ELL Teacher Q&A

ELL Teacher Q&A

ELL Teacher Q&A

Throughout the summer, we’ll highlight incredible educators from ELL classrooms and bilingual programs. Our first featured educator is Francisca Jensen, an English language resource teacher from Oklahoma. She gives us a peek into her classroom, including how she keeps language learning engaging for her students and ways that she involves families in her program. Read on to hear her unique perspective and more about the excellent resources she uses in her classroom.

What was your journey like becoming an educator for ELL students?

I followed a traditional pathway to begin my teaching career. I started at a regional college and decided to transfer to a Research 1 institution after I realized many of the experiences and knowledge I would need to be an effective educator during that time frame. It was difficult because many people dissuaded me from going into education. As a single Latina female, growing up in poverty, my father was not convinced that I could make a liveable wage so he worried, constantly, about this decision. I taught in the early childhood grades for 16 years and applied to several English language resource positions throughout that time, but was never given the opportunity. The positions available were few and far between. I had taught English language learners my whole career since they always placed the children who spoke Spanish with me. I also helped the other students and their families throughout the whole school. I obtained my English language certificate in 2008, four years after I began teaching. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, many teachers retired, and our school English language teacher, who knew my passion and interest and the services I already provided to our school community, encouraged me to apply.  My administrator also was aware of my career choice and interest and encouraged me to apply. I was hired to be the new English language resource teacher for two sites, serving 43 students directly. Currently, I directly serve 72 students between two sites and indirectly monitor 26 students.

What type of school do you work in (public/private/childcare) and what languages do your students speak at home?

  1. Public elementary school in a suburban community
  2. Spanish, Laotian, Tai, Vietnamese and English

How old are the children that you teach?

 4 years old - 11 years old

How do you approach working with students who speak different languages in one classroom? 

We find the commonalities among the children using visual and nonverbal cues. Many children relate to books (characters), cartoon characters, colors they wear, etc. Also, we use music and songs in native languages, exposing the other students to these sounds and representations. In our classes, we encourage using the buddy system to partner another child to be the ambassador for the class, and to aid/guide the new student or the child who doesn’t speak English in unfamiliar situations, or when they are confused. Also, we label the classroom with words and visuals that help guide students who don't speak the language of the majority.

What are the bilingual or multilingual benefits for children?

There are many benefits to being bilingual or multilingual. One is that the child is exposed to many cultures and traditions that represent other people in our world/society. They learn about them and build empathy toward understanding those who are different from them.  Second, they are able to share their experiences with those they encounter and broaden their horizons. Last, children use many processing skills to learn different languages and understand the codes of those systems.  Therefore, they engage in learning about different language rules, the roots of those languages, and the systems they were created from. This equips children with strategies to break apart unfamiliar words, to manipulate tasks to dismantle things, and to have background information that may help them decode difficult situations.

How do you weave bilingual learning into your everyday classroom routine? 

We start with the basic concepts such as: learning songs in a different language for greetings, days of the week, months of the year, alphabet and numbers. Then, we extend it to lessons, using different languages to build empathy or understanding of various cultures. I also love to use books that expose them to words and phrases in a different language. We incorporate asking families to present and teach us about the diverse cultures in their families.

How do you keep language learning playful?

I love to play with language. We use music and common phrases throughout our day, especially as transitions. When I see children in the hallway or in classes, I use different phrases in Spanish (my native language) and they get excited about it. So, they ask for more phrases or words. I use texts that provide different languages and/or representations to help them build language skills, but to also do extended activities such as creating art from that culture or a food that resonates with them and they can bring home to share and teach their families. Throughout our play areas, we either create or purchase activities, toys or materials that represent other cultures, and children can create their own understanding by playing.

Do you find it easy or difficult to find bilingual resources and toys to use in your classroom? 

I find it easy as I love to always look for ways to engage everyday things in my classroom. They provide experiences for my students that expose them to different cultures. For example, learning about different spices around the world, snacks, treats, etc. So, with the knowledge I have, I’m able to see everyday materials in a new light.

What are some common misconceptions you think people have about children learning multiple languages? 

One prevalent misconception is that they are dumb or lazy because they can’t produce the task in the majority language as the teacher expects. Yet, when given the opportunity to show it in their native language, they (many times) surpass the children who speak the majority language. Also, many children’s families have professional careers in their home country, but when they move to the United States, those degrees or careers are not honored. So, people think their parents are lazy and don’t want their children to be educated. Another thing is that parents don’t care about their children’s education because they miss parent-teacher conferences or don’t come to school functions. Many times the confusion is that the parents are not aware of the American school culture and how it works, or they’re worried they won’t  understand the language.  

How do you involve families in your program?

Involving our English language student families is difficult and requires great energy and work.  There are limited interpreters, and therefore, it places a lot of pressure on the teachers/professionals who do speak the native language of many families in our district to participate and be available. I begin engaging families by interpreting documents so they’re aware of the information coming home; partnering with community resources to provide our families with resources they require to be successful in our country; and earning their trust so they feel heard, valued and respected in our school community. We must have interpreters present to help our families and have strong relationships among teachers, administrators and families so they know they’re welcome and belong. This year (2024), my district hosted their first Latino Family Information Session to hear from our Latino families about what they want to know more or see more in our school district. It was small, but a mighty outcome of ideas.

Do you have any incredible resources to share with other teachers?

Websites I frequent are:

Scholastic has amazing book selections that are culturally responsive, books about celebrating diversity and about inclusion : https://shop.scholastic.com/teachers-ecommerce/teacher/subject/diversity.html

I buy books monthly to add to my ever-growing multicultural library that my students have access to, and that I use for group sessions.