Ginny Thomas has taught English language learners at North Dallas High School in the Dallas Independent School District for more than twenty years. In this interview, Ginny discusses some of her favorite strategies for struggling ELLs as well as the services her school offers teenage parents.
The full transcript of Ginny's interview and her biography are also available below.
One thing I have learned is that what's good for ESL students is good for everyone. Because the best teacher training I ever got was my ESL training. And later when I got some gifted and talented training and I was very surprised at how similar the strategies were.
So often, if I pull out the ESL strategies, the strategies I would use for the ESL students are very effective for the others. I like to use a lot of visual things like graphic organizers and foldables. That really helps them too.
Motivation and persistence
Academically, I see that a lot of ours are behind. A lot of ours are behind. And they're starting to get frustrated, because they're very much adults. These kids have had hard lives. They're more mature than probably a lot of their American counterparts. They're ready to work. There's probably cultural pressure to work. And they still have not gotten where they need to be to graduate from high school. And that's always an ongoing problem.
It often starts with absences. And our attendance office is great about calling saying where are they? If the teachers can call and follow-up. We have a wonderful community of liaisons who will go pay them a visit if they haven't shown up for awhile. So those things need to be in place because often it doesn't start with a kid deciding to leave. It starts with the absences.
Social & emotional needs of adolescent ELLs
As far as the social and emotional needs, they're very much adolescents, very much operating in an adult worlds. Our neighborhood, the neighborhoods they come from, are a little bit rough. Actually, very rough. They're immigrants. They're new. It's hard. And they are still kids inside. And so they're in a very, very difficult place where they're kids really having to be adults.
So they're put in a very, very hard position. And they do act out because it's normal. It's normal for a kid with that kind of pressure to act out and to get emotional. And it takes a lot of understanding on the part of people who work with them to understand their frustrations.
When ELLs turn 18
One of the funniest things was I'd had this boy, he had always been just really a nice boy. And he had been from El Salvador. And then all of a sudden one day, he got an attitude with me. And he was acting terrible. And so finally, I called an Assistant Principal in. I said, "You need to talk to him. I don't know what's going on." Well, it turns out he had turned eighteen. And he said, "Now I am a man. And I don't have to do what she says."
And the Assistant Principal said, "Well, if you're a man, maybe you need to just go to work or something." Well, he and I worked it out. And I said, "Yes, you're eighteen. You're a man. And you're still my student. And you do need to follow my directions still as long as you're a student here." And then we were fine.
But sometimes, they do get that attitude that I'm all grown up. And yeah, sometimes they're tired. And they get upset. But often, it just takes a kind word, a little clarification, about what it is they need to be doing in class.
Young parents need a lot of support, not only to stay in school, and that is the number one goal is to keep them in school and not to let this pregnancy and this birth interfere with their education, but also how to take care of this child. Because these young kids are unprepared.
Luckily, most of them are living at home, you know, with one parent or the other. And so they do have some support there, but these are families that are already in poverty. They're already stressed. And this baby's adding more stress. And a lot of the social problems with child abuse and neglect come from these young kids.
So we have educational materials to help them take care of their children physically, developmentally. We help teach them ways to enrich their children by playing with them, singing to them, talking to them, giving them that basis of language that they need so badly.
And also, the physical, the normal physical things, with the girls' own bodies responding to pregnancy and post-pregnancy and the baby's physical needs as well. And I think most important, too, to understand just the needs of a baby. Because, yes, they're going to scream. Yes, they rule the house. That's what I always tell them is, "You're just going to have to get through it. You know, the baby's going to scream. You just have to be patient." We teach them ways to soothe the child and take care of the baby and to take care of the challenges of dealing with a young baby.
I do act as a liaison between the school and their homes, bringing them work, helping them with the work I can help them with, like the English. And then putting them in touch with their math and science teachers, for help with that if they need it.
I like to help make them aware of things available to them like the reconnect program where they can have a little bit more flexibility in completing their credits. I try to make them aware of the community college that we have which charges a dollar a day for child care. And so that could give the young parents a chance to get some college courses with very low child care costs.
One thing we have that I love is a reconnect program where the student has fallen behind in the class, they can go and work online to make it up under the supervision of a teacher. And they can probably complete a semester in two or three weeks by working intensively with various online programs to get up to snuff.
And that offers them the flexibility of time that they need often. Because often they are working. Some of them are parents. A lot of them do have responsibilities for younger brothers and sisters. And flexibility is very important with our population.
The benefits of graphic novels
I love to really capitalize on the graphic and linguistic connection. So often when we start the graphic novel, before we start, I'll write key vocabulary words on a poster. Then I'll let the students do a gallery walk and go around the room and add illustrations, related words. They can get out the dictionary. They can write definitions. And put any kind of linguistic or graphic association that they have on the poster and those posters stay up.
And as we read, the illustrations can often provide a lot of material for higher level thinking. Like in The Scarlet Letter, look at how Pearl is dressed compared to the other children. Why do you think she's wearing this red color when all the other children are wearing black and white?
Or in Macbeth, the strange way they're dressed and the dark colors, we can talk about that. It can lead to questions about the time. And why are the illustrations so dark? Why do you think they use these colors? And so it can lead to a lot of good discussion.
There's one thing I like to do called the one pager. And I give them a question. And they have to have it on a blank piece of paper. They answer the question. They pick out textual evidence from the graphic novel to support their answer. And then they give an illustration to support their answer.
And those who are artistically talented can visually interpret it themselves. Those who are less talented or less inclined can copy it from the book. But that way they're giving textual evidence and graphic evidence for their answer.
And ultimately, of course, I'd like for the students to write their own graphic novels which we have done. And last summer, I had a group of ELLs, and they were from Burma and had been in refugee camps. And so, they wrote graphic novels about their experiences in refugee camps which were really very impressive.
To have a successful experience with cooperative learning, a teacher really needs to be aware, to be moving among the groups, to be sure people are doing their job. It helps for students to have an assigned task, to have their own little place in the group.
I don't think a group should have more than four people. Because often that means that one or two are sitting off to the side doing nothing. And hopefully, you're exploiting the talents. That kid in class who likes to draw and really doesn't care much about reading, I always like to let them be the illustrator, to give them their chance to shine. The kid who can't stop talking, they get their chance to present. So I like to really exploit the students' talents through cooperative learning.
Advice to new ELL teachers
Speak slowly first of all. That was always my problem. I would talk too fast. So you've got to speak slowly, speak clearly, choose words they understand.
I would advise you to ask them about their culture, try to learn everything you can about their culture. Ask them to teach you some basic words of greeting in their language and occasionally greet them in their own language. They like to hear that. And they like to be on the teaching end. And they like to know that you're interested in them and in their culture.
I would also advise you to find a really good ELL teacher to be your mentor. Because that's how I learned so much was from some really wonderful colleagues that I had.
An unlikely success story
I always try to remember this. The worst student I ever taught when I was probably a first year ESL. I'd probably been in the classroom five or six years. But it's my first year of teaching ESL. Most obnoxious, horrible kid. And I thought, "I don't know what I will ever do with him."
I had him in the office all the time. That was back when I used to write referrals. And I just didn't know what I would ever do. And he grew up to be a foreman in a construction company, bought his parents a house, has a nice family. He's married to an ESL teacher. Grew up to be an outstanding young man.
So I always try to remember that, that no matter how hopeless they appear. That there may be a really, really good person inside. And they just need some patience and some guidance and some boundaries. And they're probably going to turn out just fine.
The Texas State Fair
I've been working with Burmese students, lovely people. And Burmese, they're the Karen tribe. They've been really oppressed. And they left Burma. They spent a lot of time in the refugee camp. They're really wonderful, dignified, civilized people. And they're weavers. The women weave this beautiful cloth. The men weave baskets.
Well, I took my Burmese students and their parents to the Texas State Fair which is just fantastic. And I thought, oh, these artistic people. They're going to love the arts and crafts building. So I took them around to all the arts and crafts and the cultural exhibits.
And the trip was falling flat. These people were bored. They were not interested at all. And I thought, "Oh, my God. What is wrong?" And we happened to pass by the Midway. I had not even planned to take them to the Midway. And they saw the rollercoaster. And they just stood up like just looked up and just in wonder and awe. They said, "We want to go on it."
And that's the thing I'm the most afraid of in the whole world is roller coasters. I said, "Well, I can't go on it with you." They went on it. They loved it. They were ready for the next ride. So I had planned this very cultural trip to the fair. And it ended up being just like taking my kids. They didn't want to get off the Midway. And it was so funny.
Becoming a teacher
It was never really in the plan. It was funny. I went to college and just fell in love with the French language, never thinking much about what I would do with it. And at my school, they would use the senior, junior and senior students as assistants to the professor. And you would just kind of assist the professor and maybe teach a few little lessons under their guidance. I never even had any desire to it. But I had to go see my professor one day and she was having an argument with one of her assistants and let her go on the spot. And I was standing there. And she said, "Do you want to do this?"
And I said, "Yeah," ... and I absolutely fell in love with teaching. I had a wonderful time. And she was a wonderful professor and a great person to learn under. And, of course, the students were freshmen mostly. So they were only, you know, a couple of years younger than me. But I ended up working in the language lab. I ended up tutoring them, just because I wanted to. And I really realized then that teaching was what I wanted to do.
Ginny Thomas is a native of Dallas, TX and has taught English language learners at North Dallas High School in the Dallas Independent School District for more than twenty years. Ginny is also a curriculum and test writer for the D.I.S.D. She has conducted numerous professional develepment workshops for teachers through the American Federation of Teachers, TESOL, and D.I.S.D. Ginny is a member of the AFT ELL Educator Cadre and the National Writing Project.