Published Online: April 14, 2010

Getting English-Language Learners to Thrive

Seven years ago, I left a 19-year career as a community organizer to become a teacher at an inner-city school.

During my organizing career, I participated in efforts that won many concrete community improvements in jobs, affordable housing, citizenship, and child care. But the most important results were seeing how dramatically people changed themselves based on what they learned through community organizing—how to give and receive constructive critique, how to lead and guide diverse groups, how to confidently confront challenges, and how to take the initiative to create change. Many developed a burning desire to learn, and often surprised themselves with their capacity to excel with difficult tasks.

Seeing these kinds of results caused me to wonder how much better people’s lives could be if they developed effective leadership skills at a younger age. I wanted to help people learn to think critically and act confidently as they were growing up, rather than waiting until they were adults. That desire, and my belief that many of the organizing strategies that worked successfully with adults could benefit teenagers and younger children, prompted my decision to become a teacher.

I was particularly interested in working with English Language Learners. I was raised in an immigrant household in New York City, and had spent most of my organizing career working in immigrant communities in California. So I began to observe classes that had large numbers of English-language learners to see what I might be “getting myself into.” I also began talking with immigrant leaders of our community organization to learn about their classroom experiences, those of their friends, and those of their children. Through these observations and conversations, I developed an even greater determination to see how I could incorporate organizing strategies into my teaching.

I saw and learned how older English-language learners were often treated in schools. Many teachers taught middle and high school students as if they were little children, using simplistic activities that denigrated the sophisticated reasoning skills and life experiences that young adolescents and teenagers brought to the classroom. Many educators looked through the lens of a “deficit model” that focused only on students’ limited English skills and not on the wealth of their prior knowledge. Consequently, many students lost interest in school and never discovered how to push past the early frustrations of learning another language so they could continue their education.

In contrast, the following methods, which I call the “Organizing Cycle,” can help students become co-creators of their education, without being constrained by their limited English skills. I have used it successfully in my classes for the past six years.

1. Build strong relationships with students

Community organizers often say that “organizing” is just another word for “relationship-building.” You can quickly identify people’s self-interests on the surface, such as the desire to get a better job or buy their own homes. But it is necessary to go deeper and find out what personal experiences might inspire people to seek improvements in order to develop power to create significant personal and social change. These insights can only be uncovered in the context of a genuine relationship.

When these self-interests are revealed, students can then be agitated (challenged to reflect on their own knowledge, lives, and experiences and then use these reflections to frame a vision for the future) instead of being irritated (told what they should want to know along with telling them how they should learn it). Doing this successfully can help English-language learner students fight past the frequent frustrations most people experience in learning a second language.

2. Access prior knowledge through stories

Stories can help immigrant students make connections based on their similar experiences and help them consider alternative perspectives. These classroom conversations involve an exchange of information, not an interview or a one-way presentation, and can result in the creation of a “Community of Learners.” By developing this type of class culture, students can find that they have both more personal self-confidence and more in common with each other than they had originally thought. This combination of increased self-assurance and feeling more connected to their peers results in students feeling more comfortable taking risks, which is one of the keys, if not the key, to second language learning success.

3. Identify & mentor students’ leadership potential

Assisting students to develop leadership skills helps them become co-creators of their learning journey. Everyone in the class, including the official “educator,” can be a learner and a teacher.

Patiently helping our students grow the capacity to lead helps them create their own sense of power, which dictionaries define as “the ability to act” —both individually and collectively. Developing this capacity is particularly important to English-language learner students, many of whom have been uprooted from their native countries through no choice of their own, may struggle to understand and communicate in our culture’s primary language, and can be living in lower-income communities where examples of powerlessness are obvious each day.

4. Promote learning by doing

It’s difficult for students to feel powerful if the leadership and energy only flows from the teacher. Using Alinsky’s Iron Rule of “never doing for someone what they can do for themselves” as a guide, we can show students how to become much more than empty vessels waiting to be filled by the educator’s input.

Community organizers describe action as the oxygen of an organization. Action is equally important to the healthy life of a classroom. We need to help students learn that people without power tend to react to rules and experiences that others create, while people with power can act to create those rules and experiences.

Having English-language learners describe and interpret classroom experiences has long been considered an effective instructional strategy. Helping students discover knowledge on their own through those experiences—instead of telling them the information—creates even richer language (and life) learning opportunities. To paraphrase Dave Kees, a talented English teacher in China, What makes for more engaging stories and conversation—going on a pre-packaged tour or on an adventure?

5. Model reflection

Many of us often define ourselves by our activities instead of the outcomes of those activities. Educators, too, can fall into the trap of substituting busy-ness for real progress. As T.S. Eliot once said, “You can have the experience, but miss the meaning.”

When we take time to critically review our work and search for evidence of our accomplishments (both through data and personal observation), we learn how to improve and we’ll often uncover key lessons we may have missed. It’s important for educators and students alike to develop the discipline of reflection. Many often do not take the time to “digest” what they are doing and learning. English-language learner students have to learn twice the amount of other students—language and content—and are therefore even less likely to naturally incorporate this element. There’s always so much to learn!

I’m not suggesting that this kind of “Organizing Cycle” is a precise road map for educators to follow. Instead, it might be more of a compass for educators to use as they help their ELL students acquire the English reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills they need to thrive in both academic and community settings; support them to become comfortable in a new culture while drawing on the strengths of their native traditions; and assist them to develop the needed skills to participate as active citizens in our democracy.

Applying these strategies in the classroom tends to give my students and me energy to learn and to teach. They also help remind me to consider what kind of legacy I want to leave with them. I don’t just want them to develop the English (and life) skills to survive.

I want them to develop the capacity to thrive.

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