Creating a Community of Learners

Larry FerlazzoLarry Ferlazzo teaches English language learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, CA. He also writes regularly about ideas for the ELL classroom in his blog, Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Larry discusses the way he uses technology in his classroom, how he finds new resources for his blog, and how he has helped to create a "community of learners" at his school.

Tell us about your students and what you teach.

I teach "mainstream" English classes to advanced English Language Learners & native-English speakers; ESL (in California, we call it English Language Development) to Beginning and Intermediate ELLs; Social Studies to Intermediate ELLs; and International Baccalaureate classes to "mainstream" students.

Our school, Luther Burbank, is the largest inner-city high school in Sacramento, and over half of our students are English Language Learners. The school is about 1/3 Latino, 1/3 African-American, and 1/3 Asian (mostly Hmong).

Many of our Hmong students arrived four years when 2,000 refugees arrived in Sacramento from Thailand, and most of those who were high school age came to our school. It was an opportunity of a lifetime — how often is a high school teacher going to have a class of students who have never attended a school before?

What are some of the steps you took to help those students adjust to being in school for the first time?

Two of the key actions I took relate to some of the most important lessons I learned in my community organizing career — the importance of building relationships and, through those conversations, learning people's stories. By doing that with my students, including making home visits with an interpreter (I can speak Spanish but Hmong is beyond me — at least for now!), I was able to build trust and gain a sense of my students' prior knowledge. They might not have had prior school experience, but they certainly had a lot of prior life experience. I was then able to craft many English lessons around those experiences — ranging from planting a school garden to creating Hmong Story Cloths.

Your school came out of Program Improvement status after 4 years. To what do you attribute that progress?

Our principal and I wrote an article that was published in "Language Magazine" last year titled The Positive Impact of English Language Learners At An Urban School. I'd like to answer this question with an excerpt from that article:

There were many causes for this turn-around, including dividing our school into Small Learning Communities with about 300 students each who stayed together, and with the same group of teachers, for their four-year high school career.

It's also important to highlight what we did not do — we didn't "teach to the test." Instead, we specifically focused on developing life-long learners recognizing that while there might be short-term pain in terms of test scores, there would ultimately be long-term gain for students and the school.

We believe that having large numbers of English Language Learners did not inhibit our escaping NCLB sanctions. On the contrary, we believe that having to address the needs of our large number of English Language Learners had a very positive impact on instruction for all of our students. Looking at ELLs through this asset lens is very different from the deficit lens through which they are usually perceived.

All of our teachers have had to learn how to effectively teach English Language Learners simply because all of our classes have significant numbers of ELLs in them. Graphic organizers, visual supports, cooperative learning, modeling, and accessing prior knowledge are just a few of the instructional strategies that are used school-wide.

Of course, all of these teaching methods are effective with any type of struggling student, whether they are struggling because of language or because of some other challenge.

Our large number of English Language Learners pushed our school and faculty to invest in professional development so that our teachers would learn and refine these skills. Time and resources have been made for extensive in-service training and peer-to-peer support, including observations and weekly "study teams" where groups of teachers meet to enhance their professional practice.

How do you define the idea of a "community of learners"?

At the beginning of each school, I lead students in a discussion of the kind of learning environment they want to have during the year — "a class of students" or a "community of learners." A "community of learners" highlights the qualities that research has shown are key to being a good language learner (and a good learner in general), including being willing to take risks and being supportive of others doing the same, having an interest in teaching others, and developing intrinsic motivation. We'll contrast that with playing it safe, laughing at people who make mistakes, the teacher being the source of all knowledge, and people just doing work to earn points.

Students decide which kind of environment they want, and we'll often refer back to it during the school year.

You've written about the Slavic community. From what you have observed, have the Slavic students' experiences been similar to those of other immigrant communities in Sacramento?

We have a smaller number of Slavic immigrants at our school. Younger people entering a new culture, with a new language — and not having had a role in the decision to do so— face many of the same challenges no matter where they come from. However, many of our Slavic students have generally been attending school regularly prior to entering Burbank. That is often not the case with our other immigrant students. That school background, I think, makes it an easier transition for them.

