Creating Classrooms that Reflect our Diverse Communities

As our culture grows more diverse, Gisela Ernst-Slavit is spearheading a grant to improve the way schools and teachers can support students who are learning English along with their lessons. Communities and families will benefit too.

Maria Garcia grew up in a small agricultural town in eastern Washington. At home, the family spoke Spanish. “I didn’t start learning English until I started school,” she said.

That is not an easy way to learn any subject—nor to learn the English language. “All of a sudden, everything is in English,” she said. “I’d hear classmates talking about things and I could not relate, because I had no experience of it.”

Eventually, Garcia became a paraeducator at Mill Plain Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash., helping students who are still learning English. And now she is one of 11 students participating in a pilot program at WSU Vancouver who will graduate this spring to become full-fledged teachers with special training for helping English language learners (ELL).

The program is funded by a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education and led by Gisela Ernst-Slavit, professor of education at WSU Vancouver. It is called ELL-IMPACT, for Equity for Language Learners—Improving Practices and Acquisition of Culturally Responsive Teaching. If successful, it will become a nationwide model for improving teacher preparation for our changing demographics.

Ernst-Slavit has long been troubled by the mismatch between the K-12 student population and elementary-school teachers. While the U.S. student body is growing more ethnically and linguistically diverse, there is a shortage of teachers who mirror the backgrounds of their students and who are prepared to teach students who are learning English as a second or third language. Those students are trying to learn their lessons in a language they do not understand well. And their parents may not be able to help them.

“The new generation of students—both K-12 and college, do not fit neatly organized boxes,” Ernst-Slavit said. “Their backgrounds and experiences and needs and talents are different, because they are a diverse group.”

The number of students who are learning the English language as they go to school is growing in Washington state as well as the country. “Seventy-five percent of K-5 English language learners are born in the United States,” said Ernst-Slavit. “School districts are trying to implement dual-language programs for students. But it’s hard to find qualified bilingual teachers. In 2012, the state of Washington certified only 14 bilingual education teachers for the whole state.”

Led by Ernst-Slavit and four co-principal investigators, all from WSU, ELL-IMPACT is working on two campuses—Vancouver and Tri-Cities—to prepare 52 new bilingual teachers over five years. Currently, both Vancouver and Tri-Cities have cohorts of 11 students who are expected to graduate in 2019. Both campuses are partnering with local school districts—Vancouver with the Evergreen School District, and Tri-Cities with six eastern Washington districts.

What is most remarkable is who these students are. They are paraprofessionals—instructional assistants—who are already working in a school or district supporting English language learners. They know how to help students who are learning English, but they are not accredited (or paid) as teachers.

Promoting cultural relevance

Ida Crocamo Farley and Melissa Phillips are among them. As elementary school students, both faced challenges that, as Phillips said, “many of our ELLs can relate to: navigating an educational system without the help of your parents because they cannot communicate in the dominant language of the school.” They struggled with identity and had to learn “to be brave and vulnerable all at the same time,” she added.

One of the goals of the grant is seeking ways to improve family and community engagement with the schools. Knowing from experience how important such involvement can be to children’s learning, both Phillips and Farley volunteered in their children’s classrooms before becoming ELL paraeducators.

Farley grew up in Panama and attended Department of Defense schools. Her grandparents had attended the same schools and spoke English—a definite advantage for her. But Spanish was her language at home. And she rode the local bus to school in the Canal Zone. She hated it, and sometimes snuck on and off the bus so her English-speaking classmates wouldn’t see her. “They teased us,” she said.

Now an ELL assistant at Wy’east Middle School in Vancouver, Farley plans to teach math. She has lots of ideas of how to make the subject come alive for ELL students. To make it more relevant, she said, “instead of just having a story problem, why not a story problem that’s related?” For example, in a class with Native American children, the math problem might be about the salmon population.

For non-native English speakers, learning is “a lot more than language,” Garcia said. “It’s the food, the books, the shows. They all have so much knowledge. Maybe it is not the same as what I know, but they know something, and it’s important to know how to use that to introduce new topics.”

One of the core principles of the ELL program is the use of “scaffolding,” which involves building on familiar things to help students learn. Teachers may use pictures, objects, labels, photos, analogies or any familiar thing to introduce new words. They may teach words or concepts that will come up in a lesson before that lesson is taught, so the student understands the concept more readily. Understanding the effectiveness of instructional scaffolding is one of the research components of the ELL grant, with the goal of adding to an emerging body of knowledge about small-group instruction.

Educating teachers for today's society

The grant is also looking at new ways to approach teacher education—like making it possible to pursue a degree while working, as these students are doing. “It’s hard, but feasible,” as Farley said.

The grant covers most of the students’ tuition. The district accommodates their schedules so they can attend conferences and make presentations. “While they work full-time at their districts, they take classes in the evening,” Ernst-Slavit said. Because WSU Vancouver is partnering with just one district, the education professors are helping out the students—some of whom work multiple jobs—by bringing classes to them, holding them in Evergreen district conference rooms rather than on the Vancouver campus.

“Many paraprofessionals play an incredible role as brokers between families, community and school,” Ernst-Slavit said. “Research indicates that most paraprofessionals live in the communities in which they teach, whereas most teachers do not. And most teachers don’t understand the community dynamics, but paraprofessionals do. They speak the language of the children and have experienced some of the challenges that English language learners face.”

The current 11 students were selected for the program by their school districts and then had to meet all WSU admission requirements. They came to the United States from Cuba, Panama, Mexico, Honduras and Hungary. While some have degrees from other countries or in other disciplines, most would probably not have earned a teaching degree without this program.

In May they will receive bachelor’s degrees with K-8 endorsements and ELL K-12 endorsements. In addition, those who are completely fluent in two languages can also get a bilingual K-12 endorsement that allows them to teach content in another language. Those in the current cohort who plan to add the bilingual endorsement must take an additional summer class and pass a language proficiency test. The growing number of dual language programs in the state requires teachers who hold a bilingual endorsement.

“As future teachers of color, we will be able to provide our students of color shared experiences. We want to be cultural ambassadors that make students of color feel like they belong in school,” Phillips said. She added that all students in their classrooms will benefit: “If they have a more balanced view of history, a better understanding of people different from themselves and a respect of contributions of various cultures, they will not only be better equipped to enter a diverse workforce one day but be richer, more empathetic human beings.”

The project is directly linked with one of WSU’s Grand Challenges: Opportunity and Equity. It seeks to promote equity and to improve educational opportunities for two sets of students: college students preparing to become teachers, and English language K-8 students.

“The key thing is collaboration—the university, the school district and the community working together,” Ernst-Slavit said. She is thrilled at the support ELL-IMPACT is getting, and at the progress the first cohort is making. “There is dedication, talent, sensitivity—and a big heart,” she said.

Ernst-Slavit’s co-PIs are Judy Morrison, Sarah Newcomer and Yuliya Ardasheva at WSU Tri-Cities, and Kira Carbonneau at WSU Pullman. Two Ph.D. students are also involved: Lindsay Lightner on the Tri-Cities campus and Steve Morrison at Vancouver. ■

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