Michelle Lawrence Biggar
Michelle Lawrence Biggar is a high school ESL teacher at the International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland High School in Buffalo, NY and is featured in Colorín Colorado's Watch & Learn series.
In this interview, Michelle discusses her use of classic works of literature with newcomer ELLs, offers advice for content-area teachers, and discusses ways that ELL teachers can advocate for their students. The full transcript of Michelle's interview, her biography, and additional classroom strategies are also available.
Michelle has also written the following article for Colorín Colorado:
Part I: A Passion for Teaching
Becoming an ESL teacher
In high school I was a foreign exchange student in Costa Rica. And I remember as a sophomore I went, and I loved it so much that I worked hard for two years and saved all my money so I could go again as a senior, because I had gotten the travel bug.
And I did the same in college. I traveled abroad and studied abroad in Spain, and from that point on, I just loved traveling. When I returned from Spain, I took a linguistics course that was my minor in undergrad. And I had a fabulous linguistics professor named Dr. Barbara Herbert, who, in addition to teaching at the university was a full-time ESL teacher in the Binghamton City Schools.
And I did an internship with her. And she worked in an elementary classroom with refugees, and I just fell in love. I thought, this is exactly what I want to do and who I want to be working with. And before that I had not really considered teaching. I mean, I played teacher when I was a kid, but I didn't really want to be a teacher. But I knew that I loved linguistics, and I knew from working with those students in Binghamton that I loved the refugees. So I decided to come back to Buffalo and go to graduate school and get my certification in teaching English to speakers of other languages.
A range of students and abilities
Most of my students are Karen, which is an indigenous group from Burma, and they fled Burma and lived in camps, refugee camps in Thailand, most of them. So I have a large group of Karen. I have a large group of Somali Bantu students, who most of them grew up in refugee camps in Kenya, Somali students, and I have some students from Yemen, Puerto Rico, Ghana, Burundi.
And I work with beginners and intermediate students this year. The educational level of my students varies, greatly, actually. I have students that come, for example, last year I had a student who came from Nepal, who scored advanced on his proficiency level, and was well-schooled in India, prior to coming to the United States. And his English was just nearly proficient, to the point where when he took the state exam in the spring, he did score proficient, and does not need ESL. I have students who are SIFE, students with interrupted formal education, and come with no language whatsoever. So really, it's a mixed bag.
This year, our Grover Cleveland International Prep Soccer Team made it to the state finals, or the state championships, which is a huge deal. No team in Buffalo has ever done that before. And it has made the press everywhere, and it's kind, it was on the front page of the paper on Thursday. It's really interesting to me because I've been at this school for six years, and every year I try to make it to a handful of soccer games and support my students.
And know, because the majority, if not every student on the team is either an ESL student or a former student of mine. So the entire team is made up of immigrants and refugees. And that is natural to me. But the rest of the world and the rest of Buffalo doesn't really know that. So to see that in the paper and to see their stories printed has just been a really positive experience.
I mean, aside from the accomplishments athletically that they've been involved in, just the fact that the rest of the world, all right, the rest of the city, now knows who these students are, and what they've come from, and how far they've been able to come, has just been really rewarding for the students and personally for me as a teacher to see them take such pride in this accomplishment.
Learning from each other
At the school we have an advisory period. Every Thursday we shorten periods and we create a forty minute period and I meet with eleven girls and they've been with me for the past three years and they will be my advisees until they graduate. I have a really nice mix.
I've got Somali, Somali Bantu (ph.), Puerto Rican, just your average American girls who were born in the United States. It has been really interesting to watch them interact throughout the years. Their language levels are all different and so are their backgrounds.
This year at our first advisory meeting we started discussing the types of things that we would like to do the rest of the year, and I was so pleased to see my non-Muslim girls say, "I want Faustina and Habeeba and Misosi to come in and show us how they put the scarves oh. That's what, let's do a whole thing on fashion and you guys bring in the scarves and I want to see how that's done."
When the article in the paper about our soccer team made the front page of the news and the focus of the story was that the entire team minus one student is made up of refugees and immigrants, we started talking about what it means to be a refugee and the other students in my advisory were really interested in that.
They were just asking Faustina and Misosi, "What did — where did you live and how long did it take you to get here? You lived in — did you live in a tent and what was the house made out of? You had to go to the doctor before you came here and make sure that you were healthy?" The questions just went on and on and they were do interested in hearing the stories.
