Teacher Diary #3: A Chronicle Of a First-Time ELL Teacher

By Kristin Bair, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer

In January 2006, I visit the E. J. Harrington Elementary School in Lynn, Massachusetts, for the first time. Upon driving into the parking lot, I see that it is just as principal Joanne Roy described it when we spoke, back in the fall. Harrington is a big brick building surrounded by lots and lots of concrete. There are no trees and no playground, and as a first-time visitor, I find it nearly impossible to find the proper door for visitor entry. After I wander about for five or so minutes in the cold, a school employee points me in the right direction, up a flight of concrete steps that looks as if it had been built for Paul Bunyan, and across a concrete patio where Babe the Blue Ox could have easily stretched his legs. But despite the alienating exterior of the building, I quickly discover that inside is a warm, friendly, inviting school staffed by motivated teachers and full of bright, promising students.

After checking in with the office, I am directed to Jacqui Gallo’s first-grade SEI classroom at the end of the hall. Once there, I find myself in a large, bright, sunny room with tall windows along one wall. An American flag hangs in one corner with the Pledge of Allegiance printed on a poster beside it. And as is required in all Structured English Immersion (SEI) classrooms, posters and prompts are printed in English only (although I do notice a series of number posters that features numbers in both English and Spanish: one, uno; two, dos; and so on). Each student has his or her own desk, and a large blue table sits near the middle of the room. Learning centers-drawing, listening, writing, and reading-are strategically placed with lots of supplies on hand, and posters and student work hang on the walls. As I enter, Gallo is transitioning the students from shared reading to their next lesson. The students have been expecting me, and they are visibly excited by my arrival. After quieting their murmurs, Gallo introduces me, and the students, at least the ones more comfortable speaking English, practice saying my name: Ms. Bair. Immediately, their personalities and their proficiency in spoken English become obvious. Steven hangs back quietly, sneaking shy glances at me, while Patricia, from Honduras, takes my hand and peppers me with questions: “What is your name again? How long are you staying? What is that?” (It’s a mini tape recorder.) “Do you want to sit with me?”

Without too much interruption in the schedule, which is printed and displayed on sentence strips at one end of the room, Gallo guides the students to their next lesson. The students are divided into three groups: red, yellow, and blue. While the yellow group of four will work with Gallo at the blue table on reading intervention (required because Harrington is a recipient of a Reading First grant), the red and blue groups will work in the learning centers, independently and collaboratively.

As the students shuffle about, Gallo speaks warmly to them, prompting them to look at the Work Board to figure out which learning center they should go to next. She explains to me that this is the first day she has used the Work Board. Until this week, she had a second teacher in the room during reading intervention, so things were much easier. Now that she’s on her own during this time, she devised the Work Board, which graphically depicts the learning centers that each group should go to. For example, if the yellow group is supposed to work in the reading center and then the listening center, the board shows a piece of yellow construction paper (to represent the yellow group), and then a graphic of a book (reading center) and a graphic of a pair of headphones (listening center).

Despite the fact that it is the first day they use the Work Board, the students study it closely and do a pretty good job getting to where they need to go. Gallo uses positive reinforcement to help them, saying things like, “Kenny is already in the listening center with his headphones on. Good for you, Kenny! He knows the picture of the headphones on the Work Board means he needs to go to the listening center.” The students use each other as cues and support, and they beam when Gallo singles them out as positive models. She is careful to divvy this praise up among all the students, making sure each feels valued and successful.

Once the red group is settled in the writing center and the blue group is settled in the listening center, I sit with the yellow group and watch Gallo move the students through a series of sound and letter exercises. As the lesson progresses, Abdullah joins us, leaning between two other students and interrupting the lesson. Abdullah is a Somali boy from the blue group who speaks very little English. Gallo tells me that he is new to her class and has been in the United States for only a month or so. He is still uncomfortable in the classroom and seems confused by everything. Throughout the morning, I watch him wander from group to group, picking up objects, making small sounds, and looking rather uneasy. He crawls under his desk, loses a pencil in a matter of seconds, and pushes a few of the other students. Though he is disruptive, Gallo continues to use positive reinforcement to help him learn good classroom behavior. She is patient and once again uses the other students as models. “Abdullah, look at how nicely Patricia is drawing a picture of her mother,” she says, showing him the picture and then handing him a crayon. “You draw, too. Draw me a picture.” He doesn’t draw right now, but Gallo explains that the repetition of directions and guidance will help him understand over time.

Later, when the students are at lunch and we have a few minutes to talk, Gallo tells me that the wide range of abilities in the class is one of her major frustrations. On the one hand, she has Olivia, a very advanced student who recently began spending half her day in a mainstream first-grade classroom and who will soon transition out of Gallo’s classroom completely; on the other hand, she has Abdullah, who speaks very little English and cannot yet understand the simplest directions. His arrival has greatly changed the dynamic of the classroom. By losing Olivia, she loses a strong student, someone who serves as a positive model for the other students, and by gaining Abdullah, she gains a student whose behavior challenges increase the behavior problems of the other students. Until he catches up to them, she says, they regress a bit. So it’s like starting over . . . for all of them.

