ELL Teacher Diary #5: Starting a New School Year

By Ámbar de Mejía, ELL Outlook™ Staff Writer

Thursday, August 30
The School Year Begins

August 27 was the first day of the school year for North Carolina schools with traditional school calendars. The week before found the teachers in workshops, school meetings, orientation, and classroom preparation. After looking at my things-to-do list, I have to ask, as all teachers ask, How in the world will we ever be ready to teach the children with so much paperwork and testing to get done? But we make it, we always do. Every day I have been scanning my new student list, checking student demographics, marking which ones come from our county, which ones from out of county, and which are out-of-state students. It seems as if this year, I will only have one newcomer student from out of the country, at least for now. But we know that can change at any moment!

Last semester, I counted at least thirty new kindergarteners who were candidates for testing for English proficiency. Now, after only one week, we are already up to forty students. Forty kindergarteners! How am I going to test forty kindergarteners and still be able to teach my classes? The very week that I will be testing them, I will also be commencing classes throughout the school! If you know anything about me, you’ve probably already guessed that I went to make myself a cup of café negro sin azúcar—black coffee, no sugar—while pondering the ponderings. Hmmm… five per day at the least ought to do it. I have thirty days to test every new out-of-state or new foreign student.

OK, check my things-to-do list: Prepare a preliminary workable schedule targeting my novice low through intermediate-high students. Write a note to teachers asking for their schedules. Check the Home Language Survey prepared by the ESL/migrant office against our homeroom lists. Find the discrepancies and correct them.

Our principal has clustered some groups of English language learners, which is good for planning inclusion classes, especially reading classes. Then there are a few students needing one-on-one and extra practice with higher-order thinking skills. There is no way that I can serve all of my high-intermediate and advanced students. A few of them are spread throughout the grade levels. Last year I wrote and won a grant from the Johnston County Education Foundation to purchase a reading program for struggling readers. Locally, we called our program Reach for Reading. LeapFrog SchoolHouse offers reading kits for summer and before- and after-school programs. I was able to use these interactive magazine-style readers with my Grades 3 through 5 monitored students, those students who fall between the cracks because I do not meet with them on a regular basis. The really nice and convenient thing about this program is that the books help students by providing pronunciation of harder words and explanation of unfamiliar words, which means one less visit to a tedious dictionary (which usually lies unused in students’ desks because looking up a word is so time-consuming). I tested the neediest students and had them read during their independent reading time or at the end of the day. I noticed, though, that many of my students were not able to complete the accompanying worksheets. The ideal situation would have been for me to meet with each group before school, once a week, to explain what each worksheet was about, in order to guide them through the task. Most of my independent students were able to get most of the worksheets done, but some I hounded and visited regularly to make sure they were reading, at least reading and answering the questions on the skills charts, which are also interactive. Most of the students who completed the program’s reading and activities passed the end-of-grade examinations. This semester I will be able to implement the program much earlier in the year.

Monday, September 10
I Cheated!

What?!?

Gasp! Did she swipe the answers to the Praxis II? A public confession?

No, but I’ll explain later.

September 7 was the first day of school for our Hispanic students in kindergarten. Half of the kindergarten students came on Thursday, and the other half on Friday. I always ask our kindergarten teachers to have our Hispanic population come the second day to avoid confusion, unless the parents are bilingual and won’t have difficulty understanding that part of K-1 comes one day and the other part the next day. Even when letters are sent home in Spanish, so many of our parents are not functionally literate that I’d rather have the “first” day of school on that Friday!

I spent part of my day visiting each kindergarten classroom, just dropping in, walking around, helping the children with their seatwork, getting to know them. Even though, I had previously helped their parents during registration and orientation, to many of the children I was a stranger. I wanted to make sure that I had spoken to each child and seen each child at least twice before taking them to my classroom for English proficiency testing.

Hola, José. How are you?”

José stared at me with big eyes.

Bien,” he said after a while.

“What color is that?” I asked, pointing to his work. He answered, and I told him what a good job he was doing.

I continued making my rounds, asking both potential and non-ESL students about their work or complimenting them on it.

¿Cómo estás, Natalie? Are you fine?”

Again,the same reaction. You can almost see the question written on their faces. It’s as if they are silently asking, How does she know my name? Well, I cheated! I looked at their name tags, and they never saw me peek!

Friday, September 14th
The Testing Begins!

Not a single tear, not a single runny nose or anxious face at this stranger taking them away from Teacher!

Taking the time to meet the kindergarteners and talking with them BEFORE testing them has certainly made a difference, especially because they got to go with the Spanish-speaking teacher to her classroom.

