Accelerating English Language Learners’ Literacy Skills
Dr. Danny Brassell
Saddleback Educational Publishing conducts a Webinar Series to spread information and resources for online learning programs. The following article is an enhanced summary based on our webinar Accelerating English Language Learners’ Literacy Skills hosted by Dr. Danny Brassell on May 19th 2020.
We’re talking about English language learners. I was really lucky. My junior year of college, I got to study abroad in Spain and it was a great educational experience for me because for the first time in my life, I faced discrimination because I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t realize I had all kinds of advantages I was born with that had nothing to do with anything. I mean, I was born a white male in America. There’s a whole bunch of things given to me that I didn’t realize were given to me until I lived in Spain and people treated me like I was stupid because I didn’t speak Spanish. People treated me a different way.
Fast forward many years when I was teaching engineering students at the University of Southern California. USC has the second largest international student population of any University in America. One of my jobs was to interview all the different international students to see if they required some extra English. My specialty was working with the engineering students. People treated these students differently. These were students that were literally training to become rocket scientists and people treated them like they were stupid. They weren’t stupid. They didn’t understand English and it gave me a real heart for all of my English language learners.
Dr. Danny Brassell and His Experience With Education
My name is Danny Brassell and I’m on a mission to bring joy back into education. I’ve actually taught all age levels from preschoolers all the way up to rocket scientists. I can make that claim because I used to teach English as a second language to engineering students at the University of Southern California, and I became a teacher because of the movie Stand and Deliver. It’s the true story of Jaime Escalante going to Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to teach AP Calculus. So I said I’m going to be Jaime Escalante. I was originally hired to teach 12th grade social studies in Compton, California. It’s a community in South Central Los Angeles. They switched me from working with high school students to middle school students, to upper elementary, to lower elementary, and pretty soon instead of preparing students for college, I was coming home with snot marks all over my pants every single day from the little ones hugging me.
The first thing I learned is what works with a 12th grader does not necessarily work with a kindergartener, but what works with a kindergartner works with all age levels. The second thing I learned was perseverance. I know you’re at home, but raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a negative environment surrounded by negative people telling you what you couldn’t do all the time. One of my old principals, Mrs. Lucifer would barge in my classroom every single day with her perma scowl and her foreboding clipboard and she used to write me up for everything. She thought that I was doing wrong. She was killing me, but I had a guardian angel. I was blessed. I was the only white person at my school. I taught with predominantly elderly African-American women from the south who all had been teaching for at least 20 years. Well, my mentor was Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner had been teaching for forty years. Mrs. Turner believed in two things: discipline and the Bible. When her little ones got out of line, she started reading aloud Revelations to them. It was Mrs. Turner, this saint, this guardian angel, who took me under her wing, and she taught me how to bring joy back into my classroom every single day.
English Language Learners In The Classroom
So today we’re going to talk about something that’s very near and dear to my heart, which are our English language learners. You’ll hear different states use different terminology. Some people call it ESL, which is English as a second language. Some people call it ELD, English language development. Actually, I have a colleague out of Kansas State. She has what I consider the best term. She calls them CLDS, which is culturally and linguistically diverse students. I love that because when you think of ESL students, a lot of times you think of students that are immigrating to America, but there’s a lot of students in this country that are second and third generation with different language backgrounds, anywhere from our Native American populations to our third generation of Spanish speakers or Vietnamese speakers and things like that. I want us to expand the terminology.
Now I told you earlier I’ve taught all different age levels. When I eventually made it to my elementary school, on the first day of school the principal came up to me and asked, Do you speak any Spanish? And I said, un poquito, and he said, Good! You’re the new bilingual coordinator. Now this was a school of 950 students and 85% spoke Spanish as a first language. On the first day, they gave me 75 kids and said, you know what? We don’t know what country they’re from what grade they’re in. Can you figure it out? So I’m like looking at my little ones thinking, Maria is sucking her thumb— go to kindergarten; Paco has a mustache– go to fifth grade. I’m like Guess what, you all know Spanish. I know English. We’re all getting two languages this year! I was so blessed to have lots of English language learners.