We finished reading that article and two of my students just looked at me and said, "Miss I have chills just hearing about how much the refugees had been through and then they made it this far and in particular these soccer players had accomplished so much." The interaction between my non-native speakers and my native speakers is really strong particularly in the advisory.
Lost (and found) in translation
My students never cease to amaze me in the way that they look at language, and I started this year to write some of them down because it comes out and you just think I can't, you could never fathom how they interpret some of the things that you say.
So one day after school one of my students comes to me and her language is very limited, and I don't remember why but she's asking me about money and she's saying "I need to do this and I don't have no money, me no money," and she keeps saying it wrong. I very rarely explicitly correct my students but I thought it's after school so, "I'm gonna let her know."
I say, "Actually we don't say me no money. You say I don't have any money," and she looks at me, "Oh please Miss Lawrence, this America, everybody have money." And I thought, oh my God, the grammatical correction just went shrewwwww, right over her head and all she heard was about how I don't have any money thinking I'm talking about myself.
Another really great example is our state ESL exam is called the NYSESASLAT — the New York State English As A Second Language Achievement Test, and I make sure that all my students know it and we call it by name and that also helps lower the anxiety. Well, when you're practicing for this test it's also important to know that a beginner there's some easy questions or what they think might be easy questions on that test. But there's also some really difficult questions for people who are ready to become proficient and not need ESL anymore.
So when you're practicing you see the range of those questions. I'll never forget last year we're practicing and it was a really difficult reading passage and Asil looks up at me and he says, "This is not the NYSESASLAT. They should call it the BADSESALAT."
Even today in class if you saw Henry I've taught the kids that you, sometimes we put quotes when we're not really like so-and-so was absent yesterday and they said that they were sick. And so they understand that sometimes we use air quotes to mean that something is not actually true.
And he, and when I said tell the, "If you see a soccer player today make sure you tell them congratulations," and I don't know if you saw it but Henry was like, "Oh, tell them congratulations," and I said, "Well if they're, just because they didn't win the state finals doesn't mean we can't congratulate them."
Favorite part of job
It's nearly impossible to choose one thing that is my favorite part of my job. I am not a morning person. I drive to work in the morning and I'm thinking, I'm not dreading coming to work, I just am annoyed that I have to be up. But as I'm pulling down the street that our school is on and I see all my students walking to the school oh it just makes, my heart so warm…A favorite part of my job is when Asil comes to me and tells me, "Miss, I couldn't put this book down. It was like television." To see the look on their face when they have succeeded with something. It's, I could go on for days telling you what my favorite part of my job is.
I didn't get into teaching because I love to teach. I got into teaching because of the students who I work with. I wanted to work with refugees. While sometimes teaching in an urban setting can be very trying, and you're not paid as much as you're supposed to get paid, and other districts are making more money and working differently and not necessarily less but differently, I wouldn't trade it for the world because there is no other job that rewards you like this job.
Part II: Literature for ELLs
Choosing Literature for ELLs
I teach a variety of literature to my ELLs. The textbook covers various genres: fiction, nonfiction, poems, plays, folk tales. And then in addition, I usually take, especially for my beginners, one period out of the three periods that I teach them to do literature. So for my beginners we begin the school year reading the folk tale, Sinbad the Sailor.
And then we move on to A Christmas Carol. Robin Hood and we read a realistic fiction story called "No Pay, No Way." We eventually get to a nonfiction story about the invention of the automobile, called "Follow That Car." So it's, we really do span across different genres. My intermediate students, this year we began by reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
And then we also read A Christmas Carol. We will read Tom Sawyer. In the past we've read Around the World in 80 Days. I have this great set of Longman classics, and that's what I use to supplement the textbook. All of the books that I use are abridged versions, they're not the original long version of the book. Because at this level, a beginner and an intermediate student is not ready for that. But they can embrace the story, just not in the long form.
The abridged versions of the books I use are Longman Classics. They were introduced to me by my cooperating teacher. We read Sinbad the Sailor with our class when I first student-taught.
And it was phenomenal. And the books are leveled, so I know that the first level is very appropriate for my beginners. And the second level, we can read it, but not so much on their own. Whereas the intermediate, that second level is completely appropriate for them to be doing it on their own, and the third level up is a bit of a challenge. And the fourth level, I haven't tackled with them yet, because it's really quite a challenge.
