Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #3

The third reason why I enjoy teaching English Language Learners is because of the curriculum.  Or rather, the lack of one.  None of the places where I taught had an actual ESL curriculum and it was up to me to design all my courses and lessons myself.

The first thing I was told when I arrived in 1990 at the university in Wuhan, China, where I was going to work for one year was that I would be teaching speaking and writing courses and I could select the books I wanted to use.  In 1993, the Indonesian Asian Development Bank project I was affiliated with at a university in Borneo was brand new--I and an American colleague were hired to help implement it--and I had to design all the courses I taught there, too.
UNLAM, the university I worked at in Indonesia; source: Student body of UNLAM
When I decided to shift my focus to teaching in the K - 12 sector in the U.S., I had several job interviews.  Most of the school districts I interviewed for said they didn't have an ESL curriculum, that the ESL teachers could pick and choose their own materials.  So I accepted a position at the one school that told me they did have an ESL curriculum because I knew from experience that teaching in a program without one was very time-consuming since everything had to be done from scratch.  But it turned out that the curriculum was really just one textbook series used in K - 4th grades and another series used in Grades 5 - 8.  Over the years, there were several opportunities in the summer to write ESL curricula for various grades but there was never a push to make sure they were actually used in ESL classrooms throughout the district.
ESL "curricula" formerly used in my district; source: Books owned by The ESL Nexus
So that left me free to design my lessons as I saw fit after all.  Which, as it turned out, suited me just fine.  I appreciated having the freedom to design lessons that I thought were most appropriate for my students.  I really enjoyed creating activities that allowed me to address their particular language needs.  I felt that I had more flexibility in teaching my students because there was no set curriculum with a scope and sequence of concepts that had to be taught at specific times and which required me to rush through material to make sure everything had been covered by the end of the school year.

When I began teaching content-based ESL classes--that is, classes that taught English language development using social studies content--I had to incorporate history and geography concepts into my classes but my lessons didn't mirror the mainstream social studies because, if they did, well, what was the point of having a separate class for ELLs?  So even with those constraints, I still had a lot of flexibility to teach what I thought was best for my students.  I found resources written specifically for ELLs that not only covered the social studies materials but also included a lot of ESL support.  My favorites are Ballard & Tighe's Ancient History and World History textbook series for teachers who need such resources and I highly recommend them.
Ballard & Tighe ESL Social Studies textbooks; source: The ESL Nexus & Amazon
The introduction of standardized testing under NCLB and the Common Core State Standards has changed things somewhat, as many ESL teachers must now align their lessons to Common Core standards.  But the ELL demographic is so broad, with so many different types of students who come from such a wide range of backgrounds and have so many different kinds of educational needs, that ESL teachers almost by necessity have to have the freedom to create and adapt lessons to suit the students they have in front of them in the classroom.  This means that ESL teachers have to be creative in their lesson planning and that is a big reason why I enjoy teaching English as a Second Language over other subjects.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Monday Musings: Older is Better!

"Just remember, once you're over the hill you begin to pick up speed."
-- Charles Shulz

A lot of education reformers seem to think that a young teacher is better than an older one.  But as this quotation reminds us, an older teacher is a more experienced teacher and has lots to offer more novice colleagues.

Certainly, when I was new to public school teaching, the learning curve from teaching adults--which I'd done for about six and a half years--to teaching lower elementary students was steep.  The younger the students, the more difficult it was for me.  It took several years, and a lot of support from other expert and experienced kindergarten teachers before I ever felt comfortable teaching that age group and lower elementary kids in general.

And teaching content subjects to middle school ELLs using the approach called content-based ESL, which I was told to do my second year, also involved a transition that took quite a few years.  Every year I taught social studies, I added more and more English language development.  My courses shifted from a class that was little different from the mainstream regular ed social studies classes to a class that incorporated language support specifically designed to help ELLs access the social studies curriculum.  It wasn't until I'd been teaching those ESL Social Studies classes for perhaps a decade that I truly felt I was doing them justice and teaching the students what they needed to be successful.
Great teacher clipart; source: Merced College
So to all those people who prefer to hire young teachers because they think those educators will cost less, will have more energy, will have more knowledge of cutting-edge technology, and can better relate to students because they are closer in age to them, I say this: Teachers who are older are worth it!  We have the experience to know how to deal with challenging students, we know how to change lessons around on the fly when technology doesn't work--which happens all too often, we know how to teach students at varying levels of ability, and we have the wisdom that comes with age to know that what's old will be new again.  And then teachers who are experienced educators will be valued once more.

I thank all the teachers who helped me when I first started teaching in a public school.  Their knowledge, friendship, and know-how made my job much, much easier.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #2

Coming from teaching adults at universities in Asia and businesspeople and older students who were in the U.S. on their own, dealing with the parents of my ELL students was a new experience for me when I first started teaching in a public school.  But it was truly a pleasure to get to know the families of my K – 8 students and work with them to promote their children’s success in school.

The best thing about working with parents of ELLs is that they respect the teacher.  All the parents I worked with over the years were always polite and courteous to me.  I think they could sense that when they talked with me and I offered suggestions on how they could help their children, they knew I was an advocate for their kids.  They also tended to take what I said about their children seriously and not just believe everything their kids said.

5 reasons why working with the parents of English Language Learners is fun | The ESL Connection
Working with families doesn't have to be a puzzle! source: Pixabay
Communicating with parents of ELLs, though, was not always easy.  Many of my students’ parents worked second or third shift and it was hard to reach them by phone when they were on the job.  It was also difficult for some of them to come to the school for conferences in the afternoon or evening.  When I began using email, that was great except for the few parents who didn’t have Internet access at home.  In those cases, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t keep in touch as often as I should have.  But one year, to compensate, I developed a form that I sent home every Friday which provided general information about how their children had performed the past week in my class.  (I previously wrote about this form here; scroll to near the end of the post to read about it.)  I didn’t need to use it every year but when I did, it helped me keep parents informed on a regular basis.

I developed very close relationships with some of my students’ parents.  The family of one of the eighth-grade Turkish boys I taught my first year as a public school ESL teacher invited me to visit Turkey and I did years later, in 2009.  They took good care of me and it was a fantastic trip!  One parent, upon hearing that I was leaving the school at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, started crying and later wrote a beautiful letter about how much I’d helped her and her daughter.  Another parent, a single mother of three boys, gave me a gift that was like a sports trophy on my last day at the school.  That’s when I started crying.

5 reasons why working with the parents of English Language Learners is fun | The ESL Connection
Gift from a parent to The ESL Nexus; source: The ESL Nexus
Here are some things that I found made a difference in developing positive relationships with ELL parents:
* Extending a personal touch. For example, although my school sent out generic letters announcing open houses and parent conferences at the end of marking periods, after I started sending out my own personal invitations, I saw a big increase in the number of parents who attended. 
* Being creative in finding ways to communicate.  I used Google Translate during a meeting with one Turkish-speaking parent and although it wasn’t perfect, she and I were able to get our ideas across and it was definitely better than not talking at all.  And when a couple parents were not able to come to conferences during the regularly-scheduled times to discuss their children's report cards, I arranged to Skype with them and meet that way instead.  As far as I know, I was the only teacher in my building who did that.
* Speaking their language--or trying to.  I made a point of greeting parents in whatever language they spoke to help make them more comfortable. This was especially helpful with my Spanish-speaking parents, who were the majority of parents I worked with, because I know only a rudimentary amount of that language.  Attempting to communicate in their native language showed parents that although my knowledge of certain languages was limited, I wasn't afraid to use them and make mistakes and therefore they shouldn't be nervous or embarrassed when using English. 
* Closing the distance between us. I asked the parents to call me by my first name.  I always found it odd when they called me Ms/Miss/Mrs (it varied!) when I considered us to be equal partners in the education of their children.  Doing that helped to put our relationship on a more informal footing, which I think enhanced our ability to communicate effectively.
* Share good news more than bad news.  As with all parents, ELL parents prefer to hear good news about their children so I made sure to email and send positive notes home more than negative ones.  Then, when I did have to tell them something not-so-good about their child, it was easier for them to accept hearing it because we already had a positive relationship.

Showing parents respect by patiently listening to their concerns garnered their respect and gratitude in return.  Of course, there were occasions when a parent had an issue with me as their child’s teacher but for the most part, my interaction with the parents of my ELL students was overwhelmingly positive. I always looked forward to meeting parents and because I knew I had their support, I was a better teacher of their children as a result.

For more ideas about working with parents of ELLs, please see my Pinterest board Involving Parents of ELLs.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Monday Musings: The Importance of Making Mistakes

"Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than many other subjects, learning a new language involves taking risks.  To be successful, students must practice using the language.  That means both speaking it and writing it.  And when you are in the process of learning a language, it is inevitable that you will make mistakes.

ELLs who are willing to make mistakes and learn from them will learn the language more quickly than students who are afraid of making a mistake and never try to use the language.  ELLs who have some knowledge of English and are willing to risk embarrassment when talking or writing are going to acquire the language faster because they will be corrected by their teacher(s) and perhaps even by their classmates and as a result, they will learn the correct ways to say or write things.

Of course, ELLs who are at a lower level of proficiency are going to make lots and lots of mistakes.  That is why it is so important to correct errors in a sensitive manner.  If a teacher interrupts a student every time s/he says something wrong, that student might never finish a sentence and will likely be too discouraged from attempting to speak again.  Likewise, if a paper is so filled with red pen markings that the original piece of writing cannot be read, a student might never want to write something else.  Judicious use of error correction is crucial to supporting the efforts of ELLs in acquiring English.  Rubrics are very useful in this regard.
Rubrics used with ELLs to support their writing; source: The ESL Nexus
Teachers can create a supportive classroom atmosphere that encourages students to take risks as they learn the English language.  Besides not pointing out every single mistake a student makes, it's also important to not laugh when an ELL makes mistakes when speaking, although it's often hard not to.  Even more important is making sure the other students don't laugh at an ELL's mistakes.  Nothing shuts down a kid more quickly than being ridiculed by classmates.  

Teachers should explicitly tell ELLs that it's okay to make mistakes.  I even told my students that I liked it when they made mistakes because that showed me they were trying to learn.  When my students tried to use a new grammar structure or new vocabulary word in their speaking or writing, and it didn't quite come off, I praised them for making the attempt and encouraged them to try again.  Teachers who came into my room were amazed at how much the ELLs talked because in their rooms, they rarely spoke.  (Sometimes I wished they wouldn't talk quite so much but that was a different issue!)

When ELLs are fearful of making mistakes, they are going to play it safe and only use language they are confident with--and they will plateau and not develop their English skills further.  But when ELLs understand that errors are a natural part of learning a language and that being able to communicate effectively does not mean never making a mistake, they will feel more comfortable about taking risks to express themselves.  The ELLs who do not let fear defeat them are the students who will be more successful learners of English.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #1

I love working with people who are learning English as an additional language!  One of the aspects I most enjoy is learning about their cultures and countries.  Most of the ELLs I taught in public school were born in the U.S. and only a small percentage were immigrants.  But their parents had emigrated from elsewhere and the kids grew up in homes speaking their parents' and grandparents' native language and absorbing customs, traditions and belief systems that were different from my own.  I had kids from 22 different country backgrounds in my ESL classes over the years.
Flags of the countries of my students and their families: source of flags: The World Factbook
I remember being in 4th grade and learning about Ecuador.  I was intrigued by the clothing and way of life of the people there, which was so unlike my own.  I also had relatives who lived and worked in Europe and Asia when I was growing up.  I'm sure those reasons played a large part in why I ultimately chose to major in anthropology in college--although my focus was on Africa--and that served me very well when I eventually became an ESL teacher.

Having an academic background and experience in cross-cultural communication and area studies enabled me to understand the issues my immigrant students faced and I was able to effectively help them adjust to living in the U.S.  It also helped that I had been a high school exchange student to Sweden and had first-hand knowledge of what it was like to learn academic subjects in a foreign language.
Kärnan (the Keep)--famous landmark in Helsingborg, my Swedish city; source: DS World's Lands
I always found ways for my students to share information about their home cultures and they always enjoyed telling me about the food and holidays and what was great about their countries.  I'm sure they got a kick out of knowing things their teacher didn't know.  But in addition to being genuinely curious, I had an ulterior motive: Letting students share their cultures fostered pride in who they were and gave them self-confidence.  So often, my students didn't actively participate in their other classes and didn't do all that well, grade-wise, in their other subjects; being able to teach me something and seeing that I truly wanted to learn about them helped establish productive student-teacher relationships. 

For teachers who have ELLs in their classes, I'd like to offer this tip: Find something you have in common with each student, something about their country or culture that shows the student you can relate to them.  For example, in my first year of public school teaching, I had two boys from Turkey so I made sure to tell them that I had visited their country...and loved it.  A few years later, I had a girl from Poland and I told her that one of my great-grandparents had come from there.  When I had students from Japan, I made a point of telling them that my family had hosted a Japanese student when I was in college.  I don't think it's a coincidence that I am still in touch with some of those students, many years, even, in one case, 15 years after they were in my class.
View of rice fields in village where my Japanese exchange sister now lives; source: The ESL Nexus
If you can't find a personal connection to an ELL's culture or country, just let the student know you are interested and want to learn about her or his heritage.  I had many students who came from the Dominican Republic or whose parents did but I have never been there and I don't know Spanish.  The kids often talked about the food they ate at home and what they liked and didn't like.  They couldn't believe I didn't know what sancocho was and over the years, a couple parents cooked it for me so I would know first-hand how delicious it was. (It's a stew with meat, tubers, vegetables, and bananas.)
Sancocho; source: Wikimedia Commons
I am sure that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monday Musings: Self-Respect and Teaching

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
-- Eleanor Roosevelt
I wonder what Eleanor Roosevelt would think of the current state of education in the United States.  From 1927 – 1938, she was a co-owner and teacher at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City, where she taught courses in English and history.  (The school later merged with the Dalton School.)  From what I read online about her work there, she strived to develop her students’ critical thinking skills.  I was not aware that Eleanor Roosevelt had been a teacher and I highly doubt she would have been a fan of standardized testing.
Todhunter School for Girls; source: The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project 
As a historically feminine occupation in the U.S., it is therefore not surprising that the profession suffers from low esteem by the public.  What is more surprising, however, is that teachers themselves buy into that perception.  That’s why the quotation above is meaningful to me.  If you believe, actively or subconsciously, that you are not worthy, then other people will treat you as if you aren’t.  

I remember writing a paper in graduate school about something to do with education.  I don’t remember the actual topic but I recall writing something along the lines of:  If I don’t respect myself and I think of myself as “just” a teacher, why should I expect anyone else to give me respect?  The professor, who was nationally known in the field of TESL (Teaching ESL), specifically noted that comment in his feedback.  Ever since then, I have never referred to myself as "just" a teacher.

Similarly, some ELLs feel they are not good people because they get low grades and have a hard time understanding what is going on in class.  I have even had students tell me they wish they weren’t bilingual because then they would do better in school.  I tell the kids that grades have nothing to do with the kind of person they really are and just because they get a low grade, that doesn’t mean they are unworthy or inferior to other students.  I tell them that ELLs have many strengths that other people don’t have and that being bilingual is an asset and something to be proud of, not ashamed.  If I were still in the classroom, I would make a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation and hang it at the front of the room for everyone to see every day!