I’m going to let you all in on a secret. What’s good for ESL students is good for all students. You’re blessed to teach the ESL kids. It’s going to give you all kinds of weapons of mass instruction. It’s going to make you a better teacher. I’ve always taught special needs students. Let me give you a little tip. All kids have special needs. All kids are gifted and talented if you treat them like they’re gifted and talented.
Levels Of Language Proficiency
Now some things I want us to remember: True, our ESL students are different from our other students. For example, they don’t speak English as well as native English speakers. The other thing I’ve noticed is they come to us with varying degrees of language proficiency. So again, when I was at USC, I had to interview every single freshman to determine their level of English proficiency. So I would get an engineering student from India and sometimes they were self-conscious about their accent, but I always pointed out to them, you know, California used to have a governor that had a pretty thick accent. It served him pretty well. I’ve always thought accents are wonderful. They give us flair. If everybody spoke like me, it’d be all vanilla ice cream. Add some Hershey’s syrup, add some sprinkles, add some flavors! So that’s what I love about accents.
A lot of our ESL students, they come to us with varying language backgrounds. We’ll talk a lot about our Spanish speakers because 70% of the English language learners in America, Spanish is their primary language. We have to understand there’s differences there. I was doing training in North Carolina and this woman came up to me at the end and said, What you don’t understand, Dr. Brassell, is I teach at Title One school and I’m the only ESL teacher there! I just started laughing and she’s like, What are you laughing about? I’m like, honey, every school in Los Angeles is Title One and you never say you teach ESL students. This year I teach two kids that actually speak English as a first language, you know, just to give you a little bit of perspective. I was working with one of my student teachers in Hollywood. She has 20 first-graders, 19 different languages. I mean, we had to give her all kinds of strategies because that is a real challenge. So again, you know, like Liz was saying earlier, the glass is always half empty or half full, that kind of thing.
Culturally Responsive Teaching
You have to understand that our students come to us with varying cultural norms. I’m going to give you two words. You need to write these down. These are two of the most important words you can learn as an English language learner teacher or any kind of teacher. So write these words down here. They are kind of handy. Okay, here are the words. I’m sorry. Folks, there is nothing you can do to a kid which is worse than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve made so many mistakes as a teacher. I’d look at a kid I’d say, Hey show me the proper respect. Look into my eyes when I’m speaking to you, only to find out that in this student’s culture, it’s a sign of respect never to look directly at the teacher. Hey, my name is Mr. Brassell. Stop calling me Maestro, only to find out in this student’s culture, calling the teacher Maestro is a sign of respect. Again, this is something that all Americans need to understand. When you make a mistake, take responsibility and just offer a sincere apology. It’s amazing when you actually are accountable for your actions. I’ve made so many mistakes and I just say I’m sorry. I learned from it and I grow from it. That’s what learning is supposed to be.
I hope to meet the needs of all kinds of different people in the audience right now. So whether you’re new to teaching, whether you have some experience teaching English language learners and you’d like to learn a couple of extra tips, or you’re a veteran teacher that just really wants some extra solid solutions. Those are my favorites, the veterans that always want to get better. I think I prepared something that’s going to be helpful for all of you today. And so today I’m going to offer three areas to help build our English language learners in our classrooms. So first of all, I want us all to learn how to become aware. AWARE stands for always watch out for administrators roaming and evaluating. I’m going to teach us how to create a comfortable atmosphere and a relaxed environment. Finally I’m going to talk about how all of us have to share. We need to supply hordes of amazing resources in our environments.
Make Reading Fun and Engaging
So while we start off with talking about becoming aware, how do we make sure to do our job so that we can get our administrators off our backs? Reading is my thing and there are three things I want us to focus on, because we can get those kids reading. First of all, we should be reading aloud to our students. People always say, well should you just read aloud to the little ones? No. You should read aloud to the little ones. You should read aloud to the older students. When I taught middle school, my students were the only students in the entire middle that never had a tardy. The reason was because I always started off class with a Paul Harvey story. I grew up listening to Paul Harvey on the radio every day. He’d come on and say I’m Paul Harvey with the rest of the story. He’s got about four of these books. Each of them has a hundred and one rest of the stories. They’re the perfect five-minute read-aloud.
