Many of us have experienced traveling to a foreign country and having a difficult time understanding the language, but at the same time being exciting to learn about the history, culture, and food of where we were visiting. Imagine having to stay there for a year or even longer and immersing yourself in an unfamiliar world and having to go to school with no background in the language except maybe a few words you learned like “hello” and “goodbye“. Let’s think for a moment how difficult it would be to attend school and learn a language where you don’t even recognize the sounds because they are so different from your own language. I imagine that would be terribly frustrating.
The reality is that many of these students have lived in several places or learned more than one language in their countries for a variety of reasons, so many are not strangers to learning new languages or about other cultures. This is a gift to us as teachers because they have already overcome more obstacles in their short lives than we may experience in a lifetime. These students are determined; they value an education and are eager to learn. This is why I love teaching ELL students.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to teach and work with students from all parts of the world, and it is exciting and intimidating at the same time. As teachers, we need to figure out quickly what each student needs and in the ELL classroom the spectrum of ability level is endless. What I have learned over the years is that these students have much more in common than they think, so I plan and start my year and my lessons by getting to know them and starting from units based on their commonalities. They are all teenagers experiencing a new culture; they have a story about their journey to America and are likely helping their parents navigate this system. Most of all, they are trying to fit in and belong in the school while trying to make friends and having connections and relationships with others.
One of the first projects we work on in class is a collage with all of things they like for example clothes, music, technology, make-up, video games etc. They begin to discover and identify commonalities. They would work on this individually and then present it to the class. The second project is an ALL ABOUT ME project where you get to know the students on a more personal level and they begin to understand other cultures and customs. In this project you would have students create a PowerPoint slide presentation with information about their family, friends, country, customs, and food. This gives students and classmates an opportunity to learn about others as well as speak about their life. This project incorporates technology, writing, speaking, reading, and listening skills for all of the students. You start teaching them by getting to know them first. After that, you can teach more than the language, you can teach them anything!