While Gallo fluctuates between her own feelings of success and failure, she is learning to accept changes as they come and to focus on the growth of each individual student. When I point out what strong conversationalists Patricia and Evan are, she agrees. They are great fun to talk with and are so excited about learning more. But, she explains, their writing skills are not as developed as their speaking skills. They still have a lot of work to do in that area.

She tells a story about Pilar, a student who for many months called every letter t no matter what the letter was-n was t, l was t, and so on. This went on for months and months. “Additionally,” Gallo explains, “every word, even if I gave her the three sounds in the word, was cat. No matter what the letters were. Then one day, Pilar finally blended a whole word together, and I was so shocked. I gasped and gave her a high-five. And she was confused because she didn’t even realize what she had done now or not done before. Something just clicked. She did it a few more times that week, but then we had vacation and she backslid a bit. She’ll get it back.”

Gallo explains that the required Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) training course, which she has now completed for the year, taught her new teaching strategies and also helped her put names to strategies she was using naturally but not necessarily recognizing as strategies. For example, through the training she learned the term wait time, which means giving students enough time to process what you’re saying and then enough time to process what they’re going to say in response. “I’ve always been pretty good at this,” Gallo says, “so it’s something I’m used to. But now I have a name for it.”

She also says she’s glad that she took her first SIOP training course at the same time that she’s teaching for the first time in an SEI classroom. “I’m doing them at the same time, and I’m finding that they go hand in hand. I can immediately put into practice what I learn in the course,” she explains. “For example, in the planning part, I learned to write down itineraries because there are so many steps involved.” She pauses to show me a large board on which she printed the itinerary for the day’s shared reading lesson. “It’s easy to post an itinerary to help me stay on task; then I don’t have to refer to my notes while I’m teaching. I can just look up real quick.”

She also learned that her instinct to encourage the children to interact throughout the day, talking, sharing, and socializing, is right on track. Her use of learning centers facilitates this. When each of three groups is working in the learning centers, I notice that their conversation, at least among the native Spanish speakers, is a mix of English and Spanish. The students help each other, translating certain words when one of them is confused, but for the most part, the students love to practice their English and chide each other if they speak too long in their native language. “My mom only speaks Spanish,” Patricia explains to me. “I speak Spanish at home and English in school. I’m trying to teach my mom a little bit of English.”

When I ask Gallo what doesn’t work in the classroom, she points to the list of objectives that hang at the head of the room. Displaying these objectives and actually reviewing them at the beginning and end of a lesson is required in an SEI classroom. While she appreciates the use of itineraries, she dislikes the fact that she is required to focus on the objectives in this way. Her list reads:

Language Arts Objectives

  • Identify correct letter sounds
  • Identify correct spelling
  • Identify correct capitalization
  • Identify appropriate end marks

“I have to do the objectives,” Gallo explains, “and I don’t think they’re appropriate for this level. I think it would be very good for the older kids, but not for this level. My students are beginners and they’re first-graders. It’s fine to have the objectives posted, but they’re too hard to fit in. The lessons are long anyway, and now I have to keep my students’ attention for listening to the objectives.”

One of her other frustrations is that during progress assessment, which happens every three to four weeks, students are tested on nonsense words-combinations of letters that aren’t really words. “I think it’s very inappropriate for these kids,” Gallo says. “The intention is to make the students focus on sounds, which is good, but these kids are just learning English and it’s confusing. How do I distinguish between what is a word and what is not a real word? I haven’t been focusing on it, but now I’m thinking that I should because their scores were not very high on nonsense words.”

But despite the challenges, Gallo insists that there are more positives than negatives. For example, she’s more practiced at changing things when she’s teaching and recycling material as much as possible. “I’ll have a whole group discussion, then a partner share. If I’m following the Mimosa math lesson, I’ll add an extra scaffolding technique, an extra activity, anything that will help reinforce the comprehension. Or I’ll do something in a different way: acting it out, using manipulatives. I have the students do a lot of kinesthetic activities.”

When a lesson isn’t working, she notices that the students are distracted or not watching her, and she tries to spice things up by changing her voice, clapping her hands, or snapping. She says that throughout the past five months, she’s developed more trust in herself. “At the beginning of the year, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do when something wasn’t working,” she says. “I was nervous and afraid of doing something non-academic, even like reading a book. But I’ve learned that the students love to hear stories, no matter how long they are and even if they don’t understand the words. They love it!”

Like most of us in education, Gallo and her students continue to grow-a few steps back, a few steps forward-but they’re on the right path.

Before leaving Gallo’s classroom and heading home, I played back a portion of what I had recorded on my tape recorder. The students, especially Abdullah, were fascinated and laughed hysterically when they heard their own voices. As I made my way to the door, a few of the girls hugged me and all of the students, even Steven, said good-bye in English.