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How to Connect With English-Language Newcomers. Teachers Share Their Favorite Lessons (Opinion)

I’ve published numerous posts over the years in which teachers of many content areas have shared their most effective lessons.

In this series, it’s time for teachers of English/language-learner newcomers to share their best ones.

As a teacher of newcomers (I also teach other levels of ELLs, along with English-proficient students), I would say that my most effective lessons utilize the Picture Word Inductive Model instructional strategy. I give a detailed description of it here.

‘I Love Lucha Libre!’

Julia López-Robertson is a professor of teacher education at the University of South Carolina and the author of Celebrating our Cuentos: Choosing and Using Latinx literature in elementary classrooms published by Scholastic:

Building relationships with students and families is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching; we can uncover a lot about students and their communities by talking with them and listening to what they share with us. Talking provides the opportunity to get to know them and their interests: what kind of activities they enjoy, what kind of music they like, what stories pique their interest. Listening to the responses they share gives us insight into who they are and ideas on topics on which we can build curriculum.

One of the most successful lessons that I have ever taught was about a subject I knew very little: lucha libre, or as it is known in the United States, professional wrestling. I engaged the students in a read-aloud of Yuyi Morales’ book Niño Wrestles the World (2015), a story about a little boy, Niño, and his adventures. The children were mesmerized by the illustrations and Niño’s wrestling skills.

Originally, I had planned a read-aloud followed by a discussion exploring their favorite parts and connections they were making. I quickly learned that the children were captivated by lucha libre; they could not stop talking and pointing at pages of the book as I read. They had so many questions: “Why do they wear masks?” and“Do they get hurt?” and “Is it real?” One child happily shouted, “I love lucha libre! My papi knows about it!” Mostly, they just loved the book.

I read this book aloud twice the first time and then again every week until the end of the school year. The more we read it, the more it became a “reader’s theater” with students on the edge of their seats cheering for Niño and shouting out the next lines before I turned the page. Eventually, a book that I had never imagined could provide teaching inspiration and material for the remainder of the school year led us to art projects, discussions about families, student writing, and an author study. They couldn’t get enough of Niño or Yuyi Morales.

The most effective lessons I have taught to English learners, and all students for that matter, have been based on books with which students connect. The books in our classrooms and libraries should reflect our students’ lives, languages, cultures, and ways of knowing and should also invite them to worlds as yet unfamiliar. The right book invites us into students’ worlds rather than only bringing students into our worlds. Connected to their worlds, students have so much more to share, and when they find that book, or the book finds them, as was the case with my students and Niño Wrestles the World, school becomes a place where students joyfully and eagerly share their connections.

‘You Belong’

Monisha Bajaj is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Education and the co-author of the book Humanizing Education for Immigrant and Refugee Youth: 20 Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond.

Tatiana Chaterji is the restorative justice facilitator at Fremont High School in California’s Oakland Unified school district and a contributing author to The Little Book of Youth Engagement in Restorative Justice: Intergenerational Partnerships for Just and Equitable Schools.

You matter.

You belong.

You are part of this community.

The most effective lessons for newcomers begin with instilling in newcomer students and their families the core messages listed above that offer strength in facing the challenges of learning in a new language and integrating into a new society.

Nearly 1 out of 4 students in the United States is an immigrant or the child of immigrants. Yet, English-language learners have a much lower high school completion rate (68 percent) than the national average for all students (85 percent). Welcoming newcomer English-language learners and their families in ways that honor their histories and identities-—and building community-—can set the foundation for educational persistence and attainment.

Getting to Know Newcomers. When newcomer students first arrive at school, a proper intake process is essential. Educators or administrators should set aside 45-60 minutes with each student and any of their family members to ask questions about their backgrounds and goals. Newcomer alumni or other families could serve as translators, and new students/families can be paired with a current family of the same linguistic background to facilitate greater integration into the school community. An intake interview can include questions such as the following (for more sample questions, see Page 13 of this report):

  • What language do you speak?
  • With whom do you live?
  • Did you go to school in your home country?
  • Did you like going to school in your home country? What did you like best?
  • What are your interests?
  • What are your future goals?

It is important that any sensitive information about authorization status that could jeopardize the student or their family not be shared; the responses that can inform other educators or advisers working with the student should be shared in ways that honor privacy. Relationships matter, especially for newcomers. Academic instruction has greater efficacy when rooted in strong relationships and a sense of community.