There’s actually a great podcast out right now hosted by Mike Rowe. He’s the guy that used to be the host of that show Dirty Jobs. He’s got this great podcast called The Way I Heard It and it’s basically his homage to Paul Harvey, where he gives these really quick tales for the short attention span. They’re perfect for all of our students. I read a biography on Sidney Poitier. Sidney Poitier emigrated to America when I think he was 14. He came here from the Bahamas and he went to New York City. He was a dishwasher. He read in the newspaper that the Harlem Theater was having auditions for actors and he was interested, so he went on an audition for the director. The director looked at him and said, Don’t waste my time, young man. Go back to washing dishes! and Sidney Poitier thought to himself, Huh? I wonder how he knew I washed dishes. This is a cool story.
So Sidney Poitier, for the next six months, would listen to the BBC on the radio because of the English pronunciation. He auditioned for the same director six months later and he got the part. The director didn’t even know it was the same guy. He learned how to speak in a very formal way. Every time he speaks, it’s like a perfectly formed sentence. I think we really should be reading aloud to our students. It’s really one of the best ways to get our kids excited. This is my passion, folks. What good is it teaching kids how to read if they never want to read? The more excited we can get our kids to read, the more likely they are to read. I’ll tell you this secret, folks. The more they read, the better.
I mean I know all of us have different levels of English proficiency. It’s a challenge when they’re in first grade. It’s an even bigger challenge when they’re in 10th grade because now they’re really struggling. Then they have all the social pressure, and so I’m constantly reading aloud to my students. I’m going to share with you a little bit one of my favorite strategies. We definitely need to be reading aloud. Secondly, we need to read together. I’m not talking popcorn reading. That’s where the education system has this ability to take any activity and make it lame and boring. That’s not what we want. We want to get our kids excited. There’s nothing worse than a cynical kid. I tell kids you have the rest of your life to become cynical. This year, we’ll laugh and we’re having fun. We want to really get kids fired up about reading and so the way we do that is we find out what our students are interested in.
Find out what interests your students
I was blessed when I was in seventh grade. My seventh-grade reading teacher was a guy by the name of Will Hobbs. Now he’s a famous young adult author who writes books that are especially popular with teenage boys. He wrote this great book several years ago called Crossing the Wire. It’s about this 15-year-old boy from Mexico trying to make it into America so he can feed his family. Well again, before Will became a best-selling author, he was my 7th grade reading teacher and he was the guy that got me interested in reading for the first time. He had about 5,000 books in his classroom and every day at the beginning of class, he’d tell us what he was reading. We would tell him what we are reading, and for the rest of the 50-minute period, we read. Whenever we finished a book, we’d go to Mr. Hobbs. He’d put down his book, look through our book, and ask us three or four questions. If he was satisfied with our answers, he gave us a point. Every book up to 200 pages was worth one point. Every extra hundred pages is worth another point. You need 25 points to get an A and the top five-point totals had their names written on the board. I wanted my name written on that board. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne–500-page book, four point book–also an excellent Disney film starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas. I didn’t really feel like reading a 500-page book. So I took the book up to Mr. Hobbs. He asked me four questions. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Books aren’t always like the movies. Guess what Mr. Holmes did? He gave me the four points. That’s when I learned another great teaching strategy. Guilt works.
I read every word of every page of every book from that point forward. I wound up with 44 points, well above and beyond what I had to do. He used the single greatest strategy I’ve ever seen any teacher use to get us excited about reading. May I share it with you? He found out what I was interested in, which is football. So at least once a week he’d come up to me with a football book. He’d say Danny, check out this book on John Elway. I know you’ll like it. What are the odds I open up that book? In my experience, 100%. It doesn’t even matter what age the students are. They might not read it but they’re going to open it. Also in my experience, by the fourth time I do that with the student, they’re going to try and read that book because there’s nothing more powerful than somebody significant your life, a teacher, coach, a pastor, a parent, older siblings, who says, You know what? I was thinking of you when I was reading that. We need to be reading together, talking about books.
