Meeting Students Where They Are

Amber Prentice Jimenez is an ELL teacher in Washington State and a former middle school ELL teacher in St. Paul, MN. Amber, who is a member of the American Federation of Teacher ELL Cadre, has taken an active role in her schools and districts on a number of issues, including supporting refugee students. She also was selected by the AFT to train female teacher trainers in Yemen in a special professional development program.

In this From the Heart interview, she discusses how she supports students with a wide range of educational backgrounds, offers some tips for schools with growing refugee population, and explains why the AFT program in Yemen is so important in empowering a new generation of educators and girls.

More from Amber

See Amber in action in her St. Paul classroom, featured in our Watch and Learn video series, and a related Meet the Expert video interview

Working with Refugee Students

You have a wonderfully diverse classroom! Tell us about your students.

As a middle school teacher, I teach 5 classes. I work with level 1 and 2 students. These students range from having just arrived to the U.S. to having lived in the country for about 3 years. There are ten different languages (Hmong, Somali, Spanish, Karen, Oromo, Mandarin, Tigrinya, Khmer, Arabic, and Thai) spoken in my classroom. The majority of my students are refugees from various parts of Asia and Africa. We have a growing Latino population as well as a few traditional immigrants.

I teach language and sheltered content classes. I teach newcomer (level 1) Geography and level 2 American History. With these classes I teach grade level content standards at a slower pace with more scaffolding. We also work on the academic skills that they will need when they are mainstreamed such as summarizing text, writing paragraphs, writing essays, and identifying main ideas. I also teach a newcomer reading class which focuses on language and includes a reader's workshop component. My last class is an oral language development class where students practice speaking fluently and with expression. We do a lot of reader's theater and the students create their own dialogues and plays. The goal of our ELL program is to teach academic English while maintaining and increasing content knowledge. ELL students need background knowledge and skills along with English language proficiency.

Your students' educational experience really varies. How do those experiences affect their adjustment to school?

My students are a diverse bunch of kids. Besides the variety of languages spoken, my students also come to us with varying degrees of previous education. We have a Chinese student whose parents work at the University. She has been to school since she was 4 years old. Yet we also have a Karen student who fled her home in Burma with her family when she was three. After a long journey she arrived a refugee camp in Thailand. Her parents couldn't afford to send her to private Thai school so although she is 13 years old, her first experiences with school were in my classroom. Another student was born in a refugee camp in Kenya. His parents had fled from Ethiopia well before he was born and were not allowed to work in Kenya. He had relatives who would send money to his family from the United States. When his parents could afford to, they sent him to a private school. He went to school intermittently before arriving in the United States when he was 12. As a result of this wide range, it can be a real challenge to adequately meet the needs of students with such different educational experiences.

In my experience the students with the most formal education adapt the fastest to school in the United States and exit ELL services much faster. For example, the aforementioned Chinese student arrived in the United States at the end of 7th grade and as an 8th grader is already a level 3 student (students exit our program after level 4). This student already had the academic knowledge and skills that she needs to be successful. She just needs to transfer those skills to English. Students with no formal schooling need the most support. Some of them may not know how to hold a pencil. They need to learn every-day school skills like writing their name, going to classes, opening a locker, and sitting still and paying attention for 55-minute periods. The challenge for these students is to give them the support that they need in a way that is age appropriate. No 7th-grade student wants to read a kindergarten book, even if they are reading at that level.

In some ways working with the students with interrupted schooling is the most challenging. These students have gaps in their education and it is not always apparent what skills they know and which they haven't grasped yet. For example, a Somali student who is new in our school knows all of her multiplication facts but cannot subtract 2-digit numbers. It is important to use formative assessments constantly with ELL students to ensure that they get the support they need to be successful along with a challenging curriculum that will push them to excel. We must meet students where they are at and not sacrifice grade appropriate content knowledge while they are learning academic English. This will just leave them further behind their peers.

Your students' background knowledge must vary quite a bit from one topic to another. How does this range affect students' comprehension?

While teaching history, for example, I must always remind myself that they students have little to no background knowledge about general knowledge US history facts and that it is my job to help them develop their schema. After Barak Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination, every one of my students thought that Obama was now president. It took days of explaining the US election process before they realized that only part of the election was over. Many of my students have heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. but they think that he was the man who freed the slaves. It is important when working with ELLs to never assume that they have background knowledge. You must assess what they know and then work to fill in gaps and broaden their content knowledge base.

For teachers who are new to working with refugees, what are some important steps they can take to support newcomers?

When working with refugee students it is important to find out about their background. When a new student arrives to register at our school, the office staff bring the families to my room. This is a great time to ask the parents some basic questions because they always arrive with an interpreter. Here are the questions I ask the parents:

  • Did your child go to school in their home country?
  • How old was the child when the family moved to the refugee camp?
  • Who does the child live with in the United States?
  • Are there more family members who will be arriving soon to the United States?
  • (If it is a boy) Was your child involved in the war?
  • Is there someone living in the home who speaks English?

In this way I learn a little bit about the student's background. Many of our refugee students have lost parents or other family members in war. Some of them witnessed their parents torture, rape, or death. A few were even forced to fight as child soldiers. By knowing the experiences these students have had, we can get students into social work support groups and get other services for them.

