Culturally Responsive Back to School Night

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The new school year is rapidly approaching and for teachers and administrators August becomes a month of both reflecting on the past year and looking forward to what lies ahead. Measureless time is spent on thinking about curriculum, lesson planning and student achievement. Yet one of the most important days of the school year is often overlooked or is an afterthought: Back to School Night.

In particular, schools with ELLs or students from families with non-English speakers have the additional responsibility of thinking of ways to make the event inclusive of families who, in the past, may have been marginalized.  Culturally responsive classrooms seek to provide equitable opportunities for learning.  Part of what falls under this umbrella is considering what active choices are being made to make families feel welcome at events such as Back to School Night. Below are some thoughts to consider on this topic.

1. Administrators, are translators on hand during speeches? Back to School Night often begins with a group session during which administrators and teachers speak directly to parents in an auditorium. Consider the families in your audience. If they do not speak English, an easy adjustment could be to provide those families with headsets so they can listen to a translation of what is being said by the speaker. Aside from the purchase of headsets, all that is required is someone to serve as the translator.  Staff members, college students, community members or even parents can be utilized in this capacity.

2. Teachers, have you prepared multilingual handouts for parents? Teachers often provide copies of pertinent information to parents to guide them through helping their children in the new school year. Even if you cannot personally translate, sites such as Google Translate can help communicate the message to families, even though it is not always a perfect translation. Parents volunteers, former and/or current students, college students and/or community members can serve as translators. As well, the federal government (and many state departments of education) provides various parent guides in different languages. These are free tools available for usage. Check the Office of English Language Acquisition for access to many resources.

3. Schools, are you serving food? To create a warm environment, schools often provide dinner, snacks or desserts for families. Have you considered the dietary needs of families based on culture or religion? In my experience, I have never heard parents complain that there were no special food options for them. However, I have seen on several occasions parents stand empty handed surrounded by other parents who were eating. As a vegetarian, I have found myself in that situation many times. I never felt negatively about the host, but I did feel slightly awkward. Sharing food is an intimate experience and when you are within that experience but unable to actually participate, there is an element of isolation for those people. Offering a variety of options can go a long way in showing families that thought and care has gone into your decision making.

Final thought
: The suggestions above should serve as a starting point when planning Back to School Night. None of the options above create any significant finance burden. They require not much more than thoughtful planning, which will go a long way in strengthening parental involvement in your school. 

5 Ways Administrators Can Support Their ELLs

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Even the most experienced and confident administrators can struggle with finding ways to connect with their ELL population if they do not have any previous experience with working with them at either the classroom or school level. Below are five key strategies that any administrator can easily begin using, whether her or his school has 20 or 200 ELLs. Commit to implementing just one strategy per week for five weeks and the improvements will be noticeable.

1. Learn a few key phrases in the students’ native language(s).  A little can go a long way. Even just learning a few greetings and words of encouragement can make a huge difference.  Regardless of where a student has come from, s/he knows that the principal is an important person in the school.  I have seen countless students want to interact with the principal but feel awkward because of the language barrier. If administrators can make the smallest effort to communicate with ELLs it will immediately begin building a bridge and make the students feel welcome.

2. Post multilingual signs throughout the school, including the entrance. A welcoming environment is critical for building a strong community within a school. Yet, oftentimes, signs throughout the school are only written in English. Including multilingual signs not only make ELLs feel welcome, it can also help them navigate the school building much more easily. Multilingual signs also send the message that not only does a school acknowledge the language needs of their students, but it also respects the native language of the student population and their families. 

3. Get to know your ESL teacher well. An ESL teacher is someone who has chosen a very specific path in her or his educational studies. S/he is not only familiar with appropriate instructional strategies for ELLs, but is also knowledgeable about current laws and procedures required by schools. This person is a very rich source of information and should be someone with whom administrators have frequent contact and communication. By planning, at a minimum, for bimonthly meetings, administrators are ensuring that the lines of communication are fully open and are also demonstrating to ESL teacher that she or he is acknowledged as a key member of the school community.

4. Know the accommodations that must be provided to your ELLs. More often than not, administrators did not specialize in ESL instruction at university. Most colleges with education programs now offer at a minimum coursework focused on working with ELLs. An introductory course can provide a solid starting point in understanding this growing segment of the school population. As well, several professional development providers offer both traditional and online seminars and webinars to begin building a foundational knowledge of these students. Some popular online training can be found through Learner’s Edge, Ed2Go and many more. 

5. Add at least one ELL-specific question to conversations with teachers and supervisors when discussing all aspects of teaching and learning. Often, discussing ELLs and their needs is an afterthought. Schoolwide decisions are made with only the general population in mind. By not discussing ELLs and considering their needs on a regular basis, it can be very easy for these students to become marginalized. Administrators, make a decision to include at least one question regarding ELLs in every conversation and planning meeting that occurs that will affect students. The question can be as simple as, “So how will this affect our ELLs?” or “Will this new plan/idea/resource suit the needs of our ELL population?” By including these questions you are saying very clearly that a shift is occurring, a shift toward a school that is increasingly inclusive of all learners. 