If you share your favorite books with your students, they’re going to like those books more and I’ll tell you why. You read them differently. Kids can feel that passion. I want us talking about books. I want us reading loud. Then you have to let the kids read on their own and you’re going to have all kinds of different levels.
How You Can Help Your Struggling Readers
Even though I was making a lot of money as a public school teacher, I decided to take a tutoring job after school for the fun of it. I used to work with a lot of athletes who were earning scholarships to different universities for various sports. A lot of them were academically ineligible mostly due to low English proficiency skills. So I usually had about six months to get them academically eligible so that they could qualify for those scholarships. So I remember one student, he was a 6’11” 295 pounds offensive lineman. He had a full ride scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin. He was reading at a first-grade level. I had six months to get him at a higher level. I never know what to expect but this was interesting the way I did it. You’ve got to understand folks. He’s a 12th grader, but he’s reading at a first-grade level. Most first-grade level books are about bunny rabbits and puppies. Well 12th graders don’t want to read about bunny rabbits and puppies, but that was his reading level.
The idea I had is we’re going to write a book for a first-grade class. Then I’m going to have you read it to the first-grade class to see what the kids think. But I’m really not familiar with what first graders like to read. Are you? He’s like no, I’m like so why don’t we read all these first grade level books, then you’ll know what kind of book to write. Do you see what I just did? I just gave him permission to read first grade level books. So if his buddies catch him reading first grade level books, he’s like, oh it’s research. I’m writing a book for a class. You see it’s all psychology folks. Is your glass half-full, half-empty or is it overflowing? What is your attitude? You’ve got to bring you’re A-game every single day into the classroom. The most important thing that I can do to accelerate my English language learners’ literacy skills is to remember the 3 R’s: Read, read, read.
There’s a concept in science known as Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor was developed by Sir William of Ockham back in the 14th century. Sir William discovered the best solution to most problems is usually the simplest. We try to overcomplicate way too many things in American education. I mean, I go around the country speaking and every school district has their own scripted reading program. In Los Angeles, we used to have the Open Court scripted reading program. I have my own program. It’s called the open book program. You take a book, you open it and you read it. It’s amazing how much better your students are going to improve their English when they’re reading things that they want to be reading. I’ll give you a tip. If you don’t know what kids like to read, you can go to my website for a free subscription to Lazyreaders.com. If you go to lazy readers.com and subscribe, it’s a free subscription once a month for the rest of your life. I’ll give you ten book recommendations, three or four adult levels, three or four young adult levels, and three or four children’s level books all under 250 pages so you have something you can read during faculty meetings. If there are specific things you want me to review, just send them my way. There are over 5,000 books a year and I actually create lists all the time. I just wrote a list for a teacher who wanted 10 great historical fiction books for 10 year-olds. I mean, I’ll do 10 books about southern cooking for seventh grade girls. I love doing this.
Create a Comfortable Atmosphere
The next thing we want to do is to create a comfortable atmosphere in a relaxed environment.
I’ve been blessed to have lots of wonderful mentors throughout my career. When I earned my doctorate, one of my advisors was a great guy by the name of Stephen Krashen. If you ever have a chance to watch Krashen speak, he’s unlike any other academic. Most academics are really boring. Krashen is hilarious and he really knows his stuff. He’s done all kinds of great studies. Any of his books are invaluable. But he has something that most people don’t have. He created this theory and he was so smart. He did something a lot of people don’t do. He named it after himself. So it’s called Krashen’s Five Hypotheses. It’s something to guide us when we’re talking about creating a comfortable atmosphere and a relaxed environment.
