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From the Heart

Teaching ELLs How to Succeed

Felix A. Herrera
Arlington, Virginia

Felix A. Herrera is an ESOL teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he is a native of El Salvador. Mr. Herrera holds a master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University, and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Reserves. The pull of the classroom, however, has kept him coming back to teach. In this exclusive interview with Colorín Colorado, Mr. Herrera offers some of his insights about the problems that ELL students face, as well as the steps that ELL teachers can take to support them.

Editor's Note: In May 2008, Mr. Herrera was named Northern Virginia's Teacher of the Year.

What brought you to Northern Virginia to teach an ESOL class?

I have actually worked with the Arlington County School District for 16 years. During that period I was deployed a couple of times, but I have always returned to this school district — the same district where I attended school after coming to this country from El Salvador when I was 16. I worked as a teacher's assistant, and at that point I decided that I didn't want to be a classroom teacher. I thought about getting a law degree or becoming a school administrator. But when I returned from Basic Training in 2001, I received a grant to get a teaching degree, and I changed my mind.

Since becoming a full-time teacher, I have had the opportunity to take other jobs in the international development sector, but I've turned them down to keep teaching.

What has kept you coming back to the classroom?

After 15 years, I have finally found my calling. I never thought that I would want to work at the high school level, but I love it. The kids are dealing with "real life" issues, and I enjoy helping them as much as it's possible to. I always want to be able to do more, but even if I help one student each year, it's worthwhile.

And the funny thing is that this wasn't my philosophy previously. I wanted to work in places where I could help the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time, but my ideas have changed. Each positive step that one of my students takes is its own reward for me, and so you keep trying to do what you can.

You came to this country from El Salvador as a young adult. How does your background shape your interaction with your students who may be in a similar situation?

Well, I do understand what a lot of my students are going through, and it helps me to connect with them. Many of my students appreciate that I've been in their shoes, and they see me as a resource. Some, however, are critical of me. They say that I have lost touch with my Salvadoran identity since I am a U.S. citizen.

I see myself though as a cultural broker. I take my responsibility to help these students adjust to life in the U.S. very seriously, and many of them appreciate that investment in their success.

Do you find yourself using strategies that some of your teachers used when you came to this country?

I do. I had a geometry teacher in high school that did two important things for me: she was frank with me and she had high expectations of me. I was failing geometry one quarter, and she told me that I wasn't failing because of any disadvantage or because I didn't know English — I wasn't working as hard as I could have. That teacher was absolutely right. I began to work harder in geometry and did very well in the class the rest of the year.

That's not to say that ELLs don't need specific kinds of support — they do in a variety of ways, and in many cases they aren't getting it. But we can't let them become afraid of failure, or get them in a pattern of waiting for someone to help them. While the "sink or swim" attitude doesn't work if you walk away, it can work if you stay nearby, keeping an eye on the student and offering assistance when necessary.

Did you have any teachers who helped you adapt to life in the United States?

Absolutely. Some of the most important things that my teachers did for me were the efforts they made to help me absorb American culture. Those teachers made me a part of of their family, and by letting me into their families, they helped me see a different culture than the one I had seen when I first arrived. I learned to appreciate holidays, smells, and other minor details that are characteristically American, which you don’t necessarily notice or understand when you first come to this country.

I make an effort to help my students learn what the "unspoken rules" are here. In previous years I've tried to do so through field trips to museums or after-school activities like chess club. Students can ask me questions that will help them learn their way around, and that help them to better adjust to their new home.

Where are most of your students from?

The majority are from Latin America, but I have also taught students in the ESOL program from Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Iraq.

What are the biggest problems that your ELL students are facing?

At the high school level, you have a wide range of problems. For some of my students, one of the biggest concerns is their immigration status. Others are already worried about earning a living and supporting themselves. I tell my students that their job is to worry about their grades so that they will have good opportunities in the future. But many are so worried about their green cards and about getting jobs, and these are a huge pressures for them.

Students are often exposed to gang activity as well. I try to keep tabs on my students, especially my male students, and if I learn that a student is drifting towards gang activity, I take the student aside to talk with him about the problem.

Another issue I see is that students may come from a very limited academic background. They may or may not have attended schools in their home countries, and we expect them to manage complicated systems of testing, course credits, computer passwords, and graduation requirements when even the simple act of logging onto a computer network or using a combination lock becomes a major task for them.

For example, I have high school students who read at a third- or fourth-grade level. Our country's school system is not set up to help these students succeed. We are so concerned about what they need to graduate, but we don't address the fact that they can't really read. Things are especially difficult for students who are undocumented — they are the most likely to get lost in the system.

What advice do you give to your students?

I encourage them to do two things: to become independent learners by taking initiative, and to take the long view of education. I want my students to see the forest through the trees and to become life-long learners, and to realize that they can become life-long learners if they want to. Whether they go to night school, community college, a university, or an enrichment class, I want them to know that education doesn't end at high school.

If they are at home one night and have a question about something, I want them to take the initiative to try to figure it out. I want them to want to learn.

Wakefield High School has been successful in closing achievement gaps recently, and was named one of the country's three most improved high schools by the College Board last year — why?

It's very simple — the thing that we do so well at my school is to meet the kids where they are. We figure out where they're at, and we start from that point. Our profile is part of what makes our success so important — more than half of our student body qualifies for federally subsidized lunches, but many of our test scores have gone up significantly in the last few years.

