A few years ago, I had a new student who moved from Honduras and arrived to his first day at this new school in tears. The 7th grader could not speak English, and I was told that his mother was also sobbing as she left the building after dropping him off. I met Josue in a Reading class where I served as an ELL support.
- I introduced him to other newcomers in his grade level. Although there were no other students from Honduras, there were a few others who spoke Spanish and were fluent in English.
- I gave Josue a tour of the building and enlisted assistance from one of his peers. The other student helped by explaining routines, although my true intention was to foster a connection between these students by allowing them to get to know one another beyond a mere introduction.
- The peer and I took turns asking questions about the new student’s preferences and hobbies to get to know him and suggest clubs he might enjoy.
- I introduced the new student to each of his teachers and showed him how to get to his classes according to his daily schedule.
Ways of Building Connections:
We connect when we feel we belong and that our presence and input have value. Each year, I offer various ways to achieve the goal of helping my students feel connected and included, and have found the following strategies to positively impact my student’s sense of belonging.
- Photo Display: Laminating a large white sheet of cardstock and providing a dry erase marker, I ask each student to write one positive trait—in any language—that they believe describes them. I also ask them to share one change they wish to make in their school or the world. I take a picture of each student holding the sign with their positive word displayed, print all photos in black and white, laminate the photos along with their sentence for change, and create a large photo display in the hallway. I invite other students from the school who are not in one of my classes to join in. The display shows how many aspirations we hold in common, and the positive labels created for ourselves can replace negative ones created in the past by others.
- Outreach & Invite: I regularly invite youth to share proposals for addressing issues that impact them. This year, I discovered that several youth wished to learn how to prepare simple meals for themselves and younger siblings during remote learning, and I worked to honor this wish. Initially proposed by one of the students in my Spanish class, I created a cooking show with the help of the community. I reached out students in the middle and high school to offer them the opportunity to participate. The program has been well-received with many students eager to learn these life skills.
- Include Youth and Their Families as an Asset: The diverse and unique backgrounds of my students and their families add to the wealth of resources available to any classroom. I recently enlisted the help of a parent to make Tamales for students in my Spanish classes. I procured the needed ingredients to ensure that all students could sample them.
- Teacher-Created Recognition Program: Schools often focus awards on accomplishments made through sports and academics, but there is great value in celebrating students for demonstrating kindness and empathy as well. During the pandemic, I was amazed by the kindness of many of my students and their eagerness to help where they saw a need. To plan a surprise recognition award for students, I reached out to their families to choose a location and time that would work. These recognition visits have been done as porch visits, at parks, a guardian’s place of employment, or by finding a location near the school.
Strategies for Improving Academic Skills:
Several ELL students confided in me that their dislike of group work is so great that they avoid attending school when they know there will be a cooperative activity. This sentiment is caused by several reasons, including that this teaching style isn’t used in many classrooms where these students previously attended school. They are accustomed on taking notes and rote memorization, and group activities require social skills that many new to these activities do not possess. To address gaining these skills:
- Create lessons that focus on establishing group activities through skits showing how to approach a peer to ask for partnership. The truth is that even many non-ELL students are too often not eager to begin group projects due to finding it awkward or from a fear being left out.
- Depending on your role, connect with the content or ELL teacher to collaborate on unit planning. When the Language Arts department taught about the Holocaust, many ELL students felt lost. I reached out to the community and brought a traveling exhibit to the school to give more information on the topic. This opportunity was beneficial for all students.
- Reach out to families offering to serve as a resource and partner. When I contact guardians about about missing/incomplete schoolwork from their child, I ask that the youth not be punished. They find the request strange, but I explain that we can achieve positive outcomes by supporting the student in turning in the work. Punishment rarely leads to consistent study habits, while a partnership can create success through the use of continuous communication and dialogue.
- When I made home visits to welcome youth and families to the school, I learned that many students lacked access to books to complete their weekly silent sustained reading. Students who lost books from frequent moves or other reasons and could not afford the fines were not permitted to check out books again. I reached out to the community and enlisted help in turning the windowsills outside of my classroom into a free library. This library was created as a resource to benefit all students in the school.
Leila Kubesch teaches ELL and Spanish at the Norwood City School district in Ohio. She is the2020 National Toyota Family Teacher of the Year and the 2021 NEA Horace Mann Award Recipient. She was also a Christa McAuliffe recipient and Fulbright Hays scholar. Leah is also the recipient of the 2020 FM YWCA Woman of the Year Award, and the 2018 Sanford Teacher Award.
She is a certified teacher and holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Education and ESL, a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction, and has started work on her Ph.D. in Reading, Literacy, and Assessment. She has worked with students in elementary, middle, and high school throughout her career and has taught and/or traveled in over 27 different countries.