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Open Your Heart to Young Language Learners

by Stephanie Ilse, September 2008

Stephanie Ilse

As I walk into the classroom, I am no longer considered one of a majority, but instead I am one of a minority. The children who sit before me are English language learners, ELLs.  How do I approach them? What subject do I start with?  I hope they understand and like me. These are only a few of the things speeding through my mind after entering the classroom. Then I remember that the nerves and worries running through me are nothing compared to what these children feel.

I could see from the start how important it is to provide a classroom and resources for these children who are entering a new culture and learning a new language.  They have enormous ability but need assistance from a teacher.  Still, that first day, I didn’t know if I truly wanted to teach in an ELL program.   Now, however, after spending time with these young language learners at two local schools, I would feel blessed to educate them.

My first experience was at Logan Middle School, where I worked at an after-school homework club during my freshman year at UWL.  When I arrived at the school, I would travel down the hall to Mrs. Miller’s ELL classroom to work with Hmong students. The first thing to catch my attention was how well behaved and courteous they were.  Sure, some students did not necessarily want to be there, but they remained respectful and happy to receive help.  I hate to pass judgment, but I felt as if they were more appreciative than the mainstream students I remember from my own middle-school days.  Maybe it was a part of the Hmong culture; but at any rate, I learned from them and they learned from me. My job as a tutor was to help them with homework, answer any questions about English, and simply form a relationship with them.

Most students took part in recreational activities, too.  One of the boys’ favorites was break dancing.  Many days I would supervise this activity, and I was amazed by their talent.   Even more impressive than their break dancing skills was their focus on schoolwork. In most cases, the boys would sit down in the gym and quickly finish any homework before they began dancing.  While some students stayed after school to dance or to participate in the City of La Crosse Parks and Recreation program, others headed to the UW-La Crosse campus to attend sessions at the Pre-College Tutoring Program.  During my freshman year working at Logan Middle Schools, I grew to admire the work ethic and drive that so many ELL students possessed.

During my sophomore year, I was walking into an ELL classroom once again, only this time it was at Meadowview Intermediate School in Sparta.  Those same questions, thoughts, and worries were returning as well. How do I approach them?  What subject do I start with?   This was my first clinical placement, and I was given the opportunity to work 32 hours with 4th, 5th and 6th grade Hispanic students.  The time spent at Meadowview was exciting for me because it was the first time students saw me as a teacher. They were even instructed to call me Ms. Ilse, which made me feel important.   All eyes were on me while I read and gave instructions, and they responded to the task at hand.

One thing that became clear to me instantly was the immense range of English proficiency levels among the students. Some were quick learners and spoke English fairly well, while others had difficulties with simple words. Mr. Castle, the teacher, told me that it was difficult to prepare a lesson that would fit the needs of every student.  But in every problem, there is something positive to be found.  In this case, the willingness of the more advanced students to help the struggling learners was wonderful.   They were all in the same boat, and they were able to understand each other’s problems. 

The majority of the students in this class were from Oaxaca, Mexico, and they had arrived within the past two years.  Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico, which means that many of these children had been considered workers before they came here.   Not only did the language change, but so did the structure and routine of their day.  They no longer had work as their first priority; they were in school.

A wonderful resource called “Newcomers” was distributed to each English language learner at the school. Along with this workbook, we used money to count change, made clocks to learn time, had interactive computer lessons, read stories that had English and Spanish text, used calendars to understand dates and months, and used maps or pictures to teach words and places.  The children even played games like Uno, chess, and mancala during breaks or as a reward. Similar to my first experience at Logan Middle School, I was able to learn a lot from the ELL students.   I learned not to make assumptions; I learned how important patience and encouragement are; and I learned different ways to teach the same thing.

I encourage you to open your heart to young language learners, not only because they are learning a new language but also because they are dealing with emotional and physical changes. They worry about understanding a teacher or reading a book.   They worry about fitting in and creating friendships.  For many newcomers, the United States offers a “better life.”  However, their struggles and hardships have not disappeared.  After spending time in two ELL classrooms, I see an ELL teaching position as one that comes with numerous challenges, great responsibilities, and countless rewards.   It’s important for all of us, not only TESOL professionals, to admire the leaps and efforts that Hispanics, Hmong, Somalis, and all other groups have made in order to become part of this culture, this country.   My message to English language learners is this:  We are happy you are here.