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English learners: The journey toward excellence

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Imagine a classroom filled with eager students, whose homelands span the globe and who desire, nearly above all else, to receive an exceptional education. Couple that with a passionate, dedicated, enthusiastic teacher. Welcome to Joanna Farrell’s English as a Second Language (ESL) class at Valley High School in West Des Moines.

Farrell and other K-12 educators and administrators of English learners (EL) are attending the Our Kids Summer Institute on June 16-17 at Waukee High School. They are gathering to network, discover new teaching strategies, and meet national and local experts pertaining to working with English language learners.

Educating EL students is a second career for Farrell. Formerly in banking, she speaks conversational Spanish and fluent Greek. Today, she is certified in kindergarten-through-12th grade ESL with two reading endorsements, and currently earning a master’s degree. Inspired by her own love of reading and her family history, educating ELL students is a natural fit.

“I’m a first generation Greek-American,” she said. “My mother came to the United States from Greece after World War II at the age of 8. ESL classes did not exist then. All they did was give her flashcards, place her in the back of the class and say, ‘learn English.’ I grew up hearing stories about how challenging it was to learn English and act as the family translator. I understand what it’s like to have customs, food and language at home that are different from that of other kids in school.

“I knew how my mother was treated in the past, and I wanted to make a difference for similar students today. When I went back to school to get my degree, it was always a foregone conclusion that I would teach ESL. Given my background, I have a special connection with my students.”

High school EL students face a balancing act between language acquisition and learning content. The clock is ticking when they arrive and they have a maximum of three years in the building. ESL instructors must help students bring their language acquisition up to speed while simultaneously maintaining integrity of content crucial to their core classes. Middle school and elementary EL students face different sets of challenges indicative of their individual needs, age and stage in the educational process.

“My reading endorsements allow me to approach teaching through that reading lens,” Farrell said. “With my students’ limited English proficiency, they often have not had the opportunity to be exposed to great literature. I try to turn that around. This year they read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jane Eyre. I have found publishers who have materials of high interest to teens like sports or natural disasters, but with lower reading levels to facilitate comprehension and mastery. We work to simplify and distill information so they can use it comfortably here and when they walk out my door.”

Farrell uses numerous teaching strategies and professional resources to reach her students. Total Physical Response, known as TPR, is a technique that requires instructors to literally use their body to illustrate concepts, like stretching out one’s arms to indicate a vast expanse. Realia, which are physical objects found in real life, are also used in her instruction to improve students’ understanding of real-life situations.

“And thank goodness for Google Images!” she said. “Anything to help me provide them with concretes to increase understanding. Remember, my students have to hear words, then process in their first language, then translate into English, then give a response whether written or spoken. Think about the challenges involved in that process.”

Beyond the teaching techniques, it’s also critical to develop relationships.

“At the core of education for all of us is being able to build relationships with our students, regardless of what we are teaching.” Farrell said. “In ESL classes, we have the privilege of getting to know our students at a deeper level. We help them academically and we help them with everyday aspects of living and working, like getting a bus pass, or passing their driver’s education exam, or introducing their families to the public library. We laugh with them, cry with them, mourn with them, and acknowledge each milestone on their journey.”

For the last 150-plus years in Iowa, there have always been waves of refugees. But Farrell sees the rate increasing and becoming even more diverse, creating new challenges for educators.

“There’s always something I can learn,” she said. “I want to model that for my students. Adults are always learning, too.

“Most of all, I marvel at what our EL students have overcome and achieved at such a young age. It never ceases to amaze and impress me. It is both humbling and inspiring. They often leave family members behind, and must overcome multiple obstacles including language barriers to pursue their education.”

Farrell is proud of her students, five of whom are entering college this fall.

“It’s important for people to know that EL students have limitless potential,” she said. “They choose not to define themselves by what they have been through and where they come from, and so neither should we. They are respectful and appreciative of their teachers and are so grateful for the opportunity to learn. They know what a gift education is in their life.”

Related story: Meet one of 'Our Kids'

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 23, 2018 at 5:39pm.