Susan Lafond, lover of languages, is a natural fit for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). Lafond majored in French and has a master's degree in Spanish. She started teaching Spanish and French nearly twenty years ago, then started teaching ESL as well in 1999. Two years ago, she began teaching ESL only. She teaches at Guilderland High School in upstate New York. She is also a professional development specialist and teaches other educators strategies for teaching ELLs. Lafond has earned the highest certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards — Early Adolescence through Young Adulthood/English as a New Language (EAYA/ENL).
She recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about her teaching experiences and how she reaches out to ELL students.
Meet Susan Lafond
What is the makeup of your ELL population?
We're in a good suburban district, and we are known for providing high quality education. Many of our ESL students are children of visiting professors, and we get a lot of families who have Chinese restaurants. We also have families from Eastern bloc countries like Romania, Latvia. So we don't do bilingual education, we do sheltered language instruction.
How do you bridge so many cultures and languages?
I have gone out of my way to learn their languages. I'm scheduled to take an Arabic class. I've taken Korean, have studied Russian and German. I have learned a smattering of languages just to keep up with my kids and their parents. It helps open a door. They really appreciate that. But (laughing) the kids are afraid I'll understand what they're saying.
Most schools do end-of-year wrap-ups. How do you make these activities meaningful for ELLs who may not be familiar with American traditions?
We have a big extravaganza each spring for our ESL families. It's a potluck supper that is also a recognition ceremony. We have families bring food from their culture and fill out recipe cards to put on the table [with the dish]. We reserve the gym and invite teachers, the board of education, supervisors, others from administration.
Every ESL student gets a certificate. We do a slide show with photos from the whole year, showing the kids and their activities. The parents are videotaping, taking photos. It's a huge celebratory event.
With students from many different cultures, it must be more difficult to create a sense of community among them.
It is, and I think it's important to feel part of something. Another end-of-year project is the ESL yearbook. It's something I give to my students, and there's also a rubric to it. The students - all of them, whether they are beginning, intermediate or advanced - come up with a file about themselves. It includes their name, why they came here, one problem they ran into, one memory from this year, either positive or negative, their hopes for the future, plans for the summer, or really anything about their life. I ask them to keep it to about three paragraphs.
I take updated photos and get a group photo. I try to have lots of pictures in it. I write an essay about my memories of the year, what I look forward to, and include motivating quotes. I include their pages alphabetically, and they have the option to include contact information so they can stay in touch over the summer if they want to. There's an autograph page. They love it.
A lot of them don't buy the school yearbook. Culturally, they've never had one and don't see why they would want it. [The school yearbook] is also expensive.
Those are great ways to end a year. How do you get ready for a new year?
I work hand-in-hand with the guidance counselor to create their schedule. And before the students even show up, I send emails to teachers, and say "so and so will be in your class." I create a teacher group for each student, so I can contact them all at once.
In the third week of school, I send out long, detailed anecdotal emails about who they are, why they're here, their strengths and weaknesses, what they need. That's usually also the time that the teachers start running down to me 'Omigod, I've got an ESL student!'
How does that help?
It answers a lot of questions up front. Then I email [the teachers] every five weeks, because that's the marking period. I have a specific form I send to each teacher to check in on progress.
Because we have a block schedule, we have an advisory period, which is wonderful. Students can get help from their advisory teachers, which is better than study hall because they have access to teachers.
If the advisory teacher is busy, guess who's sitting outside my office? The emails I get back from the teachers are really helpful. This is when I can say, "Here's what your teachers are saying are your strengths, weaknesses. Let's set up a game plan with long- and short- term goals."
Does that work?
Not for everyone, no, but at least it lets them know where they stand. I tell them "It's not meant to find your flaws, but it's feedback. Let's set your goals and tell me how are you going to do that? And how can I help you do that?" With a student who has a hard time, I have a contract to help keep them on track.
Sometimes they don't like that, but I say, "Whatever you've been doing, you're getting a result from that. If you don't like the result, have you thought about changing it up?" I have a couple of inventories to find out what kind of learner the student is, and I have strategies that help.
Sometimes it's not how they study but how motivated they are, and sometimes it's about how much time they have. Some of my students work most of the weekends in family restaurants - it's part of their obligation - so it may be about managing time.
How do you know what you're doing is working?
One student was with me one month in middle school and then one year in high school. Last fall, his father was working with GE, and they were going to have him work in another city. [The student] called me a couple of times saying, "I can't believe this is an ESL class, this is a joke, they don't do anything in these classes."
To me this was a big compliment, that there was more work and more growth in my class. The father must have asked to transfer back, because now [the student is] is over at the high school.
What do you think you do that's different from what he was experiencing in his new school?
For one thing, I have a curriculum with a text book. You'd be surprised, but many ESL teachers don't. I try to scaffold these students. I work on comprehension and idioms. I work with students and find their weaknesses and support them.
Envision a house that starts on the second floor. What holds it up? The students need a foundation, just like a house does. I provide a strong foundation for them as they are building up their other subjects. I also do a lot of advocacy for them with their other teachers.
How do you help content teachers at your school understand the needs of the ELLs?
I do monthly newsletters to the teachers who have ESL students in my building. I actually use a lot of the Colorín Colorado information in it and adapt the material for high school students. I usually start with announcements like upcoming testing, new students coming in. Also on the first page, I have an area for language, spotlighting a couple of phrases in Korean or Latvian or Japanese. It's nice for teachers to have at least a couple of words to say.
There's also a lot of professional development happening for content teachers, and I encourage them look outside the school for that. There are teacher centers that offer classes, graduate courses, webcasts.
What resources at the site level might you recommend?
Analyzing students' test assessments. Assessments will tell you what they've learned and what they haven't learned. Looking at the assessments as data analysis will really show you your teaching weaknesses and strengths. We teach so learners can learn. You aren't teaching to teach. If they aren't learning, you aren't teaching well. You need to teach with students with mind. If their assessments show they haven't learned it, you need to teach it in a way that they will. The statewide tests are as much about teacher accountability as student accountability.
What kinds of things do you advise other ESL teachers to do?
Join a support group. Network. Even though I was a veteran teacher, when I started teaching ESL, I went to a support group and the networking really helped me. If another teacher or student teacher or anyone else has something, use it! There's no need to reinvent the wheel. There's a lot of information out there. Especially if you are in a region, like ours, where you aren't close to a lot of other teachers who do what you do, you can always find out what others are doing.
A lot of states or organizations have listserves, and you can find good articles, updates, notices that help. Find the ESL teacher in your district, and pick their brain. Put your expertise together to find ways to reach your students.
What are some of the things you especially like about teaching ESL students?
Most of my students are motivated; I'm very fortunate that way. Whatever I put in, they put in double. It makes it a joy to help them.
There are smaller things, too. Like my Korean students bow. I miss it when they stop. They stop when they realize that none of the other kids do it. They want to fit in, of course!