Drawing Inspiration from Her "Heroes and Sheroes"

Inès Millin Mevs is an ELL teacher at Boca Raton Community High School in Florida. She has published an ELL student writing workbook entitled Think Write Book: A Sentence Combining Workbook for ELL Students, published by AuthorHouse, which offers language development exercises designed to improve ELLs' writing skills. The student edition is accompanied by a teacher edition, which features information about the research base supporting each of the teaching strategies. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Ms. Mevs discusses the book, her motivation for writing it, and the many ways in which her students — her "heroes and sheroes" — inspire her each day.

What kind of ELL program does your school have?

We have an ESOL program with at least 150 kids, and some of those kids are in the mainstream program and are transitioning out. We use sheltered instruction so that students can transition into the appropriate level as they move forward.

What languages do your ELLs speak?

We have three major language groups in our ESOL program: Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese. We also have kids from other countries, including Turkey, Poland, France, the Philippines, and Israel.

I think it's a lot of fun to have such a diverse class, and it allows me to acquire a deeper understanding of the cultures represented in the class, especially when a student is from a country whose language I don't speak. I am certain that I learn a lot more from my students than they learn from me, and they always make me appreciate our history of diversity and immigration in this country — it's a constant reminder that our country is shaped by all of the people who took the risk to come here.

How do your students respond to the experience of learning about other cultures?

When my students learn about their peers' cultures, they certainly enjoy everything they learn, but they also develop a stronger appreciation of their own culture — it's a validation of their own experiences. We spend a lot of time talking about holidays, and comparing and contrasting different languages and cultures.

I also make sure that we can all pronounce each other's name correctly — it's the first step in making sure students feel respected.

What is your background?

I've got a little bit of everything! I was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and I am of Puerto Rican descent. My great grandfather's grandfather came to St. Thomas through Denmark, and my grandmother's father came from Scotland — my ancestors also include Africans, and others who came to Puerto Rico through Spain and the Canary Islands.

In terms of language, I have studied French and Spanish, and I speak conversational Creole and Portuguese — so my background is another connection to the diversity my students!

What classes are you currently teaching?

I teach three different courses. The first is called Developmental Language Arts, which is an elective for ELL students who still need to strengthen English, as well as for those who are brand new to U.S. schools. I teach different sections, including one that is all newcomers. There are a number of levels represented in the class — some students who are literate in their first language and have had formal schooling, and others who are have had very little formal schooling. I would say that there are about 12 levels of students in a single section when you look at the different skill areas.

The second class I teach is an American literature English course. The third is a British literature course for seniors. I teach the ELL sections of those courses.

Are there books or stories that your students particularly enjoy?

Over the past several years, I am glad to say that my newcomer ELL students have really enjoyed Charlotte's Web, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Princess Bride, and Around the World in 80 Days. My intermediate and advanced students, many of whom are juniors and seniors, have also enjoyed Animal Farm, And Then There Were None, The Great Gatsby, Murder on the Orient Express, and Beowulf.

Is poetry included in the curriculum?

Yes. It can be quite difficult for some of my students, but we recently completed a mini-unit tied to the celebration of Valentine's Day in February. I was wonderfully surprised by my seniors, who showed and voiced a deep appreciation for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 43 ("How Do I Love Thee"). The discussions, oral language, and written pieces resulting from this beautiful poem all brought home to me some of the biggest reasons why I love to teach ELL students. Through this poem, I experienced such an epiphany about what it means to have a "community of spirit" in my classroom, and that no matter where any of my students are on their language acquisition and academic journey, they "get it"!

Tell us about your motivation for writing your new book.

This is something I've had in my head for quite a long time. I've been teaching for almost 36 years, and working with ELL students for 25 years — maybe longer, since students who were learning English didn't used to be identified as "ELLs" when I first started teaching. Over the years, I realized that I really loved to create material. I don't believe that any one textbook has everything that's necessary — I see textbooks as springboards, and so I've been collecting notes and creating my own materials for a very long time.

In addition, my interest has always been to make sure that my students write better by the time they leave my classroom than they did when they started, and so my goal was to not only give my students the tools they need to make that happen, but to give other teachers those tools too.

I also wanted my students to become more practiced in writing and editing, and in listening to each other's opinions. My ultimate objective is to make my students authors — to communicate ideas in writing, and to understand other ideas in writing. And I want my students to be able to read for understanding — to be able to read a contract, or read between the lines of a newspaper article and then write a letter to the editor.

Has the recent emphasis on writing in assessment been part of your interest in writing the book?

Yes. As students were taking more standardized tests, it got me thinking about the kinds of things I've been creating. I try to stay away from "drill and kill" grammar — while students do need direct instruction of grammar, they also need to be engaged, and participate in speaking activities. I decided that sentence combining exercises would be an effective framework for improving writing skills.

What is sentence combining?

Students are presented with short sentences, and they must then put all of the ideas together in a complex sentence. To be able to do that successfully, they really have to know a lot of the different writing conventions, and so it's an effective exercise to increase writing fluency.

Of course sentence combining is not the only approach to teaching writing, and shouldn't be the only way — the goal is for these exercises to engage the students, and to be a part of the whole process of combining several different approaches. We need to encourage students to think about what they read, to engage in meaningful conversation — especially for high school students.

How does the book address assessment benchmarks in reading and writing?

The book addresses the benchmarks by offering targeted practices of the skill conventions attached to reading and writing assessments. It also includes other reading benchmarks as well — for example, on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test 10th grade reading exam, students not only have to complete multiple choice, they have to write short and extended responses to reading passages, so I try to address each of those different skills. The writing elements include planning and writing essays, conventions of writing, and the specific mechanics such as punctuation and capitalization.