One specific thing that we are doing in our ESL department is that we have created something called an accelerated literacy block. Students whose reading skills are below par forego their elective to have intensive literacy instruction. It's an important step in helping them become self sufficient.

Many mainstream teachers are reporting that ELL students are getting to their classroom without adequate English skills, and that this also adversely affects test scores. Do you agree?

It's interesting that many schools are blaming their ELL population for lowering their test scores and they feel that ELLs are moved up too soon. In our case, our students experienced a significant jump in their test scores last year — including ELLs. What I think is happening is that while a student may be linguistically ready to move up to a mainstream classroom, he still may not know how to be a successful student in an American classroom. There still may be some cultural and conceptual issues that the student hasn't learned yet, and I think teachers may get more positive results by taking those issues into account and addressing them.

One of the most effective programs being promoted in our school district is the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) model for mainstream teachers. The anecdotal evidence suggests positive results with the program, and the students' performance in mainstream subjects has improved a lot using this program. In fact, we're even seeing a difference within the school in the classes of teachers who have gone through the training and those who haven't. It's making a tremendous difference.

Teachers have to find the way, and we need to ask ourselves: Can we teach all of our students, and not just the ones who come to school prepared to learn?

What advice would you give to other ELL teachers?

First, I would encourage teachers to get to know their students' communities and neighborhoods in order to better understand where their students are coming from. For instance, at the beginning of the school year, another teacher and I got on the school bus and rode with some of our students to their neighborhoods. We visited with parents and invited them to our "Back to School" night.

When you see the conditions in which many of our ELL students live, you understand why it is so difficult for your student to get her homework done at night.

I also think we need to be careful of being too protective of students, and we need to help them find ways that they can challenge themselves. For example, I have had some very outgoing ESOL students in my science class; when the mainstream classes did science activities, I sent them to the mainstream classes to observe the activities. I want them to grow. I want them to get a feel for what it is like to be in a mainstream classroom.

And I encourage ELL teachers to visit their students in other classrooms, such as in P.E. or in the art room. It is a way of showing them that your support goes beyond your classroom.

How can ELL teachers get parents more involved in the classroom?

Reaching out to parents is very important. It's true that some parents may have different cultural expectations about education, and come with the assumption that their place is not in the schools. They may believe that the teachers are the ones who are responsible for the academic achievement of their children. And I sometimes have to be careful to make sure that parents don't interpret my suggestions for increased involvement as the suggestion to punish their children more harshly at home.

What our district has done is to offer PESA workshops to parents with information that will help them understand the roles of the teacher and parent in the U.S. school system. These have made a big difference in a very positive way.

What has surprised you as an ESOL teacher?

To be honest, I was surprised that I would enjoy working with high school students as much as I do. I thought that the discipline issues would be a turn-off. Instead, I now see them as an opportunity to help a kid stay out of trouble down the line, and the students see me as a credible adult. Maybe it's my military background, but we take each other seriously. And these kids are just like kids everywhere — they want to be taken seriously, and they want to be treated with dignity and respect.

Is there a particular student's success story or struggle that you want to highlight?

Last year, I had two very difficult students in a class that was determined to cause trouble. Three long-term substitutes had given up on the class the previous year. There were two students who were particularly difficult and troubled, and so I tried to help them get on the right track. I started with very small steps focused on teaching them appropriate behavior in the classroom, such as teaching them how to control their laughter during class.

I was out of school for a week, and when I returned they had both been suspended. At that point, one of them decided that he wanted to start making some changes. Finally, in January, he was allowed to come back to school.

We continued with our baby steps — creating a good reputation for himself, controlling his behavior, taking responsibility for his schoolwork, etc. By March, this student had become one of the strongest readers in the class, and his peers voted him student of the week for six weeks in a row.

At the end of the school year, I encouraged him to go into summer school so that he could enter a mainstream class this fall. I'm happy to tell you that he passed summer school and now is taking two mainstream classes. He is struggling with the workload and he still has a long way to go, but he has tasted success. He now knows what he is capable of — something he had to experience himself.

I asked him one day about his friend and whether he would come back; my student said, "He'd like to, but he's not ready." It made me sad to know that his friend wasn't ready to get back on track just yet, but I was so proud that this student had matured enough to be able to see that.

Do you have any special activities that your students really enjoy?

Anything that is hands-on, especially in the science classes. They love to be actively learning.

And do you have any favorite activities?

Not really — I get my energy from the students rather than one particular activity. I simply live for that moment when the eyes open really wide and it clicks. The student finally gets it. You never know when that moment is coming, and sometimes it comes in something that is totally spontaneous instead of something you spent hours planning. I call those "learning moments," and they keep me coming back every day.

Do you have any future plans for your ESOL class?

I hope to create a reading partnership with a local Spanish-immersion elementary school. My idea is that my Spanish-speaking students can read with the elementary students to reinforce the Spanish they are learning in their school. I think it would be a great way for my students to give something back to their community while they practice their reading skills.

In honor of Veteran's Day this month, is there anything you can think of that schools can do to support veterans in their community?

I would actually encourage teachers and administrators to reach out to the children of parents who are deployed. They are often forgotten and go through a really difficult time. I have thought of setting up some lunch-time discussions with some of the students in our schools whose parents are in the military. Their parents are going through a rough time too, but it's important that the adults look out for those kids.

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