Monday, August 22, 2016

Building a Strengths-Based Model of Teaching and Learning for English Learners

Close your eyes.

Imagine a classroom and a school where we focused on the strengths of the English learners.  What if these students' cultures, languages, countries of origins, unique skills, and life experiences were held up as assets?

Let's decide this school year to focus more on these strengths and assets and the unique potential of our English learners.  What brilliance might be unleashed?  What confidence might be built?  What might non-EL students learn from the ELs?

This would be a change in the way we view our English learners as well as a shift in how we view the very nature of teaching. The basis of teaching is to teach students what they don't know.  We're trained to look for gaps in knowledge.   We're the teachers, the experts, the givers of information.

At the beginning of the school year, most teachers will be asked to look at data from state tests.  Tests that focus on who is proficient and who is not proficient.  We will identify gaps and deficiencies.  Of course, this analysis has its place, and we need to know where students are struggling.  However, we can also stimulate growth by capitalizing on existing strengths.

Here are some suggestions for making this shift in how we work with our English learners this year.

1.  First and foremost, make it clear that your students' first languages and cultures are a tremendous strength and asset.

These students are the newest bilingual or multilingual members of our community.  They are also learning to be bicultural or multicultural, figuring out how to navigate the tricky ins and outs of living in a diverse society.   Our country will continue to become more diverse and knowing more than one language and being able to navigate multiple cultures will be highly prized skills in our community.   Make sure you explicitly share this information with parents as well.  They need to know that their culture and language needs to be preserved and it will only strengthen their child's future.

2.  Uncover students' unique strengths and fonts of knowledge.   

Some strengths will be easy to see, like how expert they are at playing soccer or the great artistic talent some students possess.    

Some might be a little more difficult to uncover.  Make it your job to find the hidden gems that each student has. Sometimes you discover these assets through conversation and questioning, and sometimes you might stumble upon them.  By observing carefully, here are a few things I found in my students:
  •  Our art teacher decided to do a sewing project one week. I walked into the room and the African boys were already amazingly adept with that needle and thread. There they were, heads bent over in concentration, sewing like nobody's business.  It was amazing.
  • On one of our field trips we took the class ice skating; most had never done this before. The handful who already knew how to skate took off and skated together, expect our Japanese student who already knew how to skate.   I noticed that one by one and with great patience, kindness, and encouragement, she was teaching all the other girls how to ice skate. They trusted her and took risks they may not have taken with their teachers. This kind of interaction among students is something teachers love seeing. This student told us later in the year that she wants to be a teacher. 

3.  Once you've discovered some of their brilliance, make sure you tell them what you see.

Be specific in your praise.  Acknowledge students' strengths in front of the whole class and have conversations with kids privately.

We had to rely on one student sometimes for interpreting when students had conflicts and a bilingual specialist wasn't available.  He was a refugee from Africa, already fairly proficient in oral English and also spoke the two most dominant languages in the classroom. The unexpected joy was realizing that he was also a natural peacemaker with a very keen sensibility for justice and fairness, also possessing a charming sense of humor and sweetness that would make kids laugh and get over things quickly.

My teaching partner and I made sure to tell him that he had something special- the three languages, of course, but even more than that, his natural diplomacy skills.  I told him he was going to do something great in his life – be a diplomat or a community organizer. He'd always say, "Thank you, Miss,” while looking slightly embarrassed, yet with a huge smile spread from ear to ear.  

Then he told us one day that he wants to be a police officer.   I can just imagine the impact he could make, a black police officer who speaks three languages, understands many cultures, and is a natural peacemaker.  We should do everything we can to build on this young man's strengths and help him reach his full potential. 

4.  Teach your students to validate each other.

One year we did an activity every Friday called "Fill the Bucket", which comes from a popular children's book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud.   We drew a different name each week and focused on that person, or if a student was moving, going back to their country, or exiting our program, we would choose them for the activity. The student would sit in the teacher chair at the front of the class and receive praise and compliments from their classmates.  We encouraged the kids to be as specific with their praise as possible.

One Friday, it was a particular student's turn.  He was from Saudi Arabia, and we were exiting him from the program because he was proficient enough to transition to mainstream classes in the school. When he sat in front of the class, every hand shot up.  

"You're a great friend."  "You helped me with my locker on the first day."  "You're always so nice to everyone."  "You make me laugh when I'm worried about things."

I watched this sweet boy absolutely dissolve into tears.  Nobody laughed at his crying.  It was incredibly moving and I wondered if he had ever been told how amazing he was.  We all need validation.

5.  Highlight and elevate the English learners in big and small ways in your classroom, in your school, in your community.

Work on integrating the ELs into the greater school community.  Have native English speakers help them with the language and academics, but then make sure the ELs have a chance to share their talents and knowledge as well.

We teach all of our kids to play chess and they get really good at it.  There are always a few who become especially skilled and competitive.  They go to tournaments and compete, including the state tournament.  We reached out to the local newspaper and made sure this great story was told to the community.

6.  Finally, never forget that refugees and immigrants are doing a tremendously difficult and challenging thing simply by trying to make their way in this country.

It takes courage and strength to move to a new country and adapt to a new culture, language, and way of life.  Most refugees have already endured unimaginable hardships and are forging ahead despite experiencing loss, grief, danger, and trauma.  There is a resilience in refugees and immigrants that is just unbelievable and which they will ultimately use to contribute to their new home and community.

A few years ago, I was on an interview committee for the EL coordinator in our district.  The individual who eventually got the job kept talking about the very principles I have outlined in this article.  He believed that the English learners could be the stars of the school district. I had never heard anyone express this sentiment quite that passionately and forcefully, and I immediately knew that what he was saying held enormous value.  And, I believe in his vision, and it’s my vision too. 

When you point out kids' strengths and value to them and to others, they grow in confidence.  They know you see them.  You see the whole individual, not just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with your knowledge.  Not just a kid who doesn't know English.  But a human who already has many unique strengths and assets.  Your belief in their value and potential will help their confidence grow.  This confidence will enable them to build upon the skills they already have and to be brave enough to learn all the essential things they need to know in this country in order to succeed.

Now, open your eyes.

Decide your model of teaching and working with English Learners this year will be a strengths-based one.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying.

The brilliance and possibilities you uncover might just amaze you.

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