Is there a particular student whose success/experience you would like to highlight?

Half of my original class of pre-literate Hmong newcomers, who started going to school for the first time in their lives four years ago, have graduated from high school, which meant passing both the English and Math portion of the California High School Exit Exam!

In terms of technology, what opportunities and challenges does the Internet in the classroom present to teachers?

The Internet offers great opportunities to teachers and students of ELLs. Our school is committed to the idea that one of the best ways to help students — ELL or not — is by having them read high interest materials. The thousands of fiction and non-fiction materials available on the Internet that offer audio and image support for text vastly increases the amount of high-interest accessible reading material for ELLs.

Our providing home computers and Internet access for families to improve their English also greatly increases the amount of time students have access to English, especially in tightly-woven immigrant communities.

What do you see as the role of technology in the ELL classroom?

Technology has its place, but also has to be kept in its place. It's a supplemental asset, not a magic bullet, that needs to be used strategically. It's great to enhance reading instruction, for writing for authentic audiences all over the world (and not just the teacher), and for providing a way for students to learn from mistakes they make through self-correcting exercises that only they — and not the whole world — sees.

However, nothing beats face-to-face interaction, nuanced instruction, and personal encouragement.

What inspired you to start your blog?

I am not entirely convinced technology is critical for most students' academic achievement. However, I am convinced from my own experience (and from data I and others have generated) that it can play a big role in assisting English Language Learners. Because of that, our school has put a high priority on using technology with ELLs, including setting-up a website designed for student self-access that has 9,000 categorized links that are accessible to ELLs; having an after-school ESL Computer Lab, and providing computers and home Internet access for a family literacy project.

With all the work involved in these projects, I just thought that others could benefit, too, and that a blog would be a good vehicle to share the resources that we're using.

How do you manage and choose the resources you post on your blog?

In order for me to write a post in my blog, it has to meet these criteria:

  • If I'm writing about a particular technology resource, it has to be accessible to ELLs and non-tech savvy teachers.
  • The resource also has to be useful to my own teaching. If I'm not going to use it with my classes, I'm certainly not going to spend time writing about it.
  • If I'm writing about classroom practice issues, I need to feel like it's a useful reflective exercise for me that will improve my teaching ability.

You contribute to some other blogs as well — tell us about those.

I have some pretty strong feelings about classroom practice and educational policy. Though I often write about policy issues for In Practice, a group blog written by teachers around the country who work in low-income communities, my own blog provides me with an opportunity to also connect with similar-minded ESL/EFL teachers around the world.

I, and my students, also participate in another blog where teenage students from ESL/EFL classes around the world share their work, Student Showcase.

Finally, I'm starting another blog, Engaging Parents in School, that will support a book I've written (with Lorie Hammond) titled Building Parent Engagement In Schools that will be published this summer by Linworth Publishing.

As you think about parent engagement, what are the challenges that you see your students facing in school and at home?

As Richard Rothstein and others have shown in their research and writing, schools can narrow the "achievement gap" but not bridge it. The issues of lack of affordable housing, available health care, and adequate employment are causing critical problems for students and their families in lower-income communities through the country, and will continue to do so. It's hard to concentrate on schoolwork when you have twenty people packed into a small apartment in a neighborhood with drug dealers, when your parents have just lost their jobs, and when your tooth is hurting but you can't afford to go to the dentist.

These issues seem to connect to your experiences as a community organizer. How did that work influence your teaching?

I spent nineteen years working as a community organizer primarily in immigrant communities prior to becoming a high school teacher five years ago. The key strategies of a good organizer — building relationships, learning people's stories, developing leadership, and learning by doing — are also effective instructional strategies in the classroom.

In fact, Linworth Publishing will also be coming out with my second book next year — tentatively titled Organizing To Learn: The Art Of Teaching English Language Learners — which will be focused on how I connect community organizing methodology to teaching ELLs.


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