Stephen Kreshen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition
Affective Filter Hypothesis
So I’ll just go over it real quickly because we have limited time together. Basically there are five hypotheses. The first one, and these are in no particular order, is the affective filter. An Effective filter is basically your anxiety level. Constantly think about what kind of environment you are creating in your classroom. Is it a hundred and twenty degrees? Is it 20 below zero? Is there lots of color? Do you have nice soft music? Are you this intimidating presence or are you kind and considerate? What are we doing to lower the anxiety level of our students? Our ESL students are going to acquire language at a much easier rate if they’re relaxed. They have to feel comfortable.
The Natural Order Hypothesis
The next one is the natural order hypothesis. So the natural order hypothesis basically states it doesn’t matter if you’re born in Boston or in Bangladesh. All of us acquire language at very predictable stages. When you come out of the womb you don’t say oh Mother I’m cold! Could you please get me a blanket? No, no, you come out screaming. You’re crying. Crying turns into cooing. Cooing turns into babbling. Babbling turns into one word, one word into two words and pretty soon you’re going to Harvard.
The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis
The third is the acquisition versus learning hypothesis. So this is the question I always ask people: Who learns language easier, kids or adults? I bet almost all of you are going to say kids. Actually the research is very conclusive on this. Adults learn language easier than kids. But kids acquire language easier than adults. So what’s the difference? Krashen has a good way of remembering. He basically says that acquisition is thought and learning is taught. If you want me to be fluent in Spanish, buy me five margaritas when the bars open up. By my fifth margarita I’m completely fluent.
Learning was my high school Spanish class with Mrs. Anderson. Mrs. Anderson was one hundred eighty-three years old and every day she would waddle into class and she looked at us and said Buenos Dias Clase. Repeat. Buenos Dias. Every dang day, you know, and then like, you know, she let us write dialogues. And since we were in high school, every dialogue we ever wrote was like a drug deal. If we did a good job, on Friday we got to watch Man of La Mancha. I was thinking about that back before I was married. I used to spend every summer traveling somewhere. So one summer I was in Peru in a smoke-filled bar. They’re playing Madonna way too loudly. There was a beautiful woman and she comes up to me. She said something to me. I don’t remember exactly what it was. I think it was like you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen, and I had to say something back to her. So I smiled at her and I go Estoy? Estas? This is how I learned Spanish. And so again, acquisition is natural process—thought. Learning is taught. It’s unnatural.
The Monitor Hypothesis
Then you get to the monitor hypothesis, the fourth hypothesis. Basically if you had a friend that wants to learn German, what would you recommend to your friend? You wouldn’t say, Oh man you want to learn German? You got to take this class the community college. It’s called German One. If you do really well, you can take German Two. Well Krashen says don’t knock that basic German class because what it’s doing is training your ear. So if you were to go to Germany, you’d actually pick up a lot more German. I would actually agree with this based on my travel experiences.
The Input Hypothesis
But this is the most important one. I can’t go really in depth on it. But this is the most important one: comprehensible input. We learn language in one way and one way only. When we understand the message. I don’t have to speak a single word of Farsi if I got a kid jumping up and down with legs crossed. I’m like, okay, here’s your bathroom pass. I don’t have to speak any Farsi to understand that. So, as all of us are English language learner teachers, what can we do to make sure our messages are understandable? Let’s say Liz is my student. Okay, Liz. I’m going to teach you a lesson in English, right? Oh, Liz isn’t getting it. Maybe I’ll speak louder. Okay, Liz, I’m going to speak to you louder. So you’re going oh, she’s still not getting it. How about I speak slower. She is still not getting it. I have it already on the board for you, Liz. She’s still not getting it. How about you copy it down when I write it down? Still not getting it. How about I erase every third word? These things are a waste of time, but I see them happening.
Actually, not all of them are a waste of time. Slowing down is a pretty good idea. I mean if I immigrated to the United States, I’d emigrate to Austin, not to New York where I’m originally from. People in New York talk like me. In Texas people speak slower, alright, so comprehensible input is how we make ourselves understandable. So this is where like a PowerPoint would come in handy. Having those visuals, having gestures. What are we doing to make ourselves understandable? I think that’s really important. How do we create that environment to get our ESL students comfortable?
