Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #1

I love working with people who are learning English as an additional language!  One of the aspects I most enjoy is learning about their cultures and countries.  Most of the ELLs I taught in public school were born in the U.S. and only a small percentage were immigrants.  But their parents had emigrated from elsewhere and the kids grew up in homes speaking their parents' and grandparents' native language and absorbing customs, traditions and belief systems that were different from my own.  I had kids from 22 different country backgrounds in my ESL classes over the years.

Flags of the countries of my students and their families: source of flags: The CIA World Factbook
I remember being in 4th grade and learning about Ecuador.  I was intrigued by the clothing and way of life of the people there, which was so unlike my own.  I also had relatives who lived and worked in Europe and Asia when I was growing up.  I'm sure those reasons played a large part in why I ultimately chose to major in anthropology in college--although my focus was on Africa--and that served me very well when I eventually became an ESL teacher.

Having an academic background and experience in cross-cultural communication and area studies enabled me to understand the issues my immigrant students faced and I was able to effectively help them adjust to living in the U.S.  It also helped that I had been a high school exchange student to Sweden and had first-hand knowledge of what it was like to learn academic subjects in a foreign language.
What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #1
1589 map of Helsingborg, the Swedish city I lived in; source: Wikimedia Commons
I always found ways for my students to share information about their home cultures and they always enjoyed telling me about the food and holidays and what was great about their countries.  I'm sure they got a kick out of knowing things their teacher didn't know.  But in addition to being genuinely curious, I had an ulterior motive: Letting students share their cultures fostered pride in who they were and gave them self-confidence.  So often, my students didn't actively participate in their other classes and didn't do all that well, grade-wise, in their other subjects; being able to teach me something and seeing that I truly wanted to learn about them helped establish productive student-teacher relationships. 

For teachers who have ELLs in their classes, I'd like to offer this tip: Find something you have in common with each student, something about their country or culture that shows the student you can relate to them.  For example, in my first year of public school teaching, I had two boys from Turkey so I made sure to tell them that I had visited their country...and loved it.  A few years later, I had a girl from Poland and I told her that one of my great-grandparents had come from there.  When I had students from Japan, I made a point of telling them that my family had hosted a Japanese student when I was in college.  I don't think it's a coincidence that I am still in touch with some of those students, many years, even, in one case, 15 years after they were in my class.
What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #1
View of rice fields in village where my Japanese exchange sister now lives; source: The ESL Nexus
If you can't find a personal connection to an ELL's culture or country, just let the student know you are interested and want to learn about her or his heritage.  I had many students who came from the Dominican Republic or whose parents did but I have never been there and I don't know Spanish.  The kids often talked about the food they ate at home and what they liked and didn't like.  They couldn't believe I didn't know what sancocho was and over the years, a couple parents cooked it for me so I would know first-hand how delicious it was. (It's a stew with meat, tubers, vegetables, and bananas.)
What's Great about Teaching ELLs: Reason #1
Sancocho; source: Wikimedia Commons
I am sure that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me!

Find out what my second and third reasons are HERE and HERE.