Using technology to create a visual learning environment

Meet Alma Milan

The needs, struggles, and achievements of English language learners are diverse and unique; understanding them is not always easy for educators. However, some educators were English language learners themselves and therefore have a bit of insiders' knowledge. Such is the case of Alma Milan, a certified ESL teacher at Kosciuszko Middle School. Of Filipino background, she came to the U.S. at age six, knowing three languages — none of which was English. She can recollect what it was like to be in a classroom and not knowing what anyone was saying! She believes that having been an ELL student herself, she is more sensitive to her students' needs — especially their fear of making mistakes.

Technology use is an intrinsic part of Alma's classroom; in fact, her class takes place in a computer lab. By using visual supports (clip art and other graphic images), the students are able to see an object and associate it with the words they see and hear. She uses Power Point presentations in her lectures to introduce colors, geography concepts, and an array of nouns. She finds this method especially important for visual learners and those students with low literacy levels. Through visual representations, she helps her students build the vocabulary needed for the content lessons in their regular classes (she is required to teach some of this content in the ESL class). Her school uses the "block system," and students have a daily ESL period equivalent to half a block each day (about a 45-minute period).

A method that she finds beneficial to her students is pairing them according to skill. She will pair someone with weak literacy skills with someone with higher literacy skills; in oral conversation exercises, she will pair a shy student with a more outgoing one — students usually find a way to compensate for each other's skills and help each other learn. Sharing seems to be prevalent in her teaching methods. She has done exercises that help her students explore the holidays and traditions of peers from other countries, using these as a basis for conversation starters and even writing exercises.

Because she wants her students to be self-learners, the Internet plays an important role in her classroom. Often she will create a list of sites with useful information (and very importantly, at an adequate reading level!), then ask her students to create a presentation based on research through those sites. She often has her students use webs or concept maps to organize the information from their searches.

As with many ELL/ESL/ESOL teachers, Alma struggles with the many different levels of proficiency among her students (some have high oral skills, but low reading and writing). All of Alma's students are Hispanic. Many of them were born in the U.S., then traveled back to their parents' home countries. Now, returning to the U.S. as young teenagers, they cannot recollect much from their early years.

It seems that Alma's rapport with her students transcends their time in her classroom, as many have stayed in contact after moving on to high school. As one of her colleagues told us "Alma is not difficult to adore; she is firm and strict. Her ideas are fresh and inspirational. Her students adore her. She truly has their best interest in mind, giving them every opportunity to be technologically literate, as well as assisting them in developing their language skills. Her expectations are high, and the students respond to this very well."

Thank you to Heidi Stutzki for nominating Alma and contributing to this story.

Do you know an outstanding ELL teacher? Paraprofessional? Student?

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