Building Community. Foundational to any effective lesson is the learning community where it happens. It is critical to dedicate classroom time to build relationships among students and with the teacher or other school staff. One strategy for doing this is through community-building circles in the tradition of restorative justice. In a circle, participants take turns speaking by using a talking piece, a symbol from Indigenous peacemaking that gives a special significance to the person speaking as well as those who are listening. Through sharing stories from their personal lives and interacting through joy-filled games, students find and strengthen their connections. This creates the culture of safety, trust, and belonging that allows learning to happen.

Tips for a successful circle with newcomers:

  • Intergenerational partnership: Invite a student leader to co-design the agenda with you. The student leader may have an idea for discussion prompts or activities that will resonate with your students, and your students can feel empowered by witnessing a peer in a position of leadership.
  • Celebrating language diversity: If possible, hold the circle in the language that the students speak. For a classroom with multiple heritage languages, plan ahead to divide the class into linguistic subgroups. This requires more staffing and available classroom space, but the payoff is significant. Students understand that they are welcome for who they are, even in an English-dominant environment. If the teacher does not speak the language, they can participate as best they can (even without a translator) by managing behavior and engaging in the nonverbal activities or games.
  • Sensitivity to intercommunity dynamics and willingness to self-reflect: There may be tensions or power dynamics among students, even from the same country or culture, that you do not perceive because of your role as an outsider. Examples include differences in dialects or accents or the pervasiveness of anti-Indigenous racism.

Getting to know students and building a community where students feel seen and that they belong can lay a strong foundation for academic learning and engagement.

Exploring College and Careers

Stacey Diaz is entering her 9th year as a school counselor and currently works at the Cabarrus Early College of Technology in Concord, N.C. She formerly served as the district ESL program counselor:

As the district ESL program counselor, I supported over 600 middle and high school multilingual learners in Cabarrus County. I provided academic, career, personal, and social-development support by meeting with students individually, in small groups, or a classroom setting. The classroom setting allowed me to support many students at a time.

The most compelling lesson that comes to mind was an 8th grade lesson, presented over two class periods, called College and Career 101. It helped students explore their college and career options. It was presented before students registered for their high school courses.

When working with multilingual learners at the high school, I realized most did not know how the classes they selected in high school impacted their college/future options. They were also less likely to know about advanced-course offerings, early colleges, and programs that allowed them to earn college credit while in high school. It was too late when they learned about their options in high school. Multilingual learners are traditionally underrepresented in advanced classes and programs for various reasons.

For the lesson, students completed a career-interest inventory available in English and Spanish (100 percent of the students in this class were Spanish speakers). They practiced exploring careers via the Occupational Outlook Handbook, selected a job they were most interested in, and then completed a one-page resource they shared with their classmates. They learned the difference between regular, honors, and Advanced-Placement classes and how to determine the classes they should take based on their future goals. Students also learned how to advocate for themselves and request a higher-level class when meeting with their counselor for registration.

For the second part of the lesson, students explored the CFNC.org website, the College Foundation of North Carolina site that provides resources for students on planning for, paying for, and applying to college. The culmination of this lesson was a visit to a local university.

Our ESL/Title III program coordinator planned for us to use funds to take all of our 8th grade multilingual learners from eight middle schools to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. We had support from the dean’s office, which provided lunch for our students and set up a university tour that connected them with current multilingual college students. Our students needed to connect with students who looked like them on a college campus. Representation matters.

I also shared this information with parents so the conversations would continue at home and parents knew the options available to their children. School counselors often did not mention advanced-level courses to multilingual learners because they felt the classes would be too difficult. I worked closely with our ESL/Title III coordinator to help school counselors understand the language-acquisition process to advise their students better. Even if students are multilingual, they can still succeed in advanced-level courses. We did see an increase in multilingual students taking advanced-level courses over the years.

When I see some of my former students who had this lesson and attended the trip, they still remember it and tell me it was one of their favorite middle school moments. Students who did not see themselves attending college were now excited about the possibility.

Thanks to Julia, Monisha, Tatiana, and Stacey for contributing their thoughts.

The question of the week is:

What are the most effective lessons you have taught to English-language-learner newcomers?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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