CReATE Safe Spaces for Learning

by Donna Neary

There are 100,600 students enrolled in JCPS and 6,000 of them are English learners (ELs.) That means that just over six percent of our student population in the district speak 106 languages and represent countries from around the globe. These numbers are expected to steadily climb. By 2025, researchers predict that one in four students in U.S. public schools will be an English learner.[1]

So, what does this mean for teachers in JCPS? For me, it means I spend my day in a classroom with students from five continents, dozens of countries, and speaking up to 41 distinct languages. In my third year at Iroquois High School International Academy, I teach lessons in English with the support of a cadre of teachers and a small number of interpreters. Called the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model, newcomers are in classes with only English learners to transition before they are introduced to mainstream classrooms. This strategy requires teachers to earn an ESL Endorsement.

Wondering what this all meant, and how I could be a successful ESL teacher, prompted me in 2015 to begin, first, an email group with ESL teachers and allies, and now contribute to this blog. I found that pre-service teachers, administrators, university professors, community partners and teachers in the classroom were looking for a place to ask questions and find answers.

Currently, ELs are taught in ESL and mainstream classrooms in schools across the district. There are a few newcomer programs, but we know that teachers all over JCPS are welcoming ELs into their classrooms and differentiating lessons to meet their needs. In fact, teachers are speaking out and asking for resources to provide the best for these students.

One response to this need for resources and training is the first of what we hope will become an annual gathering of teachers called the EL Idea Exchange. Held last week at Iroquois High School, the PD was based on the EdCamp model. Participants trained a laser beam on all issues EL: Literacy for Elementary, Middle and High School students; Accommodations in the classroom and for testing; Technology; Cultural Competency; and Trauma. The 150 slots filled up fast and the participants came ready to learn and collaborate. The biggest take-away of the day was the comradery of teachers and others who work with ELs and everyone’s willingness to collaborate and support one another.

There are many readily available resources to help you build lessons and develop strategies for managing a classroom that includes English speakers and ELs. If you’re looking for resources to support your EL students, I recommend you first visit the JCPS website of the district ESL office.  

 One of my favorite websites for all teachers is the Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzalez. She has written an outstanding guide for mainstream teachers who teach ELs.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you sign up for her weekly email newsletter.

 Please look for my future posts to gain the perspective of a teacher in an ESL classroom to share resources that may help you build skills and gain confidence quickly. I’ll let you know about PD and training in and out of the District. I’ll also answer any questions you may have about building relationships with EL students. So, please contact me with questions, and let me know if you want to be added to our email group CReATE Safe Spaces for Learning. Everyone on the list is invited to share information, send out kudos, and ask for help!

And, finally, yes! teaching ELs is challenging, but so is all teaching! By working with ELs we test our teaching mettle, and are rewarded with amazing relationships with wonderful students and their families.This was made clear by a student writing a reflection about what she had lost and found in her life. J., a girl who is nearly 20 years old and a sophomore, gave a powerful response. She said, “When I was in Congo I lost my education. I thought it was gone forever. But I found it again in America and it is free.”

ELs want the same things that all our students want: to build lives for themselves and their families in our community. So, as we head into summer and a well-deserved break, I offer this charge to all JCPS teachers preparing for next year: be fearless, get back to basics, use graphic organizers, teach vocabulary and guide your students to read, write, speak and listen every day. All your students will benefit from your focus on the foundations of learning. Most importantly, trust yourselves. You got this!

Donna teaches newcomers at the International Academy at Iroquois High School. She is a Rank 1, Alt. Cert. teacher and the author of several books and articles about Kentucky history, including Historic Jefferson County; Louisville, in the Images of America series; Riverside: The Restoration of a Way of Life; and Blackacre.