The book addresses the benchmarks by offering targeted practices of the skill conventions attached to reading and writing assessments. It also includes other reading benchmarks as well — for example, on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test 10th grade reading exam, students not only have to complete multiple choice, they have to write short and extended responses to reading passages, so I try to address each of those different skills. The writing elements include planning and writing essays, conventions of writing, and the specific mechanics such as punctuation and capitalization.

Did you have trouble narrowing the focus of the book?

Yes! There was so much that I had to make a lot of decisions about what to include in the book. But the good news is that this is just the beginning — I think I may be able to produce a series, and I have enough material for four more books. I'm actually starting to work on a second book about using targeted visual stimulation when teaching literature.

Do you think your book has potential as a professional development tool?

I hope so. I would like to do a teacher training, and to see districts adopt the book as research material.

What role do you see academic language playing in writing instruction?

I often find that while my ELLs' social English is on par, their academic language lags behind. Even when students can understand a conversation, that doesn't always translate to academic success. Even students who test well have to master their writing and academic language skills — not just to be accepted into colleges, but to survive that rough first semester. Otherwise the possibility — the probability — of falling behind goes up. The risk of student failure in the freshman year of college is double for ELL kids.

What are some strategies that you use to engage your students?

I try to embed direct instruction about grammatical features into other areas, and also encourage students to think about the ways that English relates to their language. Is this something they can do in their language?

I also try to help them take that step of realizing that if they think something, and can verbalize it, then they can reproduce it in their writing. Then we discuss editing — the idea that putting an idea on paper the first time doesn't mean it's finished. Once they grab hold of the idea of editing, they like the idea of revising and perfecting their writing so that a reader can understand it clearly.

For me, it is the best moment when the light bulb goes off! From there we focus on making them feel like real authors.

We often use pieces written by authors or professionals that have been adapted as models, so that they are learning that they too can be authors — our job is to guide authors in the classroom. I would love to see my kids published as authors — I know that many of them really have enough talent to make that happen, and I want to wake that up in my kids.

What are some of the challenges that you face in the classroom?

As teachers we are faced with a serious dilemma: Do we put one thing to the side to play the numbers game, to get kids graduated, and to keep them moving along the continuum? Or do we slow down, address their needs, and risk that they will fall behind on that continuum? It's an issue that is so hard to live with. The push for assessment doesn't address individual student needs.

Another issue is time. You only have so much of it — many of my kids come early for tutoring, but even that doesn't give us enough time to get it all in. At the high school level, we are forcing our ELLs to get ten years' worth of education in less than three years, or even less than one.

When high school seniors arrive from their country, the first thing they have to do is sit down and take FCAT. We are not looking realistically at what the research has shown us about how long it takes to develop all elements of language.

Do you think the public understands the challenges that ELLs face?

I have to admit that if our kids from the U.S. were sent to China and were expected to learn Chinese and complete all of their high school graduation requirements in three years, I have a feeling that we would find those expectations unreasonable.

I believe that the public needs to refocus on the richness that our new ELLs offer us — if not, stereotypes take over. My students want to learn English — they know that they have to learn English to survive here on some level — and they know that it opens up doors.

Do your students have the same reasons for wanting to learn English?

There seem to be two kinds of motivation for learning English in both the kids and adults I meet. One is that of acculturation, wanting to participate more fully in our society through the language. The other is instrumental — to realize their dreams, and to make a home in the U.S., it takes a lot more than just a willingness to make the investment — and my students usually get to the point where they see that.

What kinds of activities do your students enjoy the most?

They really like the activities in which they can use language socially, such as writers' workshop or reader response. They like the aspect that they get to look at each other's writing in a safe place.

We've done so much more when we're reading books too — we're talking about ideas and tapping into more — the students are participating more and bringing current events into the discussion. Some of them get more interested in social studies-based activities, while some really like the science-based activities.

Tell us about some of your students.

One young lady came to me from South America, hardly speaking English. She was so intelligent and curious, and so willing to do whatever it took to be successful academically and to learn. She also had a wonderful sense of humor.

She was in my 11th grade English class, and when it came time to work on personal narrative, she was one of about 15 students (out of 25) that really embraced the assignment. We were studying Amy Tan, and her writings about becoming Americanized and learning English; the writing that this group produced was so moving, and this particular student wrote about the oppression her family had faced under the government of the country that her family had fled, dropping everything and coming to this country.

Writing gives these students a voice, and they produce amazing work, just by telling their own stories. For them to trust me enough to write these stories down, and to tell me about these experiences, is not only humbling for me, but I hope empowering for them. And that connection allows me to get to know them better, and then differentiate their instruction more effectively too.

Where do you find your own inspiration?

From my students. My kids are my heroes and sheroes. I tell them that they are the most courageous learners, partly because often they didn't want to come here. Their parents or the grown-ups in their family made the decision. Now, here they are, learning a new language and trying so hard to make it all work with everything we are throwing at them.

And the amazing thing is that no matter how hard it is — no matter how many tests they fail, they keep coming back day after day. They show me each day what courage is all about. And in spite of all of these challenges, they still make a decision that they are going to define who they are, as opposed to letting someone else define them.

This is not just a job — this is my vocation. I live in Miami and travel an hour each way to Boca Raton every day because this school is the school I want to be in. I have the future inside the four walls of my classroom, and I feel that my work is love made visible.

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