by Adrienne Johnson
If you are an ELL teacher, a good portion of your job is spent trying to explain the diverse needs of your students to others as well as trying to dispel the many misconceptions that surround the education of language learners. This educational process takes place daily as ELL teachers work to ensure that ELLs’ needs are met in content area classrooms, during school events, and in the numerous, local community settings where learning English is just a small portion of a larger challenge to build a successful future. Yet, many educators may feel limited in their ability to share their vast knowledge and experience with their political representatives.
Thankfully, there are many opportunities to share your experiences as an ELL educator as well as the daily lives of your students, with the individuals who are tasked with the challenge of developing and revising policies that affect ELL education. This 2016-2017 school year, two Iowa school districts were visited by James Rice, Legislative Assistant to Senator Charles E. Grassley. The first article in this series focuses on the experience of the teachers while a second article addresses next steps.
Grassley staffer visits West Des Moines Community Schools
October is a busy time of year for students and teachers, but West Des Moines Community Schools were excited to invite Mr. Rice into their elementary ELL classrooms this past Fall 2016 semester.
Natalie French (K-12 ESOL Professional Development/Curriculum Facilitator) and Brenda Daisy (ESL Teacher) hosted Mr. Rice in West Des Moines where he visited Crestview School of Inquiry and joined students and families for breakfast. At Crestview, he was able to see a variety of ELL instructional models, including newcomer pull-out groups and co-teaching settings in the kindergarten classrooms. Additionally, he sat in on a co-planning meeting with Brooke VonStein (3rd grade general education teacher) and learned about how Crestview, which is a “New Tech Network” school, uses project-based learning to engage and motivate their students.
Ms. French recalls that Mr. Rice was “interested in professional learning needs of teachers, especially classroom teachers in terms of supporting English learners.” Ms. Daisy emphasized “the increasing numbers of English Learners in [their] building, the high turnover of [their] student population, and the challenges of meeting the needs of the specific communities [they] serve, including a large number of recent refugees” in her discussions with Mr. Rice.
Visiting secondary ELL classrooms in Johnston Community School District
To balance his experiences in the elementary classrooms of West Des Moines, Mr. Rice also visited middle school and high school classrooms in Johnston Community School District in the same week of October 2016. In Johnston, Mr. Rice was first welcomed by Emily Kenny (ELL Teacher – Johnston High School) where he sat in on a class with ELLs who were classified as seniors. There he was able to answer a few questions for the students about American government. Ms. Kenny shared with Mr. Rice how rapidly the student demographics in the district have changed over the past decade. She also “emphasized the issues that are especially difficult at the secondary level, mainly SLIFE students and finding accessible curriculum and support for them to graduate high school.”
Next, Mr. Rice was walked over to the middle school building by Dr. Corey Lunn (Superintendent – Johnston Community School District) and met by Gabriele Albrecht (ELL Teacher – Johnston Middle School). At Johnston Middle School, he met the school principal, Brent Riessen, and visited two classrooms. At the middle school, Ms. Albrecht remembers that Mr. Rice “asked a few questions afterwards, such as how far the science curriculum of the sheltered class differs from the regular one, and chatted with some of the kids in the science class and helped them with their lab.”
Both of the teachers in Johnston Community Schools noted that while Mr. Rice did not take notes, he did ask specific questions and mainly listened to both the teachers and students. [Editor’s Note: This ‘listening mode’ is common in meetings with legislative staffers who are primarily tasked with understanding the issues and contexts well enough to report back to the congressperson they are representing.]
Dr. Adrienne Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Missouri Western State University, preparing both undergraduate and graduate teachers to teach English language learners. Adrienne earned her Ph.D. in Linguistics (Second Language Acquisition) from the University of Kansas following 8 years teaching K-12 English language learners in rural and inner-city public schools in South Korea, Chicago, and Michigan. She has taught in EFL, ESL, bilingual, sheltered, and dual language environments and is always learning. Originally from Colorado, when she is not teaching, you can find her running, biking, swimming, playing with her kids, and just enjoying being active outdoors.