For Arizona ELL Teachers, Lessons Extend Beyond Language Skills

By Carrie Jung
Published: Friday, February 24, 2017 - 7:17am
Updated: Friday, February 24, 2017 - 11:46am
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(photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
ELL teacher Samantha Poe focuses much of her time reviewing phonetic principles.

The nine o'clock hour in Samantha Poe’s classroom means one thing to her students. It’s time to write.

"Let's find our spots!" she said energetically to her class as they filed into her room. "Can we start writing our letters, please?"

Poe teaches English language learners, or ELL students, at Montebello Elementary in west Phoenix and her class is pretty diverse. With kids from nine different language backgrounds.  

As she wrapped up the writing exercise, she moved the kids to the center of the classroom for the next part of class: reviewing letter sounds. With the help of some large colorful flashcards, she ran through each letter and the sounds they can make. 

"Ok, here we go. Y yo yo yah," she said holding up the first card. "Y yo yo yah!" the kids repeated. 

Poe admits, having nine languages inside a class with so many diverse cultures can be challenging at times, but she said it also makes it that much more rewarding to see her students really begin to understand their new language.

For Poe and other ELL teachers at Montebello, their jobs extend beyond teaching English. Because most of the English language learners in this district are refugees. In this school alone there are 37 different languages backgrounds. 

"I’m not only focusing on the academics and the curriculum, but I'm also teaching them how, in America, we treat each other," she explained. "How we look each other in the eye and say please and thank you." 

Dr. Nicole Durazo, the principal at Montebello, added ELL teachers at this school also have to be cognizant of the trauma many of their students might have experienced before coming to the U.S. Many have lived a significant portion of their lives in refugee camps. 

"And then helping our teachers and our staff understand what that means and what that looks like for our students when they walk through our doors," Durazo said. 

Understanding cultural backgrounds are a big factor, too. For example, she said families from certain parts of Africa are very private and can be apprehensive of sharing things like medical history.

"They’re not used to disclosing 'family secrets' or family history," she explained. "But it’s very important for us to know their medical history and their life experiences thus far so we can best meet those needs."  

In the last year, school administrators say Montebello Elementary saw a huge influx of kids from Syria, Africa, and Myanmar. Which falls in line with national trends after an Obama administration policy increased the cap in refugee resettlement in the U.S. by 15,000 persons per year. In fiscal year 2016 roughly 4,000 refugees settled in Arizona according the the PEW research center. 

"Arizona does have to broaden that scope of what English language learners look like here," said Violetta Lopez, the education program manager at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement organization. She explained that’s partly why the Arizona Department of Education and the IRC came together recently to create professional development programs for teachers and administrators to help them better understand these students’ unique needs. 

Lopez said while the IRC has been working with schools for a little while now, a more collaborative partnership with the Arizona Department of Education is allowing them to make teacher resources more accessible. They’re creating webinars and holding more teacher trainings.

"Looking at the introductions and the cultural backgrounders," she said. But the material takes a deeper dive too, broaching social and emotional well being, and exploring the economic and potential cultural barriers that a student's family may deal with being new to the area and the country.   

And at Montebello Elementary, the partnerships go even farther. School officials have also worked with local refugee resettlement agencies to organize community meetings and other events at the school to help them get to know parents a little better. 

As for teacher Samantha Poe, she said while working in an ELL classroom can be challenging, when you break it down, it's just like working with any other new student. "I treat them the exact same way," she said. "They just come on to team Poe and we start learning and observing and loving school every day."

Aside from language, Poe said the main goal is to make her students feel safe, valued and respected.