her that things would get better soon, and that she had made huge progress in a short amount of time.
ELL students in Amherst are a very diverse group. Just in the last four years my students have come from Nepal, Korea, Japan, China, Cape Verde, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Pakistan, Austria, Cambodia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Sweden and Italy. This year I have another incredibly diverse and wonderful group of students. These beginner students remain invisible to their English-dominant classmates. It isn’t mean-spirited; mostly, they don’t know how to communicate with the ELL students - so they don’t at all. An ELL student has to be either fluent enough or social enough to break through this barrier.
How many of you have been in a situation where you could not communicate effectively with people because of a language barrier? Or lived in a country where English was not the dominant language? I grew up bilingual, and I was good at learning my third language, French, Even so, when I spent a year in France in college, I don’t think I spoke at all for 2 whole weeks. I felt disempowered and invisible myself.
How can we help our ELL students be more visible in our schools? I don’t have all the answers. However, here are 5 ways to help you get started in making your ELL students feel a part of the community.
Get to know your students’ stories.
I remember when I taught Spanish and had 120 students, and getting to know them all was easier said than done. But do what you can. Many teachers I work with do some sort of questionnaire or letter exchange with their students. This is a great way for all students, especially ELL students, to tell you about themselves. You can even encourage them to write in their language if it is one you can get translated easily or that you understand. A personal letter is a huge step up from the index cards with important information that I remember being asked to fill out when I was a student. Now, despite all the work and pressures we have as teachers, many teachers are invested in getting to know their students because we know that it’s all about the relationships we establish with them.
Help your students get involved in class.
Even though they may not have a lot of English you can find small ways to involve them in your class. I find that my students are often eager to help pass papers out, give out stickers, and even volunteer when they know answers. Ask them about their countries - these can be great learning moments for all your students. We need to not only encourage them but also give them ways of being involved.
Make connections with their families.
Don’t rely only on the ELL teachers to do this. Reach out to the families of your students. Invite them into class presentations. Invite them into your class to talk about their experiences or to cook and share the dish with the class. Call them - or if language is a barrier, find someone to call for you. Another piece I need to improve on myself - don’t only call home for punitive or negative reasons. The parents of my ELL students are often thrilled when they are able to participate in their child’s school day somehow. As the parent of a student from Colombia told me last year, “Uds. son las segundas madres” - you are the second mothers. I find that many ELL parents feel this way about the teachers; they feel their children should listen to their teachers and respect them as if they were another set of parents.
One day, the dad of the student I mentioned before showed up outside my classroom door. At first, I was worried and thought maybe something had happened. I stepped out to speak to him and he said “I was just coming by to check on my daughter. How is she doing?” I told him what a hard worker she was and how she was progressing fast. He told me that he was stopping in at each kids’ school - and there were 5 of them in different schools - to check up on them. Today, he probably wouldn’t be able to just drop in anymore, but it showed me that there are all kinds of ways for parents to show their interest in their children’s education.
Make them visible - literally.
For the last 2 years I have had my ELL pullout students work on a newspaper. They learn about the newspaper pyramid of writing, they generate ideas, they gather information or interview people, and then they write articles. I group the articles into sections and edit them. The first time I had students help with the layout; the second time I did it myself because it became too difficult. Now we are a Google school, so students could potentially work on a document together. After everything was finished, we took pictures. The students see their names, photos and articles in a final published document, which we celebrate. Then I distribute the newspaper, online as well as hard copies, to my entire district (including the superintendent’s office). Also, students can email the online copy to people in their home countries. They are proud to see the final product (I brought some so you can see) and in this way, they have a presence in our school.
Advocate for them.
Often, ELL students have too much already going on, or are shy or not accustomed to advocating for themselves like some of our mainstream students may be. Whether it is with the teachers at my school, or during meetings with administration, I like to bring up issues that core teachers may not have at the forefront of their minds. As we know, good ELL practices are good for all students, so it never hurts to share suggestions or tips. Likewise, if you need help with your ELL students, reach out to the experts in your building. I also blog about my students often, touching on challenges or success in my own work.
Back to the student I told you about. One day at the dismissal bell, I noticed a note she left me on the whiteboard. It said “Dear Ms. Lopez: Thanks for you help me.” I took a picture of the note and put it up near my desk. On difficult days, I look at her words and continue to be inspired by them. The English may not have been perfect, but the sentiment was. We said good-bye on the last day of school, both of us with tears in our eyes, but I knew that she would be okay. That student ended the school year with A’s and in the three short months she was here, she learned to swim and she had read her first entire books in English. In high school, she started a Cape Verdean dance group, played soccer and basketball and ran track. Now a Junior in high school, she has moved to the advanced ELL classes, is very social and still involved in many extracurricular activities, gets A’s, and is a part of her school community.
Now, people SEE her. She is no longer invisible. Do what you can to help your ELL students be seen, too.
Dominican Moms Don't Play
Last week I called the mom of one of my students, a boy who came to our town by way of New York. The student was not doing his homework for me or his other ELL teacher, and was 10 minutes late to my class one day without a pass. When we want to help our students or get them back on track, we - the other ELL teacher and I - usually make a phone call home, knowing this is the best (sometimes only) way to contact home.
The mom is a woman from the Dominican Republic who moved her family here for the schools. She told me that we could do whatever was necessary to get her son back on track. She gave us her total support, not doubting for one second that we have her son's best interests at heart. She didn't question me, but actually thanked me for calling and for holding him to high standards.
A few nights later, at my youngest daughter's open house, I ran into the aunt of this student (along with her daughter, also a student of mine). She asked first how her own daughter was doing, and then how her nephew was doing. I reported to her the phone call home and told her what had been happening with his homework. She assured me that she would talk to the mom (her cousin) and tell her to take the boy's phone away and not buy him the new sneakers he really wants until he starts to improve his grades and do his homework. After all, she said, they did NOT move here so he could waste away his education. She told me that I could call her any time as well, and she thanked me for being strict with her nephew.
