Honoring an outstanding student

Cristian Sanchez came to the United States near the end of his sixth grade year. He spoke no English. Just two years later, he was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society at Elba Central School, one of the first ESL students to ever achieve that recognition. He was nominated by veteran teacher Rita Fischer, who has been personally touched by Cristian's remarkable determination and drive to learn. Colorín Colorado recently spoke with Mrs. Fischer about her nomination.

Why did you nominate Cristian for this recognition?

Mrs. Fischer: When I met Cristian, he had just arrived from Mexico. He could not understand English at all. I couldn't even get him to nod his head. Now, just two years later, he is on the honor roll at our school. His English is getting better every day, and I am amazed at his dedication to school and his education. He has tremendous potential.

What's different about Cristian?

Mrs. Fischer: Given the short time that Cristian has been in the U.S. learning English, I am astounded by his accomplishments in school. He has mastered reading and writing in the content areas. He has had to face adversity in his life as a migrant child, but he has overcome these barriers to become extremely successful in school.

If you could generalize, how would you describe ELL students?

Mrs. Fischer: A lot of ESL students have this drive and respect for learning and education. I'd like to know what it is that motivates them, because we'd like all of our children to have it! I think its part of the Hispanic culture. It's a sense of family and a sense of achievement. But even within that, Cristian stands out. I'm just so impressed with him, and so are the other teachers.

As a teacher, what do you do that you think is most helpful for ELL students?

Mrs. Fischer: It's funny you should ask that. I always ask my students after they graduate from my program what I did that helped them: "What did I do that worked for you?" And they'll say, "You just kept talking and smiling!" It seems so trivial, but maybe that's what they needed most. I encouraged them and didn't give up on them.

What's the Hispanic community like in your area?

Mrs. Fischer: Very small! We are the smallest public school in our county, and less than five percent of our students are ESL students. Most of them are from migrant families who come here to work in the onion, cabbage, and potato farms. It used to be that the families would only stay through the season, but in the past two years, they are tending to stay on through the whole year.

It must be particularly challenging to have such a small population of ELL students.

Mrs. Fischer: Yes, it is. I'm a reading teacher by trade, and I just recently took on ESL. But I've always had these kids because as the reading specialist, I would take the struggling readers, and I would also get the ESL kids, even though they were only struggling because of the language. If they can read in Spanish, they aren't really struggling readers, but they didn't know what else to do with them.

It must be particularly challenging for the ELL students, too.

Mrs. Fischer: It is! I've seen them struggle in school all the years that they were there. They would sit in the back of the classroom, and the teachers didn't know what to do with them. Some kids stuck with it, but others would quit as soon as they were able to and go work in the fields. You can quit school at 16 here. We lost so many kids.

What do you tell teachers who may not know what to do with their students who are not proficient in English?

Mrs. Fischer: That there's always a way to adapt the content. If they are assigning ten things, they can assign one or two to their ESL kids. They don't have to give them different things, just let them work at a slower pace. Sometimes teachers think if a student is reading at a first grade level in English, they have to give them first grade work. But this student might be in tenth grade! You can't give them first grade work. Let them work on a piece of the assignment. There's always something you can do to adapt within your content.

What do you think ELL students would most like others to know about them?

Mrs. Fischer: They want people to know that they're not stupid. They will say to me, "Just because I speak Spanish, people think I'm stupid!" They're not stupid. Just look at Cristian. When he came here, he could read and write a little bit in Spanish, but not on grade level even in Spanish. Now look at him! I've been teaching for nearly 23 years, and this student has been the one who has impressed me the most with his ability, work ethic, respect for school, and learning. We are just amazed by him.

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