Monday, October 29, 2018

What Do ELLs Think About Their ESL Program? (Part 3)

Have you ever wondered what English Language Learners think about being in an ESL program?  I thought it would be interesting and illuminating to find out so I invited a few of my former students to describe their experiences.  Here is the third and last interview.  You can read the first interview here and the second one here.

Learn what former English Language Learners think about their ESL program in this series of guest blog posts. Read what a Polish student has to say in her post | The ESL Nexus
Part 3 in a series; source: The ESL Nexus
Kasha is a Polish girl who emigrated to the U.S. with her mother in 5th grade.  When she arrived after the school year had already begun, Kasha didn't speak any English.  I worked with her one-on-one for one period every day and she had a tutor who spoke Polish to help her in her other classes.  Kasha also came to my 5th grade ESL Language Arts class and my 6th and 7the grade ESL Social Studies classes.  At the end of 7th grade, Kasha exited the ESL program, after scoring Proficient on the state-wide Massachusetts exam for Language Arts and doing very well in all her regular ed classes.

Throughout Kasha's high school and college years, we kept in touch.  She is now married, has a young daughter, and is currently an office manager for an optometrist.  Below, she reflects on her time as an ESL student in an American school.  Her responses have been lightly edited.

Learn what a former English Language Learner thinks about her ESL program in this guest blog post that is the third in a series | The ESL Nexus
Kasha and her family in Massachusetts; source: Kasha
* What grade were you in when you first started receiving ESL support? 
My 12 year old heart was broken when I learned that I would not be attending a Polish school when we moved to the U.S. in 2002. I realized quickly that my exciting move was about to become difficult since I had zero friends and my means of making any were limited. Even though the kids in my class were excited for the new kid, I felt trapped not being able to communicate with any of them. Initially, I didn’t even realize that I was spending a lot of time out of my regular classroom. I wasn’t fully aware how school was structured so I imagined other kids were also spending one-on-one time with a teacher at some point during school hours.

* How did you feel about being in the ESL program?
As I learned more and observed the other kids, I realized that I was taken out for most of my subjects other than science and math. I liked math, even though I wasn’t very good at it back home; here, it was the only thing that made sense and so I focused on that. My other subjects were confusing and challenging. I remember spending a lot of time not only learning new words but learning how to pronounce them, also I remember learning about US history and Native Americans. This was the hardest part as I had to use words I had learned hours earlier, process them, and attempt to make sense of the entire picture.

* How did being in the ESL program help you?
Despite having to concentrate and put all my effort into school, my ESL classes became easier as I learned and understood more. It wasn’t long until I couldn’t wait to leave my regular classroom where I felt different and left out. My ESL teacher and classmates never made me feel wrong and encouraged me to raise my hand. Even if the answer was wrong, I felt safe trying whereas I felt scared and ashamed of speaking out in my regular classes. Within a few months, I understood a whole lot more than I could speak and being in my regular classroom was frustrating because I wanted to be involved and I knew what was going on but I could not express it. While in my ESL classes, I found a way to communicate with teachers and other students and this enabled me to learn more and enjoy being in school for the first time in months.

* What was different about your ESL classes from your other classes?
I had many friends back home and the language barrier along with feeling inadequate with my speaking skills made this already difficult transition a lot harder. It was those hours I spent in ESL classes that gave me the confidence and allowed me to grow academically and emotionally.

* What should teachers and school staff know about ESL students?
One thing I wish the staff and my non-ESL teachers had known was how motivated I was to do well in their classes, too. I felt my blank stares and holding back from speaking aloud in front of everyone came off as a lack of effort when it was actually a fear of being wrong or different. I already felt out of place and behind my peers so I held back because of anxiety and fear, not because of a lack of interest.

* What is one piece of advice you have for teachers who have ESL students in their classes?
I would encourage teachers who have ESL students in their classroom to get to know them better by making a point to work with them one-on-one. This will instill trust and enable the student to open up in their mainstream classroom. ESL students process many things on their own as a lot of their time is interpreting behavior as they see it.  So it is important for teachers who have ESL students in their classroom to let those students know that they care about them and their success.

Learn what a former English Language Learner thinks about her ESL program in this guest blog post; Part 3 in a series | The ESL Nexus
Polish & American flags; source: The ESL Nexus
Thank you so much, Kasha, for sharing your experience and for your useful suggestions on working with English Language Learners. Best wishes in your career and married life!

You can read more about Kasha’s thoughts on learning English in middle school in the book TESOL Voices: Secondary Education.  Kasha was one of the students who helped me write Chapter 2, which is about teaching content-based ESL.  You can find out more about the book here.

I hope these first-person accounts of life as an English Language Learner have been helpful.  If you'd like more information about teaching ELLs, please follow me on Pinterest.  I have lots of boards that provide resources and info on all sorts of issues about working with ELLs.