Professional Educators

Maricela Rincón models a lesson for teachers at Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas: Photo: Isaac Brekken

NEA Program Provides Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

When Maricela Rincón first started school she was sent to the back of the room because she didn’t speak English. Even though she was born in Chicago, Maricela felt isolated and rejected because she spoke only Spanish.

“At that time language wasn’t valued… And so I was usually placed in the back of the room, given crayons. It felt like it wasn’t right. I felt like essentially I was punished.”

Ricardo Rincón had a similar experience. He immigrated as a child from Mexico, and despite the fact that he loved learning math, he felt like he didn’t belong in school.

“I was in a new classroom setting, new teachers, new language, new peers, everything was new, therefore I felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”

Jonalene Ly, a 1st grade teacher at Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas, came from Vietnam when she was three years old. Her mom was unable to help her with her homework because she didn’t know English.

“My mom didn’t have much education, so she didn’t know how to teach me at home or support me at home, unless it’s math. And so basically I was on my own.”

Eventually, they each found dedicated teachers who took the time to encourage and inspire them. Today, they are all educators who are sensitive and aware of the needs of students like them.

Maricela and Ricardo, full time teachers in Las Cruces, New Mexico, have gone the extra step of becoming volunteer trainers for educators across the nation. As part of NEA’s English Language Learner Culture, Equity and Language Professional Development program, they share skills, academic strategies and research based ideas.

There are more than 5.3 million English Language Learners in U.S. public schools. Close to 85 percent were born in the United States and they represent more than 150 different languages.  Many of them are concentrated in low-income school districts.

Achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students are deeply rooted, complex, and challenging. With a commitment to student success, NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign strives to empower educators to raise student achievement at struggling schools. This is done in partnership with school districts, administrators, families and communities, through research-driven strategies, including improvement of staff capacity and effectiveness.

Working with NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, a cadre of member-leaders conduct professional development sessions with educators to better serve ELL students in priority schools.

Recently NEA, in partnership with the Clark County Education Association, provided three days of professional development at Kit Carson Elementary School, Doris Hancock Elementary School and Rancho High School in Las Vegas. The sessions included in-the-classroom modeling by the cadre leaders, so that educators could see the methodology applied with their own students.

“The professional development that we’re doing has been asked for by educators and by NEA’s leadership at local and state levels. Educators are reaching out for our professional development because it includes specific strategies that will assist them in the reading, writing and math for their English Language Learners,” explains Linda Cabral, Associate Director for the Quality Schools, Programs and Resources at NEA.

“The preparation that they have received before or through their university studies to become a teacher is good, but the critical piece on the working with this specialized group of youngsters, the cultural and linguistic responsiveness, is not always part of their certification or their credentialing,” points out Cabral.

In addition to the academic strategies presented, the program also addresses the culture, equity and socio-economic factors that affect teaching and student learning.

Pamela Muniz, a second grade teacher at Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada, was able to implement some of the strategies in her classroom after participating in the program. She specifically recalls an example presented by the cadre members in which students said that the teachers were talking too fast for them to understand all the words.

“I actually spoke to my kids about my speed of speaking. I feel like we’re always rushing to get things done. So we had a conversation about that and we have a symbol now.  If I’m talking too quickly they give me a symbol to let me know to slow it down,” Muniz explains.

“I think that one of the most important things about this professional development is to have the awareness of our English language learners and to make sure that we’re meeting their learning needs; that we are aware not only of who they are, but what we need to do for them so that they are academically successful, to make sure that they are able to achieve their optimum,” adds Maricela, who was one of Muniz’s cadre leaders.

From Chinese, to Russian, to Somali, English Language Learners in U.S. public schools represent more than 150 different languages.

The program also strives to dispel the misconceptions that many have about students who do not speak English.

“Some of my colleagues may believe that these students come with nothing to offer.  And that is a huge mistake. They have plenty to offer, they may have reading skills already developed, they have mathematical skills already developed.  We just have to access those skills and then help them to make the transition from one language to the second,” states Ricardo.

The combination of academic strategies, targeted methodology, cultural awareness, classroom modeling and practical examples presented in NEA’s ELL Culture, Equity and Language Professional Development Program adds to the professionalism of educators who are already making a difference in the lives of their students.

“I’m pretty sure that the most meaningful thing for me that a teacher could do for a student is make them feel welcome and make them feel valued. Appreciate who they are, where they come from and as much as possible allow them to feel like they are an important part of your classroom, because they have a lot to contribute and they have a lot to share,” concludes Maricela.

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