Sharing Strategies With Other Teachers
Let’s talk about sharing. We want to arm ourselves with weapons of mass instruction for our teaching arsenal. When I do live training, I usually get like a hundred different strategies. People ask why I give a hundred strategies. It’s because everybody gets five, but they’re always a different five. I mean everybody was talking about this with Liz earlier. Everybody’s that snot-nosed kid who thinks their situations are unique. I only teach the poor kids. I only teach the new immigrant kids. Everybody thinks that their situation is unique. Every teacher has challenges which are opportunities to engage those students. That’s our job. We have to figure out what works. What works with one student might not work with this other student. That’s why we have to have lots of different strategies at our disposal.
Although we’re talking about amazing resources, I want to give you my single best tip. I mean, I’m not even that great of a teacher. I just use a couple of great strategies. I’m very good about reading aloud to my students. I know my kids are going to have fun in my classroom. We’re going to be rowdy and loud because language is important, you know, especially for our ESL students. Remember those things called movie theaters? When you go to a movie theater, there’s usually this this slide that says silence is golden. Not in a classroom of English language learners. Silence is deadly. Those kids need to hear lots of language. So it’s really important that it’s a loud and chaotic classroom, so the kids are hearing lots of language.
Using Poetry As A Teaching Strategy
The single best strategy I can tell you to use with your English language learners is this: use poetry. Use poetry. Whether I’m teaching my little ones or my older ones, every class I’ve ever taught, I read aloud at least four poems a day. Think about that. Over the course 180 school days, I’ve exposed my students to over 700 poems. I make all of my students memorize at least 20 poems. When I taught kindergarten, my little ones memorized at least 20 poems and on Thursdays they became poems. It’s a great way to differentiate instruction, too. I have Jose, my non-reader. He’d come on Thursday like Hi! I’m The Sitter by Shel Silverstein! Mrs. McTwitter the babysitter/I think she’s a little bit crazy/She thinks a babysitter’s supposed to sit upon the baby! Then I’ve got Yesenia, one of my top students, she’s like, Hi! I’m Marc Antony from Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare! Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears! Come to bury Caesar, not to praise him! The evil that men do lives after them! The good is oft interred with their bones! So let it be with Caesar!
She was a six-year-old little girl from Mexico, and she memorized 50 lines from Shakespeare! Where did I get that idea? Kindergarten Cop. Have you ever seen the movie Kindergarten Cop? In that movie, Schwarzenegger gets his little ones to memorize the Gettysburg Address. I thought, I wonder if that’s possible? Heck, if I was a better teacher, I think I could teach physics to kindergarteners.
Getting Your Students To Love Learning
The great thing about the little ones is they don’t know what they can’t do yet. When we’re teaching our middle school or high school students, or our adult learners, they have all these people that have been in their heads for years discouraging them. So half of my job is just tearing away that discouragement and removing that barrier. I’m going to tear that curtain. I’m going to get you to love learning. I told this to my kindergartners. I hope to God this isn’t the best year of your life. I hope it’s next year and the year after that. The windshield is a lot bigger than the rearview mirror. We should always be looking forward to it. How do we get better?
That’s why I always love having my veterans on these broadcasts. I’ll have a 30-year veteran in my audience. I’m like, what are you doing here? She’ll say, I want to learn how to get better. Surround me with people like that! Complacency is a killer.