Finding the right book
My students respond very favorably to the literature. In my beginning class, for example, the first two periods, we will do things out of the textbook. And the third period is literature. So we just finished reading Sinbad the Sailor. And if something would come up, for example, we have an assembly that day, or it's the day where our schedule has to be shortened, "What? We're not going to read Sinbad? Miss, what about Sinbad?" And if it's a day that we get to read an extra period, they are in heaven. They absolutely love it.
I think it's important to choose stories that you are passionate about, as a teacher. When I introduce the book, I do it and I make this huge deal out of it. We have a drum roll, and we play hangman to try and figure out what the title and the author's going to be. And they just eat it up. I make such a big production out of it that they can't help but be excited about it.
I also make sure that I choose books that I really love, and am passionate about. It's a tradition in my classroom to read A Christmas Carol every year. And I just, I can't get enough of that book. I absolutely love it. A second thing that I think makes students so excited about it is, I don't start out by giving them too much to do on their own. In particular for the beginners, I read all of Sinbad the Sailor to them.
They might read a couple paragraphs here or there, but I'm not pressuring them to just go ahead and read the story. I make it comprehensible for them, and if they can understand it, then they're going to love it, because it's a great story. And with each novel that we read, I give them a little bit more to do on their own. And it kind of builds their confidence, and they just fall in love with the stories.
Teaching literary conventions
When you're teaching literary elements, I think it's important to start small. I just start out with what is the title, who is the author, what's the genre, and then we move to setting. I have to be honest that I didn't start using so many literary elements until I started working with our English Language Arts teacher here.
The first year of our school, so about three years ago, in my beginner class, that third period when I do the literature, I was fortunate enough to have the English Language Arts teacher push in with me. And we worked together. And he came in not knowing very much about English Language Learners, and he wanted to do all this big stuff with them. "Wow, we're reading Sinbad the Sailor. Hey Michelle, look, there's a lot of similes in here. I think we should teach about similes. And I would say, 'Sean, I don't know about that. I don't know if they can handle it.'"
"No, let's do it, I'm going to go home and I'm going to pick them out, and I'll lead the class. I'll lead that lesson." And he did. And I couldn't believe how they caught on. And it was just a very small thing. I think that I may not have taken that risk if I didn't have the English Language Arts teacher in the classroom with me, because as an ESL teacher, you're always sort of making sure that the students understand everything that you're doing, and I was maybe a little bit afraid to push them. But, from that, I took his suggestion, and we just flew with it.
From that point on, we could do simile in any story. The next story that we read was Robin Hood. And it was a great time to introduce plot. He wanted to talk about protagonist and antagonist. So we did. We talked about conflict. It's impossible to do them all, but you can introduce one or two literary elements for each story. Sometimes three or four. And build upon them as you read more literature.
Deciding which literary elements to do with which level can be tricky, and sometimes it's a little bit trial and error. You look at the piece of literature and you say, which ones stand out? We read Frankenstein, and in Frankenstein, irony was the big literary element that was new that I wanted them to understand. I wanted my students to know that lightning plays a role in this story. And lightning gives a good example of irony, because Victor Frankenstein uses lightning to create life, and then in the end, lightning destroys both he and the monster.
Teaching A Christmas Carol
Right now we're reading A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, and one of the best literary elements that we can use in A Christmas Carol is flashback. Because the second chapter is all flashback. So it just lends itself so well to that literary element. When I introduce flashback to a beginning group, we look at it as flashback as a compound word.
It's these two small words that are put together to make one big word. What does back mean? It means the past. What is flash? It's to look at fast. Like something happens fast. So flashback is what an author does. They bring us into the past very quickly, just to show us an important event that happened maybe before we met this character.
That's a very big concept for a beginner to get. Because they have a difficult time understanding the difference between an author and a narrator. And this is a really great opportunity to begin to show them that Charles Dickens wrote the story, and he did things to help you understand the story. He did things to make the story more interesting, and flashback is a great example of something that he did to help us to understand Scrooge.