As I test, I notice what students have been learning in a general way. Those who have gone to preschool or to Summer Academy have their basic communication skills down pat, but need more practice describing objects. The children are so eager to please their teacher, but at the same time, they don’t want to say yes to something they don’t understand. Braulio walked with me down the hall, and even though I was taking him to testing, I tried to get some teaching in, so I asked him if he was thirsty. No, he shook his head. Did he want some water? Again, no. I pointed to the water fountain, just in case. Aha! Yes, he nodded. And drink he did!

I spoke too soon. I received three new students: one from out-of-state and two who speak both Arabic and Spanish. What a combination! At least they have some conversational skills in English.

Teacher, Fulfill Your Duty!

The purpose of children in school is to remind teachers of their duties, according to one small girl. You see, after testing Gisela, she started looking for something on the table, on my desk, and finally said very clearly, “Where is my sticker?” What sticker? I thought to myself. I never give out stickers during testing.

“Let me see if I have any. Let me see. Let me see. OK, here you are. Choose one.”

Glad I had something in my desk. Glad I had organized my desk. Finally. And now, all the kindergarteners are getting a sticker after testing thanks to Gisela. It’s one of those things that I now wish I had been doing all along.

Classes Begin

So far, I have been doing inclusion with my students—no pull-out yet. The students who were on their way to an advanced level of proficiency seem to be doing well on their own. I am visiting classrooms, also, not really for inclusion, but to help individual students during the day. They do not need help all the time, only occasionally.

There is Gabriela, lost between two worlds, a world of Spanish and a world of English, not knowing enough of the two to get along in either. This does not seem normal after five years in our school system. Usually by now, students really do not need an ESL teacher. They have learned to use tools to acquire knowledge and understanding, and basically just need to be reminded, as any child needs reminding, what tools to use when. Gabriela doesn’t seem to make connections easily unless they are pointed out and practically handed over to her. Her class has been reading a biography of Helen Keller and filling out graphic organizers for each chapter. The task in the second chapter is to make a graphic for cause and effect. Gabi cannot seem to make the connection between a cause and its corresponding effect, and I have had great difficulty in getting it across to her. After reading a paragraph, I asked her this question: Since Helen Keller’s parents did not lose hope (the cause), what did they do (the effect)? This was difficult for her, even after she had given everyday examples of cause and effect. She could not answer. We read the paragraph again, or rather I did, impatient as I am, wanting to do it quickly. We read it again a third time, together,more slowly, until finally, although I did not want to divulge the answer, I HAD to ask her why Helen Keller’s parents took her to other doctors. Gabi finally was able to answer. I see that what works with her is to have a T chart with Cause and Effect written on it and examples so that she can figure out which is the cause and which is the effect. She cannot seem to retain what I, or her teacher, taught her from one day to the next. I will need to work with her one-on-one and discuss with her teachers specific strategies that they can use with her.

Then there is Janet. Teachers use realia whenever possible, and I have a box full of toys that I use to teach action verbs, adjectives, prepositions, anything that can benefit from a toy for teaching. Some children like stuffed animals, and some don’t. Some children do not even realize that when I use a different voice, it is not a toy talking, it is me. They actually freeze instead of playing or talking back to me, so I tell my toy to go take a nap. Some kids say a few words while looking at the toy or just laugh; some imitate me and act, too. And then there is Janet. I know I already said that, but anyway… This kid started to talk, and since I was listening to her, I forgot to move the toy around. She stopped in disbelief, waved her hand in front of the toy’s face, and said an indignant“Hey!” Her tone was an obvious protest at my lack of attention and appreciation of her efforts. So I quickly and dutifully used my falsetto voice and made an appropriate comment. Satisfied, Janet continued talking and talking. Whew! With students like Janet, I had better get my act and my acting together, or else!

September 20
More Testing

While giving an individual speaking test, lo and behold! An announcement came over the PA system: a lockdown drill! During testing! Next time, I’ll remember to warn the office that I am administering tests. I quickly locked up all testing materials while explaining to my student what was occurring. She did not seem to understand. I tried to relate this drill to a fire drill which surely she had practiced. A fire. “No, not a fire. We are practicing in case a bad person comes.”

I turned off the lights, herded my charge to a safe spot and sat with her.

“This is fun!” she cried.

“Not if somebody comes with a gun!” I replied as I formed my hand into the shape of a gun.

“I’m scared!” she whispered.

“No, you are not scared.”

She tried something else.

“I have to pee.”

“No, you don’t. Quiet down.”

Another announcement and back to the table to answer the last question. She looked a little strange. She was walking a little strangely, too.

She did have to go to the bathroom. We went quickly. Very quickly.

Sigh! It’s going to be a great year! More coffee!