August 2018 Featured Educator: James Robinette

Recently, Principal James Robinette sat down with Scott Gomer, WIDA Marketing Communications Director, to discuss his experiences as an ESL educator.

Please describe your background in education.

I have been a middle school teacher, an ESL teacher, a bilingual director, and an assistant principal in charge of bilingual education. I have two master's degrees (one with an ESL endorsement) and an administrator's certificate. I've recently started as principal in the LaGrange District at Congress Park, Illinois, where we just started a dual language program last year. I'm a huge supporter of immersion programs.

Now that you're in LaGrange, tell me what the environment is like, how many ELL students you have, that sort of thing.

My previous school (in Rockford, Illinois) was a K-8 school, 100% dual language. It was a 90/10 model, where the young students started at 90% Spanish, 10% English, eventually moving up to 50/50 by fifth grade. LaGrange is a 50/50 model, that is, 50% of the day is in English and the other half of the day in Spanish for all students, so it's going to be interesting to see the differences.

LaGrange is a completely different world than Rockford. In Rockford I had 750 kids in a K-8. This is a K-6 building, with about 450 kids. About 43% of the kids are white, 42% are Hispanic, and 10% are African Americans, with about 11% overall ESL. We have the highest ESL population in the district. We're also the only full-fledged Title 1 School in the district.

What do you like about this work? What do you find interesting? What motivates you?

In all honesty, when I did my first master's degree, I saw the ESL endorsement as possibly being a marketing tool for me, but once I got into the program and I learned all the linguistic aspects of it and all the teaching aspects like TPR (Total Physical Response) and the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) method, it really hit home with me that that’s just good teaching. And I knew I would be able to bring those things into the everyday classroom. That just motivated me to see that happen every day, everywhere, not just in an ESL classroom.

I also learned to love the culture. When I think of ESL, I know it starts with all the languages, but I really focus on the Hispanic culture. I love bringing that culture into the school for other students and adding that diversity into their lives and helping them learn how to work together, because those are the skills they need for their future.

What is your approach toward language learning? What techniques and strategies have you found that are most effective?

Well, like I said earlier, the TPR is my favorite. TPR stands for Total Physical Response. For example, when you're talking about the sun, you're making a hand gesture for the sun. So that whenever you talk about the sun, you use that gesture and the kids who don't speak English are still able to understand you. I really ran with the TPR. The SIOP method was something that I learned about in my ESL classes and I brought that into my classroom a little bit and it seemed to work very well too. My biggest thing with language development is you really need to learn the receptive language first, the listening and reading. That way you're able to speak better and you're able to write better, the productive language.

I also like having strong English speakers in the classroom. If they are strong with their English they can help those students who are not strong with their English and vice versa. The strong Spanish speakers can help the students who are learning Spanish.

Our researchers find that development in one language can help development in another language. So, whichever one is your first language, how well you perform in that language can help you with the second language.

Oh, yeah. If you come in with any type of education in that first language, it's just going to be beneficial. I find that some kids in Kindergarten don't come in with any preschool at all, so when they're coming in to their dual-language setting, it's very difficult for them to learn.

What about WIDA tools? We have a lot of resources and educator tools that we provide; do you use any of these tools?

I love the website; I actually have it bookmarked because I use your resources to train my staff. You have some small videos that help you with the standards, things like that. I use WIDA MODEL as a screener. I know my former district uses it and my current district uses it, too. Obviously, we use ACCESS for ELLs, but, I really like the friendliness of the website. It makes it easier to train my staff especially my non-ESL teachers, because it's very easy to use and very understandable.

You mentioned helping your staff out. What are some of the things you do to work with your team? Do you have any techniques or other information that you feel helps them so they can be as productive as possible?

Well, one of the things I like to do is just sit down with them and have them look at the students' ACCESS scores and look at each of the four domains and see which students we can group. Let's say we have five students who are really struggling with speaking. I ask, what can we do with these five students in the core class to help them with speaking?

I'm big on having students write every day and not necessarily for the teachers to grade but just to have them writing. I think that emphasizing all four domains leads to some rich conversations about how to help all students in the classroom. When you think about all four domains, that's where you can pair those strong language learners in one language with students who are stronger in the other language and they can work together on speaking, reading and writing.

What kinds of positive cultural diversity do you think English language learners bring to your school and your district?

When I worked in Rockford, we would do things like El Mercado, the supermarket, where students and teachers would create things to sell at the market. Students would come up with the ideas themselves and then we would have one night for parents to come in and buy these items. A lot of these items were linked to their heritage, so, maybe we'd have arts and crafts related to the Day of the Dead, for example. Parents were able to see them utilize their heritage to support other activities within the school.

We would also do a talent show and some of these kids would play the guitar and they'd play music. At Rockford, we were starting a mariachi band! Bringing in their culture really helped the school succeed, both in the community and in general. It really fostered the students' positive ideas of themselves.

Sometimes the ELL students and community really need some advocates fighting in their corner. What types of things do you do as an advocate for these learners?

One of the things that I try to do, and it may sound silly but, because I'm not fluent, I do my best to communicate with parents in Spanish. I think that really shows them that we as a school support their heritage and respect their culture. We also do the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish.

Do you and your staff have the resources that you need to be effective and assist language learners with their development?

You know what? I think we do. The WIDA Standards really help guide us, but in terms of the physical and material things, every school can use more. I think we need some more Spanish books. I think we need some more PD for all of our teachers.

Is there anything you'd like people to know about the way you interface with English learners or with WIDA or language development in general, or about your hopes for the future, now that you're in your new role?

I'm currently enrolled in my superintendency internship and, after that, I'm working on my doctorate focusing on dual-language. I'm hoping to use that platform to really advocate for proper dual-language schools. We need language allocations within districts that help support language learners to be the best that they can be.

I have found that one of the best ways to help new ESL students learn is to just talk to them! Just build those relationships and really support them in every single thing that they do. As a school, we try to really focus on the good things and really get the idea out to the community that these students learn just as well as everybody else does. We are all a team and we need to support each other and talk to each other and make everyone feel welcome.