Another easy way to support refugee students is to learn a little more about their culture, language, and history. I know how to say hello in all the languages my students speak. When a new student arrives and her teacher can greet her and her family in their own language, it immediately helps the family feel more at ease. It is important to learn about their culture not only because the students appreciate it but also because you may need to explain things to the other adults in your building. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan all of the Muslim students went to my room during lunch time because they were fasting. Many of our Hmong students wear strings around their wrists as blessings from members of their families. When staff members or other students ask questions, I can explain. I also like to acknowledge when there is an important holiday or event in the culture of my students. The students know that I recognize the importance of their culture and all the students get to know each other a little better.

You have made a concerted effort to support students' native language literacy in your classroom. What are some of the steps you have taken, and why is that important?

It is important to support L1 literacy for many reasons. Students will have more professional success if they are bilingual. Students will be more successful in school if they are bilingual. And students can often develop complex academic skills in their native language before they can do it in English. When students learn the academic language necessary to transfer their skills, it will be much easier for them if they already know how to do it in their native language.

I support native language literacy in a variety of ways. Whenever possible I try to have bilingual books in my students native languages. If we are exploring a new topic in class, I try to find books in the library about that topic in a student's native language. My students spend most of their time in cooperative groups. I have 2 different groupings in my class. The majority of time they are grouped with students who speak a different language. This forces them to speak in English because it is the only common language among them. Yet when I am introducing a new topic or before a class discussion or writing assignment, I have students sit in groups with similar languages. I encourage them to discuss the topic and take notes in their native language. This allows the students to have much more rich and complex discussions than they could have had in English and more adequately prepares them for the complex academic tasks to follow.

ELL Advocacy Opportunities

You've been very involved at a school, district, and union level. What are some of the most important ways that these groups can support ELL teachers?

I am very lucky to teach in a district where almost half of the students qualify for ESL services. Everyone who works in this district is aware of the needs of our students. When new students arrived to our school they are given a laminated card with their bus number, bus stop, address, and phone number. That way a newcomer just needs to show that card to their bus driver and she will know that she has a students with very limited English on her route. Although district wide we have around 100 languages spoken, the three main languages are Hmong, Somali, and Spanish. All important information is sent to parents in their native languages and we also have a phone calling system that goes out to parents in their native language. That way parents who are not literate in their native language can still have access to the information.

We also have school and district parent groups in those three languages. Each month parents meet with speakers around a different topic. Childcare, transportation, and a light supper are provided. In this way parents can learn more about school expectations in the United States. Our district has focused on creating a warm and welcoming environment for our ELL students and families.

Our Union has also done many things to support English Language Learners. At a local, state, and national level our unions have worked hard to advocate for our ELL students through legislation and teacher qualifications. Both the NEA and the AFT have supported the DREAM act and bilingual education laws, and also laws to ensure that all LEP students have support from a certified ESL teacher. The NEA has an ELL caucus that advocated for ELLs in all NEA policies and is developing a professional development course on working with ELL students that they will soon offer to local unions. The AFT has an ELL cadre which helps establish AFT policy and legislative priorities.

The AFT supports websites like Colorin Colorado which give teachers a myriad of resources all in one place. The AFT also has a professional development conference every 2 years in Washington, DC called Quest where there are many sessions on working with ELL students. I am involved in teacher unions because I feel like they can make a huge difference educational policy AND they give me the professional development that I need to be a more effective teacher.

You are on your way to Yemen for the second time — tell us about the program you're working on.

Last summer I had the privilege to go to Sana'a, Yemen in a teacher training program. Teachers in Yemen are given no formal pedagogical training in college. In Yemen all of the schools are single gender. Once girls are around 9 years old, they can only be taught by female teachers. There is a shortage of female teachers, so many girls stop going to school when they are 9 — which means there are fewer girls who can grow up to become teachers for other girls. The AFT has found that when you give training and knowledge to the women in a union, they become more powerful and take more leadership positions within their union. Once women are in positions of power, they can encourage more women to become teachers and leaders. When more women are teachers and leaders, more girls can get an education.

In our program, we created and implemented "train the trainer" sessions for a majority of female teachers in 2 different teacher unions. It was an amazing experience. We were able to learn about their working conditions and teaching experiences and give them some tools, tips, and best practices to help improve their teaching. We also worked with the teachers on ways their unions can work to improve their working conditions. I will return in May to work with another group of teachers in Aden, Yemen.

How did you become a teacher?

I have always wanted to be a teacher. In 2nd grade I decided to be a teacher, or a horse trainer, or a singer, or an actor. Throughout the years I realized that teaching was what I wanted to do. In college I volunteered at a high school for young adults who were also new immigrants. I loved it, and I have my license in ESL K-12 and Spanish 7-12.

You mentioned that you love working with middle school students. What do you most enjoy about it?

I think that teachers either love teaching middle school students or hate it. I LOVE it! I love the drama, the passion, the energy, the ups and downs, and yes, even the hormones. My students are trying so hard to be grown up but at heart, they are still kids. I love finding ways to harness their drama and passion and funnel it into academic outlets. My students are really aware of what is fair and unfair in life. History is full of situations where many arguments could be made about what is and was fair at the time, so I try to channel the classes' energy into these discussions. My students love to role play, discuss, and argue different points of view. Middle school students are the best!

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