by Diana Fulreader, Assistant Principal, Florence Roche Elementary School, Groton, MA
Five years ago, our family was fortunate to welcome a student from China into our home. We embraced her, loved her and did our best to support her adjustment to a new country, culture and language. I thought we were doing pretty well until we reminisced about her time with us during her going away dinner. She recalled a conversation she had with our daughter a few hours after she arrived and asked if we had any pets. Our daughter shared that we had a rabbit, but it recently passed away and Lydia responded, “That’s nice.” We got a good chuckle but I did feel remiss when Lydia shared that she only understood about 20% of what we were saying when she first came to live with us. I mistakenly took her politeness and nods as an indication she understood what we were saying.
As an Assistant Principal I have many opportunities to talk to students about mistakes. My mantra is, we all make them, but what defines us is how we respond to our mistakes and what we learn from them. Though I can’t go back and have a do over with Lydia, I am committed to learning and applying new strategies to support the learning of other English Language Learners that I come in contact with. I took the SEI and UDL courses and had meaningful conversations with our ELL teacher. This past year I was asked to be the community liaison for Sun Qi, a Mandarin teacher from China who taught at our high school. I jumped at the opportunity to apply my new knowledge and use what we learned from our experience with Lydia to support another ELL.
We didn’t assume Sun Qi understood what we were saying and shared information with her in multiple ways. We kept paper and pencil handy to write down words she didn’t understand or drew a picture to make our meaning clear. She always had her phone handy and kept note of new vocabulary she learned. We frequently looked at images, clips, or words that were hard to explain. We tried to limit our use of idioms and slang or explain them when we did use them. We had long conversations about the various meanings of sic/sick. I learned with Sun Qi when my 12-year-old son, the resident expert in this area, spent one long car ride explaining BAE (Before Anyone Else). I can’t say I could use this term in the correct context even now!
As educators we need to engage ELL students on even more levels. First, we must give students options to show us what they know and provide these opportunities often. Encourage students to share their knowledge orally, both with peers and teachers. Engage them in self-assessment; consider having them write a summary of what they have learned. Doing so will provide valuable information about their learning in order to guide our instruction.
Providing background knowledge is a critical part of engagement. We introduced Sun Qi to many rituals and events she had not been exposed to previously. When we went to our son’s baseball game I talked about the basics of three strikes and you are out, drew a diagram of the bases, shared what the positions were. Though not nearly an expert in baseball, I’m sure my brief tutorial made her trip to Fenway the following week a bit more enjoyable.
Do we take the time to provide them with background knowledge we take for granted? Are we asking about their background and culture and incorporating it into our instruction? Finally, are we presenting material in ways that are accessible to our ELL students? Technology is an invaluable resource in pursuit of this. Students can observe videos (click here) to support their understanding and provide background knowledge. Educators can provide material in the learner’s native language as well as English.
We need to model and encourage perseverance with our ELL students, don’t accept the nod and smile, we need to give them a universally designed education so at the end of the school year, unlike Lydia, they will understand more than 20% of what we were saying, and have a more enriching academic experience as a result.
Dianna Fulreader, LICSW is the Assistant Principal at Florence Roche Elementary School in Groton, MA. As a former adjustment counselor and social worker supervisor for DCF for 20 years, she continually seeks ways to support the social, emotional and behavioral growth of all students in all settings. You can connect with Dianna on Twitter at @dfulreader. She has previously blogged for MESPA, writing It’s Hard to be a Verb: (and it’s hard to live with or teach one)
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