Candidates for the Women on 20s campaign; source: Women on 20s
On a related note, there is a campaign underway to put a woman's face on the U.S.$20 bill, replacing that of Andrew Jackson.  I don't know if it will actually come to pass but Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the four women under consideration and the public is invited to vote on whom they would like to see on the note.  The other women under consideration are Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Wilma Mankiller.  You can find their biographies and submit your vote HERE.  I don't know what the deadline is but if you are interested in voting, sooner is probably better than later.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Make Your Own Opportunity

Yesterday, I wrote about Hannibal and how teachers of ELLs share some similar personality traits.  One trait is perseverance and another is creativity.

Several years ago, I read an article about how iPods were used in a class to help students improve their reading skills.  I was intrigued and wanted to try that out with some of my ELLs who were reading way below grade level.  However, I could not afford to buy a bunch of iPod Nanos on my own.

Serendipitously, I read in MATSOL Currents, the newsletter of the Massachusetts affiliate of TESOL International Association, about a grant opportunity for teachers called the ING Unsung Heroes Award.  This grant funded projects teachers wanted to implement in their classes or school.  At least one project from every state would be selected to receive one of the basic $2,000 awards; three teachers’ projects would receive additional funding.

This sounded great!  I researched the technology equipment I desired, wrote up how I would use it to benefit my students, and created a budget.  Then I submitted the application and waited.  In the summer, I was thrilled when I received an email notifying me I had won one of the awards.
Plaque for the award I won; source: The ESL Nexus
I excitedly went to my local Apple store to buy the iPods as well as additional technology.  The clerk I worked with was so impressed with my project that he gave me a really good deal on all the stuff I purchased.

Once school began, I shared the news with my students and they were eager to use the iPods.  We used them to create podcasts and videos, which students at that time had never done before so besides helping them develop reading, writing and speaking skills, the students were learning technology skills as well.  I was very pleased with the results and really appreciated being the beneficiary of ING’s largess.

The ING Unsung Heroes Award has been renamed the Voya Unsung Heroes Award.  Applications are currently being accepted for new projects and the deadline to submit is April 30, 2015.  I urge anyone who has a creative idea for working with ELLs, and other students, but who lacks the funding to implement it, to apply for one of these grants.  Click HERE to access the Voya webpage where you can download an application form.
2014 1st place winner; source: Voya
I recommend you read about prior winners’ projects to get an idea of the kinds of projects they fund.  If you win, please come back and post a comment about your project.  Good luck!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Monday Musings: Perseverance and ELL Teachers

We will either find a way, or make one.
-- Hannibal, General of Carthage
Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, was based in Cartagena in Iberia and from there, set out to conquer Rome.  In 218 B.C., he crossed the Pyrenees and the Alps with his army and 37 war elephants.  Crossing the snow-covered mountains with elephants had never been done before and the army met with difficulties such as rivers that needed to be forded and hostile tribes that needed to be placated.  However, Hannibal persevered and eventually reached the outskirts of Rome.
Map; source: Ancient History Encyclopedia
Hannibal and the ESL/EFL teachers I know are not all that different.  I wouldn’t say the teachers go to war but they certainly go to bat for their students.  They are persistent in advocating for ELLs and their families and when faced with “no,” will often keep trying until they achieve their objective.  Hannibal was creative in his use of war elephants and ESL/EFL teachers definitely must be creative: in devising teaching schedules, in obtaining materials, in communicating with students’ family members, in finding ways to work effectively with colleagues who may not completely understand the needs of ELLs in their classes, and in making their lessons entertaining and interesting to students with varying proficiency levels, educational backgrounds and abilities while simultaneously imparting language and content knowledge.
For most of my public school teaching career, I had to create my program of work myself.  Juggling nine different grade levels when I was teaching K – 8th grades was quite tricky and time-consuming; perhaps it wasn't as massive a task as crossing the Alps but it, too, had to be done and so it got done.  When I began teaching in a public school, I was the first ESL teacher there and had to build the program from the ground up; I quickly acquired needed textbooks, materials and supplies from various sources.  I found the most effective ways to reach parents--coming from teaching adults, working with parents was new for me.  I worked hard to establish productive relationships with the teachers and other staff in the school, most of whom had never worked with an ESL teacher before, as Hannibal worked to establish peaceful relationships with the tribes whose lands he traversed on his journey to Rome.  I made my classes rigorous but enjoyable as best as I could.
Carthaginian war elephants; source: Wikimedia Commons
Hannibal never actually conquered Rome, though.  He died around 183 B.C. and many Turks believe he is buried near present-day Istanbul.  The photo below, which I took in 2009, shows his purported tomb site.  It is on the grounds of a military base so, unfortunately, I was not able to go and visit it.