Who is Scrooge today? He's mean and he's greedy and he's selfish. Why? Because in Chapter 2, Charles Dickens took us into the past and showed us that Scrooge had a family, a father that didn't care about him, and he didn't have any friends when he was at school. And he seemed to be a loner. So when he grew up, he was kind of a mean, greedy, selfish, nasty guy. And they understand that. And they understand the importance of it.
Symbolism is another good literary element to use. When Marley comes and he has all the chains, and the, he's got moneyboxes and locks and keys. It's a very simple example of symbolism. Students can see, they can draw that picture of Marley with his chains around him.They understand that if he has these chains it's very heavy to walk, and that if he had only been a good person and shared his wealth and his, and been more generous when he was alive, he wouldn't have to wear all of these chains when he's older.
I do not do symbolism with my beginners. It's too abstract. But with an intermediate group of students, and certainly with an advanced group of students, they're able to understand this concept.
Once they get to the intermediate level, I will scaffold the questions. So the first question might be, for example, when we meet Marley in the second chapter of A Christmas Carol. The first question I might ask them about that event is, who came to visit Scrooge? So they can tell me Marley. What did Marley look like? What was he wearing? Chains. What was on the chains? Moneyboxes, moneybags, business papers, account books.
How are the things that are on the chain, how is that an example of symbolism? And then they can tell me, well, he's wearing the, what he wears represents what he cared about when he was alive, which was just money and business. And I find that they do still need some of those basic questions to make sure we're all on the same page.
But I talk about how when we're reading, think of it like an onion. And you need to peel back the layers of the onion. And it's okay that you just had the first layer, but now I'm going to ask you questions to try and peel back that second layer so that you understand and have a deeper meaning of the story.
Checking comprehension for beginning students
Some ways that I check comprehension informally as I'm reading is I stop frequently and ask questions about what happened. I may reread a certain paragraph. I may have a student reread a certain paragraph or section of the story because it's important. For my beginners, I often have them draw pictures of what happened, so that I know that they're understanding.
What I found when I started doing the sequence of events and drawing with my students is that just giving them four boxes and saying draw what happened is not enough guiding for my beginners. So what I did was I adapted that, and now I give them a sentence. So I'll give them a box, where there's a picture, but it will say, Scrooge was visited by the first spirit. Its name was…and they have to fill in the name. So it gives them the opportunity to go into the book and find the answer, which is an important skill that I want them to learn, that a lot of the comprehension questions are in the book. And then they have the opportunity to draw what that spirit looked like. I found that I have much more success with that much guidance than I do with just giving them four boxes and saying, okay, tell me what happened first, next.
When we did this with Sinbad, it's all trial and error. When I did it with Sinbad and said, okay, there's four boxes, tell me what happened. I knew what I wanted to happen in my head, and they did something completely different. They focused on one very small event and told me step by step what happened, where I was looking for a general, okay, first he went to the island. Then it turned out the island was a fish and he went down. Then he found a water pot and it brought him to the next island. It just didn't transfer that way. So, again, like I said, it's trial and error and I realized that they needed more guidance, so I changed the way that I did it, put a sentence, they fill in the blank, and then they can draw a picture to show me details.
Checking comprehension for intermediate and advanced students
An intermediate or an advanced level student is able to answer comprehension questions, and typically as we read, I have guided questions so that they can follow those. With any level, acting out is so great. It's a fantastic way to check comprehension, but particularly with the beginners. So one example of how I would check comprehension and ask them to act something out.
When we first met Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, they describe him as being cold and hard. And when he walks down the street he just doesn't want to talk to anybody, and he's friendly, or friendless, and alone, and he likes it that way. So I'll ask for a volunteer to show me what does it look like when Scrooge is walking down the street.
And I might have another student prompt that student to ask him what time is it, and so the student will the Scrooge student will get up and have this look on his face, and just be, and walk down the classroom, and somebody'll say, "Excuse me, what time is it?" "Don't talk to me!" And he'll respond. And if he's able to do that, and the rest of the class is able to laugh, that means they get it, and they understand it.
I was surprised today when we were discussing how Scrooge went to a boarding school and what that means that he goes to school and he sleeps there and he stays there and Henry says like Harry Potter in that movie. You know they even surprise me. I had no idea that he knew about Harry Potter, but whatever it takes he understood boarding school and that was important.
Reading out loud to older students
I think that it's important to read out loud to older students because you need to model the fluency for them. And I try to read out loud frequently, so that they can see the enthusiasm. I try to read slowly. If someone is talking and they're angry, I'm going to talk like this, and it kind of freaks them out for a second, but they see that, "Oh, that's how the person's supposed to talk, because it said, 'Scrooge said angrily.'"
I think that sometimes we forget that older students need to hear reading aloud, and if it's done effectively, it can really benefit them, because they can model that. Today in class, one of my students was reading out loud, and the last sentence he said was, "Humbug, I say, humbug." And he just sort of read it, "Humbug, I say, humbug."
And if you're very careful and kind about asking them to read it again, you might say, "Do you really think that Scrooge just said, 'Humbug, I say, bah humbug.' No, how did he say it?"
"No, Miss, he was angry, and he was mad."
"Try and read it again, but with that feeling behind it." And they do. They respond. And they're receptive to that criticism, and they try and mimic the way that you would do it.
One way that I increase student motivation for reading is to choose books that I love, and that I am passionate about. I also try and talk to my students about how much I love reading. If I come in one morning and I look a little bit tired, and the students'll be like, "Oh, Miss, are you okay? You look tired today." I'll say, "No, I'm fine, I was just up all last night. I couldn't put my book down. It was 1:00 in the morning and I was still reading." I want them to see that people read and we love reading.
I also, I think if you're teaching literature that you love, then you can express that. I think it's important to make sure that you present the books in ways that your students can understand. If they can't, if you just say, "Take this book and read it on your own," and they don't get it, they're not going to understand it, and so how could they enjoy it?
I believe that if you set a student up for success, success breeds success. And if they find that they're in love with Sinbad, or they're in love with A Christmas Carol, they're going to want to read more. And if they feel successful with that reading, then they're just going to want to continue reading.
One of my students, he was actually my student last year, but he comes to visit me every day. And he is now in an English II class. He's taking an ESL advanced course, but he's also required to take an English Language Arts course. So at the beginning of the year, he came to me and said, "Miss, I need your help, I need to read a book on my own, and my English teacher told me that I should come to you and you'd help me pick out a book."
Which is absolutely true — I was delighted to do so. So I open up my cabinet and I have two books. I've got Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And he says, "You know what, I'll take them both home and I'll read a little bit of both, and I'll see which one I like." So he takes them home, and he comes back to me the next day and he hands me Dracula, and he says, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Miss. I can't stop reading it. I couldn't put it down. It's like television."
And I thought, "Oh my God." It was just such an amazing moment. So this weekend I was at an estate sale, and I just saw , you know, people are selling books. So I see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and another novel, I think The Pearl, by Steinbeck. And I thought, "Oh my God, I have got to get this for Asil." You know, it's like 50 cents.
And I brought it to him today and, actually for him and his brother to share. And they have so very few books, and when I handed it to him I said, "Asil, this weekend, I saw this book and I thought of you, and I want you to have it and share it with Ashraf." And the two of them were just so, "Oh my God! Is it — it's Dr. — it's in here? It's in there?" I mean, they were just so thrilled. And then to find out that there were a few more short stories in that same book was just really rewarding. Probably more so for me than for him, but he was just so excited.
Part III: Teaching Content
Advice for content teachers
Some advice that I would have for content-area teacher who has English Language Learners in their classroom is to remember that students are not just learning English in their ESL classroom. They're also learning it in your classroom. And there are ways that you can help their reading development even with your content.
The vocabulary strategy that I use right now that I'm finding to be the most useful is introducing a set of words, a very select set of words. Even though the textbook might say they need these ten words, I might only use seven. Because when you're choosing vocabulary words to use with English Language Learners, any student really, but particularly the English Language Learners, you want to choose words that are meaningful to what they're doing now and that they will actually use in the future.
We read a story last week, and it talked about mesquite wood. And "mesquite" was one of the vocabulary words that the textbook suggested I teach. It has no bearing on their life at all. Nobody needs to know mesquite. I mean, maybe someday they're going be at a barbecue and somebody's going talk about it, but they really don't need to know that word.
So I think it's important to really survey the vocabulary words and think about which ones do they need to know the most. And right now, I'm explicitly teaching my vocabulary where I give them the word, we pronounce it, we break down the syllables, we give the definition, the part of speech, examples, and I use a lot of pictures with my examples. Non-examples, again, lots of pictures. And then the students need to use it in a sentence. And I'm finding that there's a lot of success with that.
Another teaching strategy is to allow your students to respond in ways that are maybe a little bit unconventional for you. Consider ways that you can separate the language from the content, so I might not be able to tell you my answer, but I can show you my answer, I can point to it, I can act it out. And it's important to remember this when you're teaching and also when you're testing students. They might not be able to take a multiple choice test that's incredibly, just filled with words, but that doesn't mean that they don't understand the concept.
And if given the opportunity to show you in a different way by maybe drawing a picture or acting something out, or just verbally telling you the answer, it's just important to remember to separate the language from the content.
Scaffolding content questions
Another way that a content-area teacher or any teacher can help students with reading is to scaffold questions for them. Start with the basic questions, show them where to go in the book and find the answers. One thing that I do that they can do in any content area is teaching them the difference between, okay, now I found the answer and I'm just going to copy it, because English Language Learners are really good at copying but it doesn't mean a thing if they don't know what they're copying.
So I try and teach my students not just to copy, but all right, you found the place where the answer is, now stop and think about it and see if you understand it, and write it in your own words. And they can do this in the ESL classroom, in the science classroom, in the social studies classroom, wherever.
Another way that I scaffold my reading instruction, and a content-area teacher can do the same, is to model, to do like a think-aloud. As I'm reading and I stop frequently for comprehension questions, verbalize to the students, see how I'm stopping here? When you're reading at home, you can do the same thing.
Whether you're reading your science textbook, or your social studies textbook, or the newspaper. Stop and ask yourself the question, now, who are they talking about? Why did they do this? And if you can answer those questions you're showing yourself that you understand the story and you can continue reading.
When you're giving instructions to English language learners, it's really important to, if you give those instructions, do it step-by-step. Don't say everything in one group. First we're going to do this. Second we're going to do this. Third I want to you do that and follow-up your verbal instructions with written instructions, that's very helpful to an English language learner.
Rate of speech
It's important for content area teachers to adjust their rate of speech. I'm not saying that every content area teacher does this, but many times I will be sitting in the classrooms and my students will say, oh my goodness so and so talks to fast I don't know what they're saying.
Because we do, we speak quickly. I speak very quickly. I monitor myself and I try to speak more slowly. You don't want to sound like a robot, "Today in class we are going to learn#&133;" because that doesn't help anybody. But it is important not to talk so fast that they're not going to understand what you're saying.
And the, the last thing I would say for advice to content area teachers is model, model, model. English language learners are able to produce and they're able to do things, even SIFE students are able to do that. But they won't be able to just follow your instructions, they need to see it done first. So my advice would be to model one exercise, have some guided practice and then they may be able to do it on their own.
Part IV: Success in the Classroom
There are many ways that teachers can support student with interrupted formal education. It's important to recognize that the students who are newcomers and maybe have not had a formal education prior to coming to the United States are in what we call a pre-production stage. They might be in a silent period, so you need to give them opportunities to express themselves non-verbally. I think it's important to know what their behaviors are going look like. A student who is SIFE is going to be able to label things, they'll be able to locate something. They're going to be able to match and maybe even categorize.
SIFE students may be able to comprehend key words and they may even be able to produce key words in their answers. Keep in mind that because students at this level are really only comprehending key words, try to simplify your language. You don't have to simplify the content other than focusing on the main ideas because they, they will be able to understand that content, but it's important to simplify your language.
Peer learning groups
I use peer learning in many different ways in my classroom. I'm conscious of how I group my students so depending on the activity I may want to group same language groups together so that they can help each other out in their first language. I may not want to do that.
I'm careful to group my students by their levels. I don't ever want to put a really, really high student with a really, really low student if I expect them to work cooperatively. I will ask a student for example if there's a skill that I'm teaching and I find that one particular student has mastered that skill I will praise that student and build their confidence and then ask them to go work with the student who has not mastered that skill yet.
I find that the students really enjoy that role. They're not shy. They kind of take it on, and actually I have one student in my beginning class that does that a lot, and I just found out this morning from my teacher aid that in his native language when he does that some of the other students say "what, are you the teacher?" and he says yeah. You know he enjoys taking on that role.
I have one particular student in my class who was with me last year, and last year we were fortunate enough to separate out our non-readers in the beginning class from our readers, and I took that class that was filled with these quite advanced beginning level students.
