By Kathryn Coulibaly

Jefferson Heller stands outside his first-grade English language learner (ELL) classroom door at Ventnor Elementary School greeting colleagues and students as they pass by.

His colleague, Denise Tinucci, a fourth-grade ELL teacher, stops by to confer about their Book Buddies program. Once a month, Heller and Tinucci bring their students together to read one-on-one. The older students serve as role models to the wide-eyed first graders, and a living success story to show them how far they can go if they work hard.

Heller and Tinucci discuss this month’s theme for the books the buddies will read and the craft activity they will work on together. The activity will help students demonstrate their ability to follow directions in English. Both teachers have found that the program helps them address behavior issues, boosts confidence and self-esteem, and builds a social connection among students in the school.

As Tinucci moves on to prepare for her day, students begin to enter Heller’s classroom, most of them loaded down with breakfast. Since 64 percent of students in the district are economically disadvantaged, breakfast is a critical part of a successful school day.

Classroom Rules

1. Raise your hand to talk.

2. Respect all people and things

3. Keep your hands, feet, and unkind words to yourself.

4. Try your best.

5. Have fun

Routines are instructive

Students are well-versed in the routines by this point in the year. Heller projects the lunch choices using pictures and words on a large TV monitor. Students know to move their personized magnets appropriately to make their selections and move on to the next task.

Students now look to the board for their writing prompt. Heller has modeled the skills of introducing the topic, finding evidence from the text, and using a closing sentence to complete their responses. Most students have become quite skilled at referring to their science or social studies books to locate answers. As they finish at different times, Heller is able to have one-on-one time with every student to address their individual writing needs. Soon the bell rings and students and staff rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The 15 students in the class settle into their seats at tables of two to three. The groupings help with behavior issues, but also permit students to collaborate in small groups.

Heller poses with his first-grade class.

While several of the students are ELL, one arrived in August with no English language background at all. The student also had no literacy in the language of her country of origin. Heller has her seated in the front of the classroom, near him, and next to another student who speaks her language—a student who was new to America himself last year. He is now thriving and eager to share what he has learned.

Thirty-eight percent of students in Ventnor Public Schools speak a language other than English at home; 8 percent of students are classified as English learners. But by mid-January, all students know what is expected of them.

“In an ELL classroom, you need a lot of structure in the day,” Heller says. “After breakfast, we do housekeeping, and then a morning activity. Students who finish early are encouraged to read a book or complete any unfinished work. Then we have our morning meeting and the morning song. We then move on to our literacy block.”

Building systems of support

Juggling the students’ different needs effectively requires some additional support, so a basic skills teacher comes in daily to assist.

After a brief lockdown drill, there was a spelling test. With four levels of language learners, Heller has divided the students into groups based on a program that focuses on the spelling skill, rather than just rote memorization. The two teachers each take two groups and read the spelling words as students write. Another student works on the computer with headphones to build her proficiency with English.

While several of the students are English language learners, one arrived in August with no English language background at all.

“We always have to be careful that our assessments accurately reflect students’ comprehension of the material we are assessing,” Heller says. “Tests are modified for these learners so that a lack of English proficiency does not affect their grades.”

Heller uses Class Dojo to provide incentives, monitor progress and communicate with parents.

“I like that it allows some socializing, reinforces communication and encourages positive behaviors,” Heller says. “It really helps keep parents connected. Since the parents in my class may have their own language challenges, it really has improved our ability to be on the same page when it comes to their children.”

In this district, there are four first-grade classes, but this is the only ELL inclusion class. There are no ELL inclusion classes in kindergarten or preschool. There is one ELL inclusion class in first, second, third and fourth grades.

A student reads during independent reading time.

The first-grade team collaborates on a regular basis. Recently, Heller worked with the other first-grade teachers on a unit teaching Christmas around the world. It enabled the students to work collaboratively and to highlight different cultures and traditions. This year, the countries they studied were Mexico, Italy, Sweden and Israel. Parent volunteers came in and taught about their cultures as well.

“It’s really important that we help our students to feel connected with other students in the school,” Heller says. “Learning a new language and living in a different culture can be very challenging. It’s very important for them to feel accepted and supported in our school community.”

Heller is in his 13th year of teaching and is fluent in English and Spanish. He has spent approximately half his career teaching Spanish, and half teaching ELL.

“I loved teaching Spanish, but I am always looking for a new challenge,” Heller says. “I thought that I could do something to help ELL students because I understand what it is like to learn a new language and how intimidating it can be when you can’t express yourself the way that you want. I’ve really enjoyed the transition to ELL.”

Resources for student success

Heller prepares extra lesson plans for ELL students and is constantly using modifications such as gestures, pictures, graphic organizers, technology, and pairing students for group work. An abundance of visual elements can be found throughout the room, including a word wall.

One of his most successful tools is music and singing. Students light up during morning music time. Sitting on a brightly covered rug in from of Heller’s chair, they sing along to a CD as he points to words on a large pad. This helps them connect the sounds and the words without singling out any one student. These songs also serve to teach students the days of the week, the months of the year, holidays, and much more.

They are typical first-graders as they bounce along with the song. They have even developed their own hand motions to go with some of the music.

After lunch students work cooperatively in groups for math centers. The groups change every week and so do the skills in the centers. Currently students use playing cards or dice to add and subtract, some are working on laptops on a math program, some are playing a math board game, and some are using their imaginations to build things. All the while, students are helping each other, regardless of their level of English acquisition.

Teaching ELL students is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career.

By the end of the day, students have collected their bookbags, take-home folders, and lunch boxes and carefully arranged their desks and chairs to be ready for the morning. They wish Mr. Heller a good night as they file out to their buses.

“Teaching ELL students is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career,” Heller said. “It’s fascinating to watch a student’s language ability and confidence grow over the course of the school year. I know that this is a vital step in ensuring they are able to make the most out of their educational opportunities.”

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