December 2017 Featured Educator: Rachel Burrel

Where do you teach? What grades?

I am a K-5 ESL teacher in Wheaton, IL at Whittier Elementary School. I have been teaching for 14 years, 8 of which have been at my current school in the western suburbs of Chicago.

What is your class, school and district like?

Our district is located in the Chicago suburbs. We have a total of around 12,500 students in the district, approximately 1,300 of whom are English learners. Our English learner population is very diverse. We service students who speak a total of 69 languages other than English, and our top languages include Spanish, Nepali, Burmese, Arabic and Chin Hakha. Our district EL Department believes that each one of our English learners can achieve at a high level and works collectively to help our students reach their highest potential.

My school is a welcoming, caring environment with a talented staff and wonderful students. Our staff believes in having a Growth Mindset, and I have very positive experiences when collaborating with teachers about our English learners. Our ELs are mainstreamed and receive either pull-out or push-in services. I personally enjoy any co-teaching opportunities because of the chance to learn from my colleagues and also work together for the students' success.

Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job?

Talent is universal; Opportunity is not – Nicholas Kristof

I am an educator because I believe that education has the power to change the trajectory of an individual's life. It is an honor to give the opportunity of education to others. It often comes to my mind that many students in our school district may not have had access to education in their home countries. To give the opportunity of education is to change the future of not only the student but also of his/her family.

I love many aspects of the teaching profession, but by far what I love most are the students, their families, and my teaching colleagues. Perhaps what I appreciate above all is the opportunity that my students give me. Spending my day with students who come from backgrounds that are different from mine gives me the opportunity to grow in understanding and empathy, and it gives me a new lens with which to see the world.

What is your approach in your classroom/school towards teaching language learners? What techniques or strategies have you found to be most effective?

My initial approach within my classroom and our school is to help our English learners and their families become part of the school community. Once a child feels welcome, comfortable, and safe, he/she is more likely to have a successful language learning experience. I also want to be sure that I take the time to understand my students' backgrounds – their cultures and languages and their unique journeys prior arriving at our school.

When it comes to particular strategies, I am always working to find the most effective strategies for accelerating English language learning and closing the achievement gap. I am still learning and growing as a teacher, but there are a few approaches that I find to be particularly helpful.

For K-1 students and newcomers, I consistently incorporate Language Experience Approach as a starting point. I love to give my students real experiences, whether it is an outdoor experience or a hands-on experiment and then to use the language they generate about the experience as a basis for activities to teach basic literacy skills. I have also been greatly influenced by the scholarship of Dr. Kate Kinsella. Her emphasis on instructional routines, academic vocabulary instruction, language response frames, and structured academic interaction have inspired me to be a constant model of academic language for my students and to provide daily supported opportunities for my students to gain academic vocabulary and hone their language skills.

What benefits of strengths do language learners bring to your classroom and school?

English learners bring the gift of their own life journeys to our school community. As much as I am a teacher, I want to be a learner. When it comes to the EL students and their families, they are assets to our schools, and I hope to continue to learn and encourage others to learn from the unique gifts that they have to contribute to our communities.

How do you encourage students to learn? How do you accelerate their language development and ensure their equitable access to content learning?

I believe much of encouraging learning with students is having a positive relationship with them. Many of my students have significant challenges to overcome, and they need to feel that I believe in them. I want to be their biggest cheerleader and a consistent voice of hope in their lives.

It is extremely important that we keep the bar high for English learners. It is easy to become distracted by their limited English proficiency or the achievement gap, but it is imperative that we maintain a level of rigor and work to use the most effective strategies. With regards to equitable access to content learning, I believe that if we begin with the grade level standard and then provide scaffolds and supports for our English learners to access that standard, they have the greatest chance at a high level of achievement.

In addition to the most effective strategies for teaching English learners, collaboration between the ESL teacher, the classroom teacher, and the parent(s) is a must. When the ESL teacher and the classroom teacher target certain skills and set goals, language development is accelerated. Additionally, anytime a parent can be involved in goal setting and participate in the child's reaching of those goals, the student seems to progress at a quicker pace. Teacher collaboration and the home-school connection are vital to student growth.

How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

I wholeheartedly appreciate not only the extensive resources that WIDA offers but also their national leadership as far as mindset towards English learners. Their Can Do philosophy to working with ELs is an invaluable perspective that leads teachers and administrators to have an asset-based approach with students.

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