Kristina Robertson found her professional calling while serving in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka in the early 1990s. Her stint as an English instructor there inspired her to return to school. She attended the School for International Training in Vermont and got a Master of Arts degree in teaching. After graduating, Robertson returned to her roots in Minnesota, where she spent seven years as a classroom teacher.
She recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about her current job as an ELL program specialist for the Minneapolis school district. She conducts professional development for teachers from K-12, provides professional advice and some coaching, and does a lot of advocacy for the ELL population.
What's the makeup of the ELL population in your school district?
Out of 38,000 students, there are about 10,000 ELLs. Our biggest group is Spanish-speaking. We also have large groups of Hmong and Somali students.
In fact, Minnesota has the largest Hmong population outside Asia. The Hmongs are an ethnic group from the mountains in Laos and Cambodia; they are not a specific nationality. They've been a strong community here since the 1970s when they started emigrating around the end of the Vietnam War.
The Somali community formed here over the past ten years as people emigrated to escape the civil war there. There wasn't a government, and the schools were all closed. So we ended up having students as old as ninth grade who had never held a pencil. With no school experiences, children don't have a concept of literacy. It's hard to know what a book is for if you've never seen one.
What does your district do to assimilate these very different populations?
Probably one of the things that's unique to our district is our native language literacy programs. They are located in regular schools, and the children are pulled out during language arts to work on literacy in their native language. We have Spanish, Hmong and Somali sites.
They start with instruction entirely in their first language. In third grade, we start transitioning to English instruction, and we gradually increase the English through fifth grade. Remember, all the rest of their day is taught in English. This is only for language arts.
It's based on a lot of research that says you only have to learn how to read once. Kids who learn to read in their first language will transfer those skills to English faster than if they try to learn to read and learn English at the same time.
Reading is like a puzzle when you approach it for the first time. It's easier to solve the puzzle when you approach it from common knowledge. In other words, children can learn to sound out words, but if they don't know the word it takes them longer to understand the meaning, and understanding the meaning is the whole point of reading.
For instance, say you're reading about the state fair. If a child has never been to a fair and has never seen cotton candy or a corndog, it's much harder for them to understand what they are reading than it is for a child who goes to the fair every year. For that child, the words are just describing something they already know. They have a context for the words.
What can teachers do to help provide that context?
Bring in realia, meaning physical examples. Say you're going to be doing a unit on Minnesota winters. Bring in mittens and hats, maybe a cup of ice. Let them touch the items. If the bilingual program assistant is available, let them talk about it in their language, and then help translate some of the vocabulary.
The ELL students might start by writing those words in English while the rest of the class is writing a little story about the unit. That's the differentiation, constantly thinking about where each student is and what they can do.
Do you have any evidence that this method works?
We've done some research and found that if they have reading instruction in their native language, they do better on the state third grade reading test - which is in English - than their peers who learned to read in English from the start. I'm really proud of our results.
What's the biggest challenge for teachers who have your ELL students in their classrooms for the rest of the day?
ELL students - like every other subgroup, whether it's gifted and talented, special education or whatever - are all so different. Students don't fit into boxes, but it's the nature of our system to try and fit them into certain definitions or boxes.
We've had a lot of newcomers in our school district, and most teachers have never had to deal with a high school student who has never gone to school before. They go to training and hear about how to help newcomers, but maybe they don't have any newcomers that year. They have a different issue to figure out. Teachers have to differentiate more than they ever thought they would.
Minnesota has changed a lot since most teachers were in school themselves. I think sometimes teachers feel like teaching such a diverse population is not what they signed up for. When I look at the demographics, I try to explain to people what the future will be.
What do you wish teachers knew?
Many times a teacher will assume that because a child speaks English that they are understanding more of what they are reading. This is the academic vs. playground English issue. Being bilingual is not the same as being biliterate.
Teachers tend to be very literate people. They often love to read and do a lot of it. It's harder for literate people to understand the struggles of those who don't have a literacy model.
I had a student once named Elizabeth. She was a beautiful little girl who always came to school perfectly dressed, hair neatly braided, pencils carefully sharpened. Her family obviously cared a lot about her education.
I did a home visit and couldn't believe her situation. They lived in two rooms with three kids. They had a table, some chairs, a dresser, and a puzzle glued together and put up on the wall. That was the extent of their possessions.
A teacher might send her home and say "look this up," and have no concept that she might not have a way to do that. You would never know by looking at her that her family had so little.
Do you advise all your teachers to do home visits?
Yes, I definitely encourage teachers to do home visits. It's very eye opening, like Elizabeth's story. And families are often very honored to have the teacher visit. In their culture, education is very important. Plus, the kids really look forward to it, too. It's a big deal.
Some teachers find it sort of frightening to do a visit when you don't speak their language, but a smile can communicate so much. It's also very important to let them know that they're welcome at the school. That not always part of their own culture, so the teachers need to be sure that they let parents know that.
Are there other tricks of the trade you recommend?
They can help make language explicit or teach it explicitly, even for common classroom things. For example, when students first come, show them the bathroom, tell them to raise their hands and ask before getting up from their seats, very basic things like that. It's so students feel more comfortable with the classroom and its structure. You can also collaborate with the ESL teacher or program assistant to make clear some of the language.
If it's a more advanced student and you're working on writing, for instance, and you're gong to have them offer an opinion, help them write up, using phrases like "In my opinon" or "I think." Those things might seem obvious to some, but this is actually helpful for a lot of kids.
Urban kids don't always know the most appropriate classroom etiquette and they haven't had a lot of academic exposure at home, so some of what the teacher might take for granted from other kids, these kids don't have. ESL strategies are very good for urban kids, too.
What's one of the best things about being an ESL teacher?
I had a Kurdish girl named Niaz. I used to take my high school students on field trips to a state college, a community college and a private college so they could see what they were like.
Niaz said she would go on the field trip, but she said, "I'm not going to college. I couldn't do that." When we visited the state college, we were able to sit in on a freshman class. Afterward, Niaz burst out of the classroom and skipped down the hallway.
She said, "I understood everything in that class, I could even answer those questions!" She couldn't believe it. Probably for her, college seemed unattainable, like getting a Ph.D. But she was so happy, and I realized how important it is to show them what's out there in a very real way. I felt like I opened up that opportunity for her. That felt good.