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When Teaching English Learners, Embrace These 3 Critical Mindsets (Opinion)

I’ve previously posted about the most important instructional strategies to use when teaching English-language learners.

Today, I’d like to share my ideas for the most important mindsets for ELL teachers to remember:

Be asset-based and not deficit-based

Our students bring many assets to the classroom, not least of which are that, because of their life experiences, research has found they tend to be more creative and self-reliant than those who are not ELLs. Their diverse experiences can provide exceptional opportunities for learning.

In classes, some ways that I have tried to build on ELL student assets include:

· When teaching themes and related vocabulary, have students describe seasons in their home countries (when teaching weather); have them talk about folktales and fables from their home cultures (when learning to write stories); and have them share popular games from their childhood that we can then adapt for English learning.

· After reading a world history textbook suggesting that feudalism ended in the world hundreds of years ago and listing its practices—including that law enforcement sided with the wealthy and that poor people didn’t own land and only worked for the “lords”— students surveyed their families and friends about practices in their home country. They then wrote, and sent, a letter to the textbook publishers detailing their own experiences and saying that the book was inaccurate.

· In a unit on California missions, our class had a discussion about how they would respond if they were Native Americans forced into slavery by the Spanish. At first, many who had not experienced direct violence said they would violently revolt. Then, after hearing from their classmates who had experienced violent trauma and the deaths of family members who had fought oppression and who had universally said they would try to find ways to run away, everyone in the class decided they would choose that option. Later, they would try to conceive and organize a way to free everyone. This kind of critical dialogue is unlikely to happen without ELLs in class.

· In a U.S. history class, have students compare/contrast lessons connecting both independence revolutions and civil wars in their home countries with those here in the United States.

Be trauma-informed

Many of our ELL students have had traumatic experiences in their home countries and little or no voice in the decision to come here to the United States. Acknowledging that trauma and sense of powerlessness is critical in helping our students progress in the language-acquisition process.

In my own classes, this kind of trauma-informed instruction has included supporting the development of a Latina support group, working with our counseling staff to ensure that bilingual support is available to ELLs, and just being present and relational with students. I try to recognize that their “in the moment” reactions in class are not necessarily based on what is happening then but what they have and are experiencing outside of school. I also troubleshoot with other ELL teachers and provide support and advice on how to support students.

Another specific example of trauma-informed teaching is when I was considering having our class read a modified version of an article about gang violence in Central America. I first met with students and asked them how they would feel about doing a lesson on the topic. During that discussion, several showed me many photos of their friends who had been murdered. There was unanimous agreement that we should do the lesson and that there should also be another classroom available for individuals to go to if it began bringing up too many emotions. It turned out to be a very successful lesson, and one student did, indeed, opt out in the middle of it and go to another classroom (he, too, though, was glad we did the activity).

Recognize that ELLs are as capable and smart as any other students—they just don’t know English yet

It’s not unusual for many Americans, including some teachers, to mistake lack of fluency in English for lack of intellectual ability. There’s much irony in that, considering many ELLs speak multiple languages—more than most Americans. It’s just that English isn’t one of them—yet.

I try to respect my ELL students’ intellectual abilities by making inductive learning, which promotes the higher-order thinking skills of categorization and learning transfer, a key part of my instruction. I work hard at making age-appropriate reading resources accessible to them. We also regularly do long- and short-term goal activities that connect what we are doing in class and what more they could be doing to realize their hopes and dreams.

Being asset-based, trauma-informed, and recognizing the intellectual potential of our ELL students are critical mindsets for teachers to remember.

These three are not the only important mindsets for ELL teachers to have, but I think it’s pretty darn hard to make a classroom work without them.

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.

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