The Magic “EL”ixir

This blog was guest-written by Mrs. Christy Thompson.  Mrs. Thompson teaches 9th-Grade Literature to our students who are English Learners.  She is in her third year with us, and each year her students have shown tremendous growth on the End of Course tests.  While she will not claim to have all the answers, we see the academic and social impacts she has on a subgroup of students who face many challenges.  Additionally, we are not the only ones who marvel at the work she does each day; Mrs. Thompson was voted by her peers as our Teacher of the Year. How does she connect with her students?  Continue reading to discover her ELixir.

Do you believe in magic? Each year I see magic happen when new, young faces walk into my classroom.  These faces all have one thing in common; they are English Learners. How do I keep the magic going for the remainder of the year? What is the elixir to make this group of students embrace the idea of success?  Can this be duplicated by others? Absolutely! 

Make connections with your students.  Yikes! Connect with teenagers? Although students may initially respond to you with hesitation and one word answers, eventually students will realize that you care.  Those guarded answers will turn into open conversations. What are your student’s interests? Do you have a handful of boys that are Fortnite experts? Are some of your girls interested in photography? Do all of your students love a certain type of music? Conversations of surface level material will lead to a higher level of comfort in your class where students begin to feel confident in answering/asking deeper level discussion questions.  

Always expect more.  Make your high expectations known.  I start the year by telling students that I know they are capable of passing my class, passing ACCESS 2.0, scoring proficient on their EOC, and exiting the EL Program.  This gets their attention. The next words that I say to them are “if you do the work.” I remind them of our first day conversation when they don’t turn in an assignment, when they give up on a lengthy writing task, or when they turn in work that is less than the expectation set forth.  The notion of hard work becomes an understanding early on in the semester.

Growth mindset.  Each year, teachers are given access to a ton of data.  My purpose for analyzing data is two-fold. The first reason is that it helps me see where my students are academically.  This helps me know how to scaffold their materials or how to differentiate a lesson to ensure growth for each individual. The second reason is to share the data with my students.  During the first couple of weeks, I like to show students their data snapshot and give them feedback. It clearly shows them where they are academically. Meeting with them one on one shows them that you have taken the time to investigate their academic background.  During this time address topics like attendance, test scores, and, for students with high disciplinary actions, discuss using this school year as a fresh start. Each of these aspects can contribute to the growth mindset of your classroom. Encourage students to keep trying, keep pushing, and stay positive.  

Involvement is key! Not only do students need to feel like they fit into your classroom, students need to feel like they are an integral part of the school.  This can be difficult to navigate in high school. Our school offers an opportunity for all students to be involved in our House System. This immediately gives every kid a home;  a group of teachers in the building that they can go to if they need something. Encourage students to try out for a sport, join a club, or take a fine arts class. This will allow them to expand academically as well.  When students are involved in extracurricular activities, they tend to excel in the classroom.  

Change it up.  When I first started at the Ninth Grade Academy,  student growth in the EL population was minimal at best.  In order to get results, sometimes you have to change what you are doing.  Before starting this position, I did a lot of online research about EL students.  I even read a couple of books on the topic. Educate yourself about the students you are teaching.  

Once you have a good understanding about the challenges facing that population of students, figure out a way to change it up.  For me, the beginning of this change occurred my first year teaching ESOL at NGA. I gave my students a survey. I asked them about their previous educational experiences,  what worked and what didn’t work for them, and about what they thought they were weak in and what their strengths were. Through this I found out that those students didn’t want to read a different book or do a different curriculum because they are EL.  They want to be pushed academically in the same way their peers do. Having a label does not make a student less than capable to meet the standards. It does however mean that educators have to maneuver through those standards in a way that is accessible to those specific students.   

What does this look like in the classroom? I had to learn how to better scaffold materials, differentiate, and be stronger with feedback. I like to start with the standards. What do your students need to be able to access those standards? Plan lessons around those standards that scaffold the student from where they are up to grade level understanding.  

Google defines elixir as “a magical or medicinal potion.”  Use the magic within you to find the elixir you need for your students to be successful.    

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