Every Student Learns

What the ESL Classroom has Taught Me

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One of the most furtively close-minded phrases I have heard in my years as an educator is a school negatively described as having “changing demographics.” This statement is generally made when a previously homogeneous area has had an influx of families move into their attendance zone from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Some teachers claim to struggle with acclimating to teaching these diverse populations because of differences among learners of varied backgrounds. What these educators fail to realize is that while certain groups may look or sound different, the essence of learning is the same across any level of education, and there is no need to be intimidated by new demographics.

I was able to learn this lesson firsthand this year. One student group that is often put in this category is our often renamed English language learners (ELL). I taught on-level high school English in several school districts for over a decade, and I often walked by ELL classrooms and wondered what on earth was going on in there. It didn’t seem like a traditional instructional setting, and it was easy for me and other teachers to openly question the techniques and methods being practiced. I was a casual observer who caught glimpses of chaos and didn’t quite understand it.

Then last year, I was given the opportunity to teach ESOL 2 to a small group of sophomore students possessing a large range of abilities and motivations, and it was the most eye-opening experience I have had in my teaching career. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with a bilingual education program, as I myself was a student of it when I first came to the United States back in the late ’80s (an era that today’s kids describe as “the 1900s”, which sounds comically ancient) before school districts had as much emphasis on English language learning. It’s that, as with most things in life, like parenting or teaching, you don’t understand the complexities of how things work until you’re in the position to be in charge.
I felt overwhelmed and completely out of my league with that one class and failed forward more times than I could count. Surprisingly, I was asked to add two more sections of ESL classes this year making it a majority of my teaching schedule. Although I feel as though I improved tremendously as a teacher by focusing on this specific population of students, I recognize that I still have a long way to go to be the best version of myself in a classroom. I also recognized that while specific strategies are common practice in an ESL setting and are often looked down upon in other classes, there can be quite a bit of crossover with the right perspective.

As I reflected on this year and the growth that my students and I have had, I put together a list of the things I learned and figured out that my experience was not exclusive to this specific setting, but could be extrapolated to other situations.

First of all, ESL classrooms are a microcosm of every classroom I have ever taught in. It’s the same, just with a label. There are the loud kids, the quiet kids, the groups, etc. Everyone is at a different level of English acquisition, so it just happens that there is a degree of a language barrier which throws another angle into the instruction. In reality, though, if a kid doesn’t understand the academic language of a traditional biology classroom, for example, there is almost as much of a barrier in that language as there is in some of the ELLs who aren’t fluent in English.

Learning culture is often just as relevant as classroom content. My students don’t understand the Pledge of Allegiance. They ask to explain why we have a day off every holiday, so I was able to teach the students about Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, and President’s day, along with many other culturally relevant occurrences throughout the year. But how many of our other students don’t understand why we say the pledge in school every morning or why certain holidays exist? Would it make a difference if they were aware of the “why” instead of just the “what”? Teaching students about relevant material outside of the curriculum can be beneficial in helping them pay more attention to the class content.

Many students lack confidence, which is developed through a sense of belonging. I have a student in my class this year who just moved here from Vietnam and knows very little English. I would communicate with her through the Google Translate App, but I could tell that she was very reserved and would avert her gaze often, especially in the class that she was in with only students whose first language was Spanish. One day, remembering my own past experiences, I played a few clips from old Tom and Jerry cartoons, where the characters don’t talk. I could see her attitude change simply from the feeling of belonging created by laughing at the same slapstick humor at which her classmates were laughing. Are there students in your class who keep to themselves? Chances are they don’t feel confident in themselves, and the fact that they don’t easily connect with others only helps promote this downward spiral. We as teachers can ensure that we provide opportunities for positive interactions, whether it is with us or their classmates.

Some kids truly just don’t want to be at school. Many ESL students rebel against being brought to a strange country against their will by doing poorly in school, thinking this will give them an argument to go back to their own country and the confines of their comfort zone. Certain students who were probably not great students in their home country feel as though they are getting challenged enough by their new surroundings that they don’t have the energy to challenge themselves academically. This is true of most of our students. A large part of our teenagers feel as though life is challenging them already with tough home, family, financial, or personal situations and don’t want anything to do with academic challenges. Our job is to give them something to look forward to within our classrooms and hallways to make them feel comfortable enough to push past the boundaries in their own mind. This may be the toughest challenge, because our students do want to learn, but they need the right motivation to do so. A teacher that can provide the right motivation for a majority of students is invaluable in any setting.

Kids need compassion before they need “real world” training. This concept is not new, but in my situation, I applied it specifically to grades. Grading traditionally is challenging in an ESL Classroom because everyone has a different starting point. It’s hard to give a test, quiz, or any sort of standard assignment and expect to give everyone an equitable grade. I had to adapt assignments, deadlines, and lessons based on individual abilities. So why are so many teachers still hung up on teaching our students about the real world with hard deadlines and no adjustments in on level classes? Has anyone ever taught a class in which every student had the same abilities and background on the first day of school? Why do we continue to try to place students inside these traditional boxes that we invented? Understanding the student by showing compassion to their individual needs goes a long way in winning them over and earning their trust.

After organizing these thoughts, there really is no reason to differentiate between ELL students and the rest of the school’s population (aside from the legal requirements of accommodations, of course). Every classroom, hallway, or common area has similar problems and positives that we can help solve. Many of our kids are trying to metaphorically take a sip from a fire hose in our educational system. So while some of our newer arrivals may need some different support, the basis of the support should be similar to the support given in any other classroom.

The beauty of life is that none of us truly know what we are doing until we do it on our own. We can sit in a classroom and learn theories or hear of other people’s experiences for months, and we still won’t feel comfortable without experience (college education classes come to mind). This is why it’s so easy for anyone who watches a game criticize a coaching decision or an official’s call just as I used to criticize the nontraditional techniques employed in ELL classrooms. But no matter what our “demographics” are, the most important group that all teachers should focus on is students. The Valedictorian is going to end up with the same diploma on his/her wall as the statistically last member of a graduating class, so they should all receive the best possible education while they are members of our school community.