I love that as an ELL teacher, I can almost always play the "I'll call your mom/dad" card and it works really, really well. These two interactions made me reflect on the differences in parenting. My students' parents are thankful, respectful, and supportive - almost always. This is very different from when I taught Spanish at my school, or French at private school. I would inevitably be faced with parents who doubted me, questioned my credentials, asked me to speak French to hear my accent (really) and asked me in the middle of my open house presentation if I was teaching Spanish from Spain.
It strikes me also that my students' families are very involved - though you might not see any of them at a PGO (parent guardian organization) meeting. My student's aunt had offered to me several times to cook, to chaperone a trip, or whatever I needed. They might not be involved in the traditional American ways, but that doesn't mean they don't care.
I know that not all teachers can contact home because if time (if they have 100 plus students especially) or because there is a language barrier (though at my school they can get an interpreter). It's worth the extra effort when we can make these connections, though, and get the support of those moms and dads who don't play.
Behind the smiles
A new student came to our school about 3 weeks ago for English testing. he was to be placed in 8th grade, yet he was smaller than my 10 year old daughter. He has just arrived from a Central American country and was rejoining his family here. When I asked him questions in English, he stared at me with huge eyes, without any idea how to answer me. Luckily his 2 ELL teachers speak Spanish and we can help ease his transition to school here and to learning English. Now, his eyes light up and he grins when I ask him how things are going.
He is an example of the resilience I see every day in my students. He may have had a terror-filled trip to Massachusetts; he may have seen unfathomable acts of violence in his country. Yet, he still smiles and is excited to be here. His schooling was most likely very irregular and there were probably gaps. Like many of my students, he might be separated from loved ones, even one of his parents. Yet, he looks happy as can be sitting in my classroom, dutifully taking notes in a language he does not yet understand. He was probably the victim of malnutrition, considering his tiny stature. In his very traditional, patriarchal community there tends to be a lot of domestic violence and drinking. Yet he comes to school every day, pushing himself into a zone of discomfort in order to learn.
Students like him inspire me. Our students are multi-layered, complex people who bring with them their experiences, their fears and anxieties, their drama, and their hopes. As teachers, it is not only our job to teach them; I think it is also our job to help them build the personal skills they will need in life. We have to go beyond - we see their smiles, but we have to ask what is going on behind their smiles.
I am lucky that I have such small numbers of students and I can get to know them well. Every teacher can do his or her part, though. At my school, teachers are building getting to know you activities into their first month of teaching. I noticed a high level of attention to the emotional and personal aspects of teaching this year in all the classrooms I was in. Many teachers had students write letters to them, and a few teachers shared information from their lives with their students. No longer is the classroom a place where you should not "let them see you smile before Christmas!" , but it is a place where more and more teachers are attending to the social and emotional well-being of our students. Thank God for that!
When I see the smiling face of my new student tomorrow, I will be comforted in the fact that I have helped create a classroom where he can feel safe, happy, and where he is learning. At the end of the day, nothing else at my school matters as much as the students.
How to start a school
How does one start a school? This afternoon I found myself wondering about that. As I tried to avoid finishing laundry and getting ready for Monday, I Googled "How to start a school", just for the heck of it. It seems like a lengthy process, and costly. But it's fun to think about and sketch out what it might look like.
I have actually thought about this a lot over the years. If I ever did start a school, I already have colleagues in mind who I would ask to join me, and people for a Board of Directors. I have ideas about the kinds of teachers I would want, and what the space might look like.
My school would be a middle school, grades 6-8. The school would be focused on social justice education and technology. Differences of all kinds would be celebrated, with a focus on traditionally underrepresented groups. It would be a place where students could help drive their own learning. They could create their own goals for what they wanted to learn, covering the major 4 academic areas. Some traditional classes could take place, but also students could be off working on their own learning projects in separate areas of the school, and have check-ins with their teachers. Some students would work in groups and others individually, depending on what works best for them.
Curriculum would be created by the teachers. Each teacher could write his/her own curriculum, and the the teachers as a group could give feedback on it. Teachers would decide on the teaching model that works best for them and their students, with the approval of their colleagues. The teachers would also run the school, and parents would help them. They would have a leader who could deal with the day to day operations, but the major school decisions would be made together.
Students would be able to study a language, art and music of their choice, though these fields would be integrated in their core classes. Students would have a break in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a snack. Lunch would be served family style, at round tables, and would last at least 45 minutes.
Students would have a period of activity of their choice - dance, biking, team sports, fitness classes. The school day would begin at 8:30 and end at 4:30. There would be no homework - except for reading and studying material learned that day, as a review. Grades would be a narrative about each student's learning process as well as social/emotional development. At the end of each marking period, students would reflect on their goals, their successes, and what they still needed to work on.
Teachers would do the same thing for their teaching. They would not be evaluated, but would give and take feedback from their colleagues about their teaching. They would have 2 hours every day of their own preparation time.
Parents would be involved in a variety of ways in the school - not only at parent organization events. They could assist in classrooms, teach classes, help cook and serve lunch, offer tutoring, organize field trips, and more.
The school would be a joint partnership between families, students, and teachers.
It sounds very idealistic. As I look back on what I wrote, though, I realize that a school like this once existed, and I went to it. It was the Che Lumumba School. My school would probably have a different name :-) Maybe I would call it the Nieto School for Progressive Learning, or something like that. But the philosophy would in some ways be similar to that old school of mine, courageously founded by a group of idealistic and very dedicated parents and teachers.