ESL Vocabulary Strategies and Games
One of the big things all of us as ESL teachers really have to do is build the vocabularies of our students. I’ve written three different vocabulary books. I’m always trying to figure out ways to get the kids excited about vocabulary. So I’m just integrating games throughout the day. I’ve always thought one of the toughest things in the English language are the idiomatic expressions. English is just loaded with idioms. So we’re constantly reviewing idioms as a class. When I was a kid, I used to love it when it rained at recess because the teacher would stay in at recess and we’d play Hangman. We do word ladders. I wrote a comprehension book with my friend and mentor Tim Rasinski. He’s like a savant when it comes to word ladders. I used to call them magic spells. But basically you take a word and by changing a couple letters at a time you slowly transform that word into another word. It’s related to the original word. so it would go something like this. We start with the word. What’s the opposite of over? You’d say under. Add two letters. What’s something you hear after you see lightning? Thunder. Okay, great. Now drop three letters. What’s the sound a sack of potatoes makes when it hits the floor? Thud. Okay now change a letter. What’s another name for a bully? Thug. Drop a letter. What is something you like to do with a significant other? Hug. Okay. Now change a letter. What is something you don’t want to find in your motel room? Bug. Now change a letter. What is something you want to put your groceries in? Bag. Now change a letter. What is something they did to smokers in public restaurants? Ban. Now add a letter. What’s another name for a group of musicians? Band. Now change a letter. What’s a box they used to let kids play in on the playground? Sand. Now add a letter. What’s another way to say rise? So that’s stand. So then he said, yeah, it’s not really English unless you understand what you’re saying. Well, that’s a word ladder.
Motivating Your Students
Hopefully I gave you a couple of little ideas. I’ve been doing all kinds of webinars last couple of weeks for teacher appreciation week. Now that so many millions of parents have involuntarily homeschooled their kids, I think they all understand now. It should be teacher appreciation all the time. We are losing way too many teachers, folks. The stats are really startling. We lose over half of our teachers in America in their first six years in the job. We lose over half of our educational administrators in their first three years on the job.
I taught all grade levels, but probably my favorite was teaching the little ones. During the first year, I taught second grade. They gave me all non-English proficient students. I had to get them ready for third grade in nine months. Most of them were at a Pre-K level. I gave them the speech on the first day. I said, the state of California expects me to get you prepared for third grade in the next nine months and I am here to tell you that is not going to happen. I’m going to get you ready for FOURTH grade! Who’s with me? They’re like Yeah! We’re gonna skip third grade! We’re gonna do so awesome! Get those kids in the believer mindset. I always tell my students, sometimes you need somebody else to believe in you before you believe in yourself. They only give me the best and brightest. I believe in every single one of you and I do that. That’s what I love about teaching. My second year of teaching second grade, they gave me 33 students and two textbooks. I believe they thought I was Jesus who could multiply these textbooks.
I’m a person that sees the glass as overflowing. We had a lot of construction paper at my school and a laminating machine. So I looked at my kids and said, You know what, kids? We’ve got to create our own library. In six weeks, 33 kids wrote over 400 books. Now these books varied from Yessenia’s 30-page book, The History of Everything to Jose’s six-page book Mi Familia por Jose.
This is back pre-digital, so I put the kids in groups of three, take their photograph, cut out their head, put their picture on the back of their book, and then I’d write an author biography. So it would be something like Jose Cardenas is the author of Mi Familia, Mi Escuela, and the very popular Mis Amigos. He lives in Compton, California with his family. He enjoys soccer and spaghetti. When he grows up, he wants to be a police officer. Now, I unintentionally learned a whole bunch of things doing this. First of all, my non-reader could read every student’s biography in the class. Why? Because he was interested. He memorized them but that’s a critical first step and is literacy development. Second of all, Jose became an avid writer because the dude liked his picture on the backs of books. I got like 40 of these six-page books from Jose.
Finally, Jose learned how to take care of books because he knew if he messed up Dominique’s book, she’d beat him up on the playground. This is my belief. It’s our job to make a winning hand out of whatever we’re dealt. If you don’t know what to do, let me help you. John Wooden the UCLA basketball coach, he said it’s the things that we learn after we know it all that make the most difference. I used to read this poem by Christopher Lowe to my kids: Come to the Edge! (We might fall!) Come to the edge! (It’s too high!) Come to the edge! They came. He pushed, and they flew. Sometimes all of our kids just need a little push. It’s our job. It’s our responsibility to give them that push and so let me help you. Let me give you a push and together, let’s build up all of ELL’s confidence and let’s bring the joy back into education.