October 2015 Featured Educator: Amanda Kail
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 teach ELs, mainly at the intermediate proficiency level in Grades 5-8 at Margaret Allen Middle Prep. I have been teaching 8 years and this is my 3rd year at this school.
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?
Our school has about 550 students. We are really diverse and have over 30 languages represented among our EL students, with the majority being Arabic or Spanish speakers. The vast majority of our ELs come from Egypt or Central America. Our district is very diverse as well. Metro national has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the country. This growth has been really wonderful for the city as a whole. People have this perception that in Nashville we are all county music and cowboy boots. And we are, but there is a lot more to the culture of this place now. I like to say there are many Nashvilles.
Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job?
I am a teacher first because I really truly believe public education is the foundation of democracy. Being an educator allows me to help support democracy. There aren’t many places in life in which you can really help everyone get a fair chance. I love my job because every day my students challenge me. They keep me on my toes, they are very creative, and I enjoy having that energy around me.
What is your approach in your classroom/school towards ELs? What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching ELs?
The number one thing is getting to know my students personally and making an effort to reach out to families. The parents often speak less English than their kids do and they too often feel helpless in their child’s education. I try to establish a relationship of trust with my students and their families. I make sure to always have a translator and I try to never have the child be the translator. I try to get to know what my parents’ concerns are and get to know their child’s background. Having families on my side is key. When students see we are a team then they know that we care about them that’s when I really see students try in class.
Last year the other EL teacher and I did a parent night specific to EL parents so we could explain what we are trying to do at the school. We provided food and translators, and we brought in resources that families can use at home in any language. We encouraged them to maintain their home language and shared how bilingualism is a valuable skill for their child’s the future. This night made them feel there is a lot they can do to support your child and that we are here to listen.
How do you determine/decide what language to focus on in a lesson? Describe your planning process to address the needs of ELLs, if possible.
I always try to put myself in their shoes. This summer I made myself take an intensive Arabic class. It was a real eye-opener to struggle to communicate. I keep that experience in mind when I am planning a lesson. I think, if I were them, what would I be able to understand in this lesson? Then I think about what is the most important piece that everyone needs to take away. Because EL students won’t be able to take away everything, so I need to think about what are the key things they all need to learn. Then, I think about what are the ways can we access this information besides just through speaking. How can we tap into all the domains?
I usually start with a 10-minute mini-lesson and then break into small reading groups, partner work, or cooperative work. Ultimately they are all going to read it, write it and speak it but I try to think of ways that they can work together to scaffold the lesson. Maybe they are writing one essay as a group. They are all contributing to the work, but this way they have peer support.
When I am thinking about assessment, I also try to think about the most straightforward way possible to state something. What is the key message that I need to get across?
What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?
My students have perspectives that a lot of adults don’t even have. Having to negotiate switching between language and cultures demonstrates a tremendous amount of learning and adaptability. They bring the perspective of the world that might be different from our own and remind us that the way we do things here that is different from how it may be done elsewhere.
For example, when teaching grammar, I will show how a sentence is structured in English and then we will talk about how it is structured in the languages they know. This helps them connect. This gives their home language validity and lets them know that their language or way of doing things isn’t wrong, just different.
How do you advocate on behalf of your EL students? Why do you feel this is necessary to do in your role?
Your EL students aren’t necessarily able to share with you the way your other students can. They need to have a place at school where they can share their feelings. I want them to know that I understand the isolation they may feel and to know that I will try to understand them the best that I can. A lot of teachers get a student with little English and they panic. They feel very overwhelmed and kids pick up on that. I want them to know that I am here for them. We have very high expectations for all students but I will never judge them for not being able to answer.
How do you encourage ELs to learn? How do you accelerate their language development and ensure their equitable access to content learning?
I meet with other teachers to help them meet the needs of their EL students. And we start with, “think of the most important thing you want all of your students to understand. That is what you want your EL to focus on in a lesson.” Break it into chunks and give them the most important pieces, rather than overwhelming them with everything and every vocabulary word. Think about how they will show you what they have learned.
I use the WIDA ELD Standards to help educators see what students can do at the different language levels. Of course you want to push them to grow but you have to start from where they are and help them access the content in a manner that matches their level of language.
How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?
The Can Do Philosophy and starting from what they can do is such a better way to begin than the deficit models that exist. I like how everything is differentiated, which reflects how our EL students are. If I know that a student is a Level 4 in reading and a 2 in writing, that tells me so much more than just using intermediate or beginner labels of proficiency. I go to my colleagues and show them the ACCESS for ELLs scores. I can say, “Look at this Can Do Descriptors chart. See these examples? This is how you can expect your students to use language.” This can help with grouping, planning, and assessment.
I really appreciate WIDA in that you think about EL students in a way that meets students where they are and describes where they need to go in a culturally responsive way. WIDA values what ELs bring to our classes and schools. I feel WIDA is helping our city and state move in the right direction.