This particular student was on the lower end of that spectrum. Most of his classmates moved on to a different level but he stayed at the beginning level. Mary Claire Hays, my colleague, the other ESL teacher at the high school level and I, struggled. "Should we keep him in my class or should we give him a switch?" Because it's not a punishment for a student to repeat a beginning level class. They get the credit. They just need to understand that they still need to learn those skills. We ultimately decided to enroll him in my class again. While at first I was worried that "Oh, we'd be reading the same stories and maybe he'd feel that he was bored," it's not the case at all.
He has embraced it, and he whereas last year he was struggling this year he is top of the class and he loves that he's able to bring all of that knowledge from last year and say, "Oh yeah, I remember Scrooge. Yeah, he's so greedy!" And he's really been an asset to the class and I think that it has been incredibly helpful to me and repeating some of the things has been very helpful to him as well. He's not struggling anymore. He's able to succeed.
I believe that structure in any classroom is essential. If you do not have classroom management I don't care what subject you teach or who your students are, first grade or twelfth grade, you will not accomplish anything. In an ESL classroom, it is even more important because many of your students are coming to school perhaps for the first time and you want to give them structure in the classroom. It's important to have that structure because you need to remember that an English language learner has come here and so much of their life has been disrupted.
They left their native country. Maybe they went to another country before they even came here. They're in a new culture. They have a new language, and you want to set them up for success. When they enter your classroom, you want to have procedures and rules so that they know what to expect.
They can feel comfortable and everything is familiar and then it's just all about learning. My first year teaching, it was my first year teaching. I didn't know what I was doing, who does? So that summer, actually it was that May, Harry Wong came to speak to Buffalo Public Schools and I listened to him speak and I bought that book, First Days of School, and it has been in my hand ever since.
Every summer I sit down, take a day or two and go through and say what are the things that I need to hone and change about my procedures and my rules, and each school year I spend the first weeks of school reviewing procedure, rules, rewards, consequences. Each student understands them inside out. If they break a rule they know that their name is on the board. They know what the consequence is. They've signed a discipline plan and said that they understand it and agree with it.
Something that I borrowed from one of my colleagues, actually the two math teachers in our school, they pay their students a salary each week, and this has been a wonderful thing. They do it — my students do it in a lot of their classes so this year they came in, "Miss, are we gonna earn a salary year?" And they do.
Essentially they get twenty points every day, and "You may have noticed today that I stand at my door with a clipboard. If you are on time you get five points. If you come prepared with your homework and all of your materials five points. You do the class work, five points and then you behave. There's no discipline problems. That's twenty points. Five days in a week, twenty times five. Your participation grade for that week is 100%."
I post them at the end of the week and this makes it easier for students to understand that they earn their grades because particularly with some students who are not used to school or not used to succeeding in school you'll hear the typical, "Well, why did you give me a seventy-two and you gave so and so an eighty-five."
I didn't give anything, you earned. You can say that a thousand times and students don't quite understand it. But with this salary they get it. They see every day "Oh, I didn't bring my homework so I don't get the five points. Oh, I was late so I can't get those five points." So I want to thank the math teachers at my school because it has been a phenomenal success in my classroom.
So some of the procedures that I have in the classroom is that when my students enter the class, they have assigned seats. Now I've taught from 9th to 12th grade and I don't care what grade you're in, I think that students like to have the comfort of knowing where they're going when they come in the classroom.
They know as soon as they enter my classroom they know where they're going to sit and they look at the side board and there's a "DO NOW" assignment which is essentially the work. This year I have found a fantastic book that does some language review so every day we do five questions — correct editing and analogies and vocabulary words in context. There's other various things that we do for the "DO NOW" but the most important thing for me and for the students is that they understand as soon as they walk in the room they know exactly what they need to be doing.
Another procedure that I have that I would be lost without is how I get the students' attention. We--I either just put my hand up and count to fie or I ring a little bell because mostly they're, not like crazy ring the bell. Just a little ding and then I put my hand up and count to five and at the end of me counting to five they know that they have their pencils down and they're listening because I have something to say. I don't abuse it, I don't over-use it and that makes it still like they pay attention to it.
Rules vs. procedures
It's also important, I'll just say, when you're introducing procedures to show that there is a very big difference between procedures and rules. Rules have consequences and rewards and procedures are just the way we do things to make life easier and make the classroom and everything run more smoothly.
It's important that you not only explain the procedure, you model it and you give the students opportunity to practice it and then you can implement it for the rest of the year. Those few weeks at the beginning of the year are tough. They take a lot of time and it takes up a lot of my classroom teaching time. But if I didn't do that at the beginning of the year I would get nothing done for the rest of the year.
The bilingual teachers at this school and our aides are just invaluable. For me personally, I think that they serve our students in the content area more. I don't see them in my classroom as much. They more push in with the students in their science and math classes and help them out content-wise.
But when I need to contact parents, that's who I go to. We have a Karen-speaking, Arabic-speaking and Somali-speaking teachers and teacher aides. If I did not have them, I don't know what I would do because a lot of my parents, in fact most them do not speak English.
So what, I interact mostly with those teachers to find out more about, "You know I haven't seen so-and-so in a while. Do you know what's happening with her family? Why hasn't she been in school? Can you call home for me?" and they do and they'll take it home with them at night or they'll call right there at that moment and it's just I can't put into words how helpful that is to have that resource right there.
When it comes to standardized testing and formal assessments, in New York State we take Regents exams. When it comes to the content of those exams I don't really have a hand in any of that. That's the content area teacher who prepares them for the format of that test, what types of questions they're going ask, what types of answers they're going need to give.
What I do try and do, I don't try to do it, I definitely do, is help my students understand what the testing environment is going to look like. I think it's very important that the students understand the accommodations that they have the right to receive.
So on a day when they have their Regents biology exam I make sure that they know, "You are going to be in a separate room. If you are not in that room you tell somebody to come and find Miss Lawrence because it's important that you're in a room with other students who speak your language," because another accommodation is that they are able to use bi-lingual dictionaries. They are also able to have an interpreter in their native language. Students get extended time, and it's important to let them know that they have extended time. If you need five hours to take the algebra exam you've got five hours, as long as you are working that entire time.
We have a very supportive principal who understands that these students need extra time and ultimately it's up to him as to how much time we give the students. So my role in preparing my students for formal and standardized testing is just to lessen the anxiety and let them know that there are different accommodations there that are going to help them to do well on the test.
We are fortunate for a lot of things at International Prep, but one of the things particularly for the ESL population is that we have an incredibly supportive administration. Our principal puts English language learners at the top of his list of priorities, and it shows.
He's concerned that they receive the amount of classes that they need to have. He's concerned about the cohort and are they going to graduate on time and how can we help them to graduate. I think that we have a very strong communication and a good deal of trust for one another between my ESL department and the administration.
If you are ever in a situation as an ESL teacher and you do not have a supportive administration or you're new to that situation, I think it's important to remember a few things. First and foremost you are an advocate for your students. There's students whose parents don't understand the power that they have, parents who won't come to school and fight for their students because they might come from a place where the teacher takes care of everything.
My personal belief is that as an ESL teacher you need to know your state regulations like the back of your hand. In New York State, there are, I'm sure different than other states, but No Child Left Behind makes sure that every state has regulations that determine how many periods of ESL a student receives at each level.
It is crucial that you know this information because no one else in the school is going to know it. The students aren't going to know it, and the principal may not know it either. One of the reasons that I believe we have such a good relationship and rapport with our principal and why he's so supportive is that we've never gone to him and said, "Well, this is what I think. I think this student should be at a beginning level." No. "This is the regulation and this is what the state test says and here it is in black and white and this is the law, and we need to follow it." So you're never approaching your administration or the person who makes the schedule with your own professional opinion. So if there are problems with trust it doesn't matter because you're going with the facts and you're fighting for your students based on their rights, the rights that the state gives those students, and no one else is going to do that except for the ESL teacher.
Michelle Lawrence Biggar has been an ESL teacher for the past eleven years. Michelle currently teaches at the International Preparatory School at Grover in Buffalo, NY. Her students are primarily refugee and immigrant adolescents from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. As a chairperson on her school's Redesign Committee, Michelle presented plans to the New York State Board of Regents on how to restructure the ELL program, which included a focus on small learning communities, and she led the design and implementation of the school's ELL program when it opened four years ago. In addition, Michelle teaches at the English Language Institute at the University at Buffalo.