Hannibal's possible grave site; source: The ESL Nexus
Nevertheless, as an ELL educator, I find much I can relate to in this quote by Hannibal.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


I was thinking about perspective last night.

It’s easy to forget that in the great scheme of things, teachers and students in the United States don’t have it so bad.  On a day to day basis, it often can feel like teachers work under very negative conditions. But despite the inordinate amount of testing, the lack of respect accorded teachers, the lack of sufficient materials such as textbooks and copy paper, the low salaries...American teachers don’t have much to complain about compared to what teachers and students in other countries have to contend with.

I was reminded of that while reading an Easter message from the President of Sierra Leone, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, to the nation.  Pupils in that country have been out of school for about a year because of the Ebola outbreak there.  School is scheduled to resume on April 14.  In President Koroma’s message that was broadcast to the people of Sierra Leone, he discussed the measures the country was taking to get children back to school.
Map of Sierra Leone; source: The World Factbook
Before I quote from his message, I’d like to comment on my experience with teachers and schools in Sierra Leone when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in the 1980s, before the civil war and long before Ebola.  In the first village I lived in there was a school for children in the equivalent of first through fifth grades.
Screenshot from a video of the school in The ESL Nexus' village in Sierra Leone
After that, kids had to go to elsewhere to continue their education.  Two teachers were stationed in the village but neither of them had actual teaching certificates, as far as I recall.  Students were supposed to wear uniforms and had to pay fees to attend school, plus they had to pay for their textbooks. 
Screenshot of Sierra Leonean kids in front of the school in The ESL Nexus' village
Needless to say, these requirements meant that many children did not attend school.  Not only that, but after primary school, the language of education in Sierra Leone is English (the official language of the country), which meant that virtually all students in secondary school were learning in a second or even third language because their first language was that of the ethnic group to which they belonged, such as Mende or Temne, and their second might have been the lingua franca, Krio.  Providing instruction in English was hard for many teachers, too, since it wasn't their primary language, either.

Fast forward a few decades and conditions have improved, with more children in primary school and more continuing on to junior secondary and senior secondary school.  More girls are in school, too.  But the literacy level is still less than 60%, according to the World Bank and the UN.  And there are still school fees to pay and teacher salaries are still not always paid on time.  From reading blogs by Peace Corps Volunteers who were teaching in Sierra Leone between 2009-2012, it’s clear that student attendance was a huge issue as was the lack of basic materials that we in the U.S. take for granted.  Scores on standardized tests given throughout Anglophone West Africa to students at the end of senior secondary school are very low, with a high failure rate.

President Ernest Bai Koroma; source: Awareness Times: Sierra Leone News & Information
In light of that, the comments by President Koroma on March 31 are revealing.  He said, “No tuition fees will be paid in public schools for the next two years, and a national schools feeding program will be implemented in due course. We are also paying NPSE* fees for all pupils in public and private schools; and BECE** and WASSCE*** fees for all students in public schools. Government is also providing learning materials including free exercise books for public schools.”  More needs to be done but this is a good start and I sincerely hope all children in Sierra Leone will be able to receive the kind of education they deserve.

So whenever we think teachers in the U.S. labor under poor working conditions and that American students have issues, let’s remember that public education in America is tuition-free, breakfast and lunch are provided for those who qualify, and teachers receive their salaries on a regular schedule.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  And let’s take a moment to consider our colleagues in Sierra Leone and their students, and wish them well as they do their best to emerge from the devastation of Ebola.

*NPSE = National Primary School Examination
**BECE = Basic Education Certificate Examinatio
***WASSCE =  West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination