Crawford Middle School (Fayette County) ESL teacher Fariba Atlaschi and Beaumont Middle School (Fayette County) social studies teacher Patt Owen share tips for working with students during the Kentucky Writing Project workshop on English-language learners. Photo by Amy Wallot, June 10, 2015

Crawford Middle School (Fayette County) ESL teacher Fariba Atlaschi and Beaumont Middle School (Fayette County) social studies teacher Patt Owen share tips for working with students during the Kentucky Writing Project workshop on English-language learners.
Photo by Amy Wallot, June 10, 2015

By Mike Marsee

Patt Owen knows how difficult it can be to teach students who struggle to speak or understand English, and she also knows how important it is to teach them.

Owen’s summer break had barely begun when she returned to her school for a Kentucky Writing Project (KWP) workshop on teaching English-language learners (ELLs). It was time well spent.

“The team I teach on has the ESL (English as a second language) students placed on my team, and to have those students for whom English is not their first language has caused some difficulties for me in the classroom,” said Owen, an 8th-grade social studies teacher at Beaumont Middle School (Fayette County), which hosted the first of three KWP workshops on ELLs last month. “So this writing project was something that attracted me to this workshop, because I work with them all the time. I need to find a way to make my content easier for them.”

It’s a need shared by an increasing number of teachers as more and more ESL students come into their classrooms.

“It’s a growing population of students, and pretty much no matter what district you work in, what school you work at, you have ELL students in your classