December 2019 Featured Educator: Barbara Kwan

Barbara Kwan is an ESL teacher for K-5 students at Horace Mann Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. Barbara has taught English language learners in Newton Public Schools for over seven years and is in her third year at Horace Mann.

Describe your class, school and district. Please tell us a little about its location, its size and the composition of the student body. What do language services look like in your school?

While Newton Public Schools is an affluent suburban district right outside of Boston, Horace Mann Elementary is a Title 1 school with 392 students who have a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Among the student population, over 25 different languages are spoken at home.

Newton’s ELL program is linguistically and culturally diverse, and students move in and out all the time. We currently have 28 ELLs, yet sometimes we could have upwards of 38 students in a given year. Many of our ELL students were born in the U.S. and some have moved from another country to live here permanently or for a few years. Our ELL students’ most common home languages are Spanish and Mandarin. The variety of other languages is so incredible with Luganda, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Thai, Russian, Vietnamese, Hindi, French, Urdu and Japanese.

Oftentimes I, along with another colleague who splits time at Horace Mann, provide English language instruction integrated with the core general curriculum. Pushing in or pulling out of the classroom, we may focus on academic and social language, cultural background knowledge, vocabulary previewing and more –depending on our students’ needs. With such a diverse caseload, collaboration with other teachers at my school is key to determining the most appropriate instruction, supports and objectives to develop students’ language. Our role as ESL Teachers is not just about building language skills, it is about advocating every day for our students and families and supporting their social-emotional well-being in school.

Why did you choose to become an educator? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

I chose to become an educator because I always loved learning in school and wanted to make a difference in a child’s life just like my elementary school teachers did for me. As a kid I always imagined I would eventually become a teacher later in life. However, my path wasn’t as straightforward. After studying communications and psychology in college, I worked in media publishing in New York City for several years. When I moved back home to Boston, I decided to work toward a Master’s degree in elementary education and then a Master’s degree in special education. At the same time I earned a Teaching English Language Learners Certificate because I was interested in working with the numerous ELLs in the area. I felt connected having had my own experience growing up using a mix of English and Cantonese at home, or "Chinglish" as my family playfully liked to call it.

Every day at school I love seeing our students grow in their language learning skills. It is amazing to see them smile with understanding and confidence. I love learning from my students, hearing their home stories, and talking about commonalities and differences among our cultures. Even so, lack of time can be so frustrating with this job. I would love to work with all of my students more often, but sometimes it’s just not possible because of the limited school hours and scheduling conflicts.

What is your approach toward supporting language learning in your classroom and school? What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching language learners?

I support language learning in my school by first thinking about the whole child and trying to know who my learners are. I believe my students are ready for learning when they feel connected, physically and emotionally safe and comfortable taking risks. When I build relationships with my students, I gain more insight into their past experiences and family and home environments. I get a better understanding of their strengths and areas for growth, background knowledge, emotional development and learning styles.

In order to develop language and make content comprehensible and accessible, I have found using supports such as visuals/graphics, manipulatives and sentence frames to be so beneficial. I also like to think of interactive, engaging projects that incorporate technology (e.g., computers and iPads) so students can practice their speaking, listening, reading and writing skills. My students are often very motivated to show their learning through real life or animated videos, puppet shows or plays and digital storytelling.

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

I always want my students to know that I believe in their abilities to learn and grow, but I think it’s even more important for them to believe in themselves in order to keep persevering when some things might be more difficult for them. I like to explicitly teach my students about growth mindset, the brain and specific mindset language that encourages positive self-talk. When my students begin to believe that mistakes are okay and the power of “yet,” I have seen such a difference in their affective filters. Likewise, having diverse materials such as books that reflect my students, helps them see themselves and better connect with their learning.

How do you determine which WIDA English Language Development Standard(s) to focus on in a lesson? Describe your planning process to address the needs of your students. How do you manage to collaborate with content area teachers?

When I check in with teachers (in person or through email/Google Docs) about their upcoming units, it helps to be familiar with each grade level’s curriculum so that I can begin to think about what language is needed to meet the lessons’ content objectives. As I focus on specific language functions such as describe, explain, compare/contrast, etc., I also plan for the vocabulary and sentence structures students would need for different proficiency levels. Then I think about the sensory, graphic and interactive supports that would aid in making content comprehensible. Even though our teachers are so busy, they value collaboration. If we’re not able to have consistent meetings, we frequently share ideas and resources through email or often through quick conversations in between transitions.

What benefits of strength do language learners bring to your classroom and school? What benefits do their families bring to schools or the surrounding community?

Our language learners not only bring wonderful linguistic diversity to our school, but they also bring their rich experiences and perspectives of the world. When our students are able to recognize their own and each other’s uniqueness, they encourage all students to foster more understanding and empathy. Everyone in our school learns to value similarities and differences among peers. Our ELL families come into school knowing that they are always welcome and that everyone belongs. From visiting their child’s classroom to reading a favorite book in their home language to taking part in our lively Food and Culture Night every year, families are able to share their individual cultures, traditions and world knowledge, which in turn creates such a dynamic community within the school.

What methods or tools do you use to assess your students' language learning?

At the end of every school year I look at students’ ACCESS for ELLs results to see their language progress and I revisit their score reports at the beginning of the next school year to see what areas for growth are still needed. Talking with classroom teachers about our observations and anecdotal notes monitors student learning, as well as using continual informal and formal measures such as our benchmark reading assessments. I can assess students’ language development in writing by analyzing pre- and post-assessments and having frequent writing conferences with individual students.

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

WIDA has an abundance of resources that help guide my teaching practice: assessment of student growth and conversations with other teachers. With Model Performance Indicators providing examples of language standards to focus on, I am able to think about each of my student’s needs and how to differentiate for the language expectations for varying proficiency levels. ACCESS for ELLs yearly reports show my students’ language development and enables me to analyze their performance to set appropriate goals. More importantly, WIDA’s Can Do approach towards ELL students help all teachers frame their perspectives to see the strengths and assets our ELLs bring to school every day.