May 2018 Featured Educator: Ying Ong

Ying Ong taps into her own experience as a multilingual learner to support her students and collaborate with her colleagues in Aurora, Colorado. She enjoys continually challenging her own learning and that of her students.

Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

I am an English Language Specialist (ELS) at Ponderosa Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. I have worked at several other schools in the Cherry Creek School District and this is now my second year at Ponderosa Elementary. I chose to move to my current school upon completing my Masters in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Teaching, since I felt I could help the most here.

What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body?

We currently have 712 students at Ponderosa Elementary School. Out of the student body, there are 252 students who are English language learners and over 19 languages spoken. The students here are very diverse linguistically, culturally and racially. We have students at every level and with very different linguistic backgrounds. This really pushes us to think about how to best differentiate and support each student. The student demographic was the reason I chose to work at my current school. When I moved to Ponderosa Elementary, I went from serving 30 ELLs to over 200. I am now part of an incredible team of four English Language Specialists. It is amazing to have colleagues to talk to about language development and grow with in terms of my teacher practice and how we support students.

What is your approach in your classroom/school toward multilingual students?

Cherry Creek School District has implemented a wonderful co-teaching approach to our language support services. Here at Ponderosa Elementary, we co-plan weekly and co-teach daily with grade-level teachers. The co-teaching approach we use relies on four different models of co-teaching: supportive, complimentary, parallel, and team teaching. As for which model we choose to use, this largely depends on the needs of the students in a particular class. As a district, we utilize Thinking Maps. I really love these because they are a great way for students to organize and conceptualize the content and language they are learning. They not only help the students, but as teachers we can tell a lot about what and how students are comprehending a lesson from how they fill out a thinking map. I find the maps are also helpful to check a student's planning for a writing assignment. If I can check in with them during the writing process, I find they are more motivated to incorporate what we conference about, rather than waiting until after they have written a draft a give a student feedback.

What has helped make your co-teaching relationships, or the approach as a whole, a success?

My most successful co-teaching relationships have been with teachers who are flexible and open to the approach. But it really comes down to the co-planning. This does require support from not only the teaching staff but our administrator as well. This time together is essential, or else I am only able to be a supportive figure in the classroom. During our co-planning discussions, not only am I learning about what content students will be working on, but content teachers are gaining an understanding of the language involved and we discuss how to support all levels of language learners. It just helps us both add to the skills and strategies we have to support students, so even when an ELS teacher isn't in the classroom, teachers know how to effectively engage their students. For example, I have a third-grader who is a Level 2, in terms of his English proficiency, so she benefits from a lot of picture supports. When the teacher was doing a retell with the class, I was supporting the retell with pictures and keywords along with using thinking maps. After modeling this support, the teacher has incorporated this strategy while doing retells or summaries with this student throughout the day. The teachers have given me feedback that co-teaching has really helped them think about the language they are using with students and, in some cases, it has shown teachers the benefit of slowing down a bit. There is so much content to get through that we can feel pressure to rush through and maybe not give students as much wait time or time to talk to one another. Having two teachers working together, we can remind each other to slow down or give students a bit more time, if we notice it is needed.

How do you determine/decide what language to focus on in a lesson?

Describe your planning process to address the needs of ELs if possible. We always go back to the standards. If we first look at the academic standards and determine what students need to be able to do or understand, then I can start to identify which language functions come into play. For example, if students are doing a compare and contrast activity, we talk about the language students need to compare things or events. We often use Thinking Maps to add a visual piece for students. In this example, we would use a double bubble map that allows students to show that they are understanding, how to make comparisons, or if they are comprehending the content. This graphic helps lighten the linguistic load for language learners as well as helping them make sense of how to use, in this case, language to make comparisons.

How has your experience as an EL influenced your approach?

My parents ethnically are Chinese, but they were born in Vietnam, so their nationality is Vietnamese. My parents came here as refugees and didn't speak or understand English. As the oldest child in my family, I often had to navigate the language for them or serve as the interpreter. This isn't always easy or fair for a child. Now, when working with families, I always make sure to enlist the help of interpreters and to make sure that families know that this is a service we have for them, so as not to put this on the student. In our district, we also have wonderful cultural liaisons, who are such an amazing resource not only for families, but also for teachers to understand the cultures of our students. I think my own experience as a language learner has increased my sensitivity to the experience of ELL students and helped me understand how exhausting it can be for a child to learn a language on top of learning the content. My experience has helped me during co-planning conversations when we are looking at the linguistic load or complexity of the language in the lesson or a text. I want to make sure it is challenging but not to the point that it will be overwhelming for students.

How do you assess your students' language learning?

Since all of the English Language Specialists work with first graders, we use this grade level as the focus for our Professional Learning Community. In our PLC, we use the WIDA Writing Rubric to give us a common language and a lens for looking at student writing samples. From there, we have been able to create checklists and plan lessons with a particular language focus. By collecting writing samples throughout the year, we are able to really see the language growth. Or, if there isn't growth, it allows for us to come up with a plan for the student. This year, our PLC is reading Empowering English Learners for Classroom Success. In this book, the author talks about the benefits of cultivating a growth mindset. As a team, we are engaging in reflection around this topic with hopes of empowering our language learners with this mindset in the future.

What benefits or strengths do multilingual students bring to your classroom/school?

The power of perspective. I think language learners can provide a different perspective that we all can learn from, so it is important that we encourage them to share their experiences and observations. I am always amazed by these kids and how hard they work. I think it is wonderful for students to see how quickly our language learners grow linguistically and academically because it shows all students what can be accomplished with hard work.