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School Culture and English Language Learners
English language learners (ELLs) are the nation’s fastest-growing subpopulation, with the highest dropout rates and the lowest graduation rates of any subgroup. While you can find specific statistics on the ELL population by going to individual district and department of education websites, it is very difficult to find up-to-date actual statistics as a nation on the total population of English Language Learners. These students must meet the same graduation requirements and standards as the English-speaking population. Therefore, schools must provide an environment that embraces their culture and reaches ELLs specifically according to their needs. Teachers are encouraged to learn to use instructional strategies that engage students at their level and ability. For these reasons, helping children feel that they will be successful begins with the orientation process. Here are some questions about your school’s culture as it relates to your ELL population.
- How much do your school staff know about the culture of your new students?
- How can your school staff learn more to reach your ELL population? How can your school staff foster a sense of belonging among students, parents, teachers and staff?
- Does your school have an action plan to encourage students to test outside of the ELL program? If so, what is that plan and do all employees know what it is?
- Does your school offer regular ELL training on topics such as placement, parent involvement, culture?
- Does your school have student ambassadors or student mentors paired with new ELL students to better support their transition to a new school?
- How does the school provide orientation to your parents and ELL students?
- How can school staff make the first day a success for ELLs?
- How can school personnel assess your ELL’s ability to learn to determine the level of instruction needed?
- Do you give incoming students a diagnostic test for more accurate placement in classes?
How did you answer the above questions? Did you answer yes? Does your school provide a welcoming environment for your immigrant students and their families?
Children of immigrants face many challenges. English language learners come to school with a wide range of life and educational experiences due to their diverse backgrounds. They may have come to the United States under false pretenses or been separated from family members in order to have a better life in pursuit of the “American Dream.” Filled with the stress of moving from one country to another, they also struggle with not knowing the language. Communication is the number one issue that nearly all ELL students and parents struggle with; then comes culture shock.
Culture shock is coping with the stress of something new and unfamiliar. Students learning English as a second language may come from a country where the goal of education is to teach and learn mechanically. Therefore, these students will not be used to learning by discovery, and the idea of critical thinking and sharing out loud is unheard of. ELLs may avoid enjoyable classroom activities, group discussions, or teamwork because they may feel threatened by the language barrier, unfamiliar expectations of the activity, or simply lose face because they may not know the right answer. They may also perceive a wrong answer as a loss of face for the teacher, which may cause them not to respond. Teachers who do not understand the child’s culture might then perceive this behavior as disrespectful or blame the student for not participating, when in reality it is simply a feeling of “culture shock”. Many ELLs are also unaccustomed to praise and may feel uncomfortable when asked to share an opinion or belief. They may feel that it is a private thought and won’t feel safe sharing it with others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may find that your ELL may have never had any formal education in their country and is so educationally and socially lost that they may need constant long-term orientation for every lesson and activity. This would require considerable patience on the part of the teacher and truly differentiated instructional strategies for learning to be successful for ELLs in this situation.
Be creative and be patient to avoid causing your ELLs more stress than what naturally comes with culture shock. Show your support for learning and growth at all levels. Celebrate all cultures in your classroom and school. Learn about different countries, provide opportunities for your ELLs to share their country, their language, and their purpose for coming to the United States. Talk to them individually. Let your ELL learn a new word in their native language while you teach them a new word in English. This builds great relationships and opens up lines of communication creating a sense of safety and comfort. Students want to feel safe in the classroom environment. Provide your ELL students with a classroom mentor (classmate) to answer questions, help with classroom orientation, provide peer tutoring as needed, or whatever it may take until they are comfortable with classroom routines, expectations, and activities. The mentor can also rotate weekly to allow other students to participate in your mentoring program. Give your ELLs translated documents, homework sheets, class activities, etc. This can be done by translating documents for free on Google translator, Yahoo translator or other online translators. Just as important as translated documents is to encourage students to use a bilingual dictionary for everything, including tests and quizzes. Word for Word translations provide support and are another source of success.
We know that culture can affect behavior in the classroom, but it can also affect understanding of content. The role of the school and the teacher is essential in creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere that supports the development of these students as bilingual learners. Teachers have a unique opportunity to use the culture and experiences that ELLs bring to the school to expand the learning of all students in the classroom. Reinforcement of effort helps students see a clear relationship between what they do and what they achieve. Through careful planning and open communication, your school will not only make the first day of orientation for new ELLs an extremely enjoyable experience, but you will also create an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging that will result in the student’s desire to be in school, as well as increase their academic, social, and personal success.
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