A new school year is just around the corner. If you are an administrator, consider making these strategies a part of your own professional growth plan for this year. If you need additional strategies or have any questions, please reach out to me for further assistance. 

4 Ways Teacher Aides Can Support ELLs in the Classroom

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While English language instruction must be provided by a certified ESL instructor,  some schools do at times make the decision to include classroom aides in ESL, Bilingual or General Education classrooms.  While typically grateful for the assistance, teachers often struggle with ways to best utilize classroom aides to enhance teaching and learning.  Below are four steps that can easily be incorporated into a teacher’s lesson plans and/or daily teaching routine to strengthen learning for ELLs by introducing a classroom aide into the setting.

1. Additional Images: A teacher who follows best practices knows that visual aids are a great tool to help make English more comprehensible for English Language Learners but in a classroom with mixed tiers or a classroom with both ELLs and non-ELLs, it can be time consuming to incorporate the amount of additional images that may be necessary for students at the lowest proficiency levels to strengthen their learning. A classroom aide can assist with this by proving those students with additional images at their desks, draw for the students or allow the students to include their own artistic representations before, during and after the lesson.

2. Build Background Knowledge: Teachers of ELLs know that with English learners building background knowledge is often more necessary than activating prior knowledge since many ELLs may have grown up in a country that is vastly different from the US. Allow the classroom aide to build background knowledge prior to formal lesson delivery. Short videos through sites such as YouTube or simpler, print-rich text can help your ELLs become better prepared to understand the lesson when it is delivered by the teacher.

3. Build in Increased Wait Time: One of the  first strategies teachers of ELLs learn is to allow increased wait time for ELLs. English Language Learners benefit from increased wait time because it allows her or him to process the question or prompt given in English, complete any mental translations s/he may need to perform, activate knowledge and vocabulary in her or his L1 and then formulate a response in English. Certainly this will cause a teacher got struggle to stay within the confines of the class period and/or struggle with ensuring that all parts of the lesson are delivered. Prior to the lesson, create questions that are to be asked of your ELLs. Give these questions to the classroom aide and have her or him imbed them into the support that is given. Have the student begin to formulate a response with the aide so that when you ask the question of that student s/he will have already begun thinking about it and processing a response. Essentially, you are providing additional time to formulate a response without taking time away from the regular instruction.

4. Repeat/Rephrase Important Terms and Facts: ELLs are faced with the double challenge of working toward developing their language proficiency while simultaneously trying to learn grade level content. When English proficiency is low, students will struggle with discerning the more important words and concepts from the rest of what is said. This can occur even in a class where the teacher is modifying for language tiers and/or employing sheltered English strategies. By providing a classroom aide with a list or chart of key terms and facts to use when repeating or rephrasing will help make the materials more concrete and minimize confusion for ELLs.

One last thought:

While a classroom aide is an excellent resource, it cannot be overstated that she or he is, in no way, a replacement for an ESL teacher. All decisions regarding support given by an aide must be initiated by an ESL-certified teacher and cannot serve as a replacement for a certified teacher. However, with the right guidance, planning and collaboration,  a classroom aide can become one of the richest resources available within the school.

The Importance of Using Multiple Criteria to Exit ELLs

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The history of education in the United States for English Language Learners has long been an uphill struggle for both educators and students. Several states are leading the way toward a more equitable educational experience for ELLs by developing comprehensive plans for educating ELLs through programs that foster successful English language development.

The process is relatively straightforward: determine the home language of the student and conduct an English language proficiency assessment if the student speaks a language other than (or in conjunction with) English at home. From there, if the test scores determine that the student required language services for English language support, these are provided by certified staff, often for several years.

It it is what comes at the end of this language development journey that often sparks conversations: the exiting process. In this modern American educational society, in which the word “test” is used exhaustively, the immediate tendency becomes to rely heavily on test scores, such as WIDA’s ACCESS test, to determine if the student is ready to “place out” of language services. Not only does relying solely on one indicator, a test score, contradict what most states require to determine exiting (i.e., multiple criteria), it is also a risky decision, one that could lead to unnecessary future challenges for students and teachers alike when a student begins struggling significantly when language supports are removed too soon.

The following are several additional indicators that should be used in conjunction with annual language assessment test scores to determine the appropriateness of exiting a student from language services along with a brief rationale:

Report Card Grades: What grades is the student earning on her/his report card? Is the student demonstrating proficiency or mastery in the content areas? If not, then the student would likely benefit from additional time in a language program so that s/he can continue to develop academic language proficiency and content knowledge.

Formative Assessments: How is the student performing on daily or weekly learning activities? Beyond grades earned on summative assessments (end of chapter/unit tests), which are the grades that usually end up on report cards,  the tracking of a student’s progress on day-to-day learning can yield a significant amount of information on actual progress that the student is making along the way which will provide a much stronger picture of her/his learning both in terms of content knowledge and language acquisition. If the student struggles frequently and often cannot complete daily tasks without language supports being put into place, the student may not be ready to exit from language services.

Standardized Assessments: Did the student attain proficiency on the most recent standardized assessment?  With increasingly stringent testing being introduced into the academic lives of students, being able to perform well on high-pressure standardized assessment is a reality. Oftentimes, an ELL will demonstrate proficiency on a language development test, but will perform poorly on standardized tests. The academic skills and language on standardized assessments are quite high and having highly developed language skills and being able to use technical, academic language takes many years of develop.

Behavior: Is the student well-behaved and does s/he follows all school rules? Or is the student frequently in trouble with teachers and/or administration? Even if the student is performing well academically, poor behavior should be taken seriously. Are there emotional issues to consider? Is the student having difficulty adjusting to a new culture? Removing the support of a bilingual or ESL teacher when a student is not emotionally strong enough to be fully immersed into a mainstream classroom can cause issues, especially if the new classroom environment is not culturally responsive.

Attendance: Has the student missed a significant amount of school days? Even if the student’s grades are strong, poor attendance must also be considered. Why is the student missing so many days? Is the student frequently ill? Are family obligations behind the frequent absences? Once the reason is determined, it should be factored into the final decision. A former ELL is always monitored after exiting the program because of the potential adjustment issues. Chronic absenteeism can exacerbate those adjustment issues.  Even if the student’s grades are strong, a high absentee rate will often negatively affect learning as well as the student’s smooth transition into a mainstream classroom.

Special Education Classification: Does the student have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) due to a Special Needs classification? What are the specifics of that classification? For this, it is critical that a conversation is had with the student’s Special Education teacher to deepen the understanding of precisely what the student’s learning challenges are.  The importance of this issue cannot be overstated.

Classroom Teacher Recommendations: Who are the student’s instructors? The student typically only receives ESL for one period a day and the rest of the day is spent with one or more other teachers. Their input is critical. While most classroom teachers are not certified ESL teachers, they should have at a minimum a basic understanding of the language needs of the student.  S/he should be able to articulate how the student is performing in the classroom and if the student, in the teacher’s opinion, is ready to exit the program.

ESL Teacher Recommendations: Who is this student? What has s/he accomplished in the time that s/he has been with you? Has her or his language growth been significant? Has s/he adjusted well to life in the United States? Does the students seem confident in her or his language development? Above all else, it is the ESL teacher who can speak most profoundly about the student. It is the ESL teacher who can take all of these factors, think about each one individually and then think about all of them collectively to be able to make an informed decision.

Simply using one piece of data, such as the student’s ACCESS score, simply cannot provide anything more than a snapshot of a moment in time. Just as it is important to provide students with an accurate assessment to determine language needs when they first arrive in a new school, it is equally important to make sure that the right choice is made when making the critical decision to remove these supports.

Why Do I Write?

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What is it that makes us want to write?  What is it that makes us want to reach out to the world? For most of us, there are three reasons: to teach, to share or to be heard.

Thinking about myself and my career, I have spent my entire adult life working with English Language Learners. These past (almost) 20 years I have worked in urban areas in neighborhoods comprised of recent immigrants and families that identify as bicultural.

Like essentially all Americans, my family’s history began somewhere else. My family has called the U.S. home since the late 1950s when they settled in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ.  My grandparents started over in this neighborhood.  My parents grew up in this neighborhood. And I am part of the first generation born in this same neighborhood in Ironbound Newark.

So when I began teaching, without truly thinking about why, I found myself returning to that same neighborhood in Newark. While my career has since taken me to different areas throughout New Jersey, it was in Newark that I was able to see firsthand what school is like for ELLs. I saw opportunities they had that offered unique advantages, but more often I saw many missed learning opportunities. I saw students pulled from their classrooms. I saw them receiving instruction in cafeterias. hallways and staircases. While for a portion of their day they sat side by side with native English speakers, overall their educational experiences were significantly different. Opportunities were missed and educational equality did not exist.

Over the years I found myself drawn to their stories and experiences. So this blog is for ELLs to share their stories but more often it will be to help those with the most direct impact in the academic lives: of ELLs: their teachers and administrators. It is also for anyone who enjoys learning about American education and the experiences of our increasingly bilingual, biliterate and bicultural society. So why do I write? For all three of those very same reasons: to teach others about ELLs, to share knowledge and resources and, most importantly, because I want these citizens to be heard and become a bigger part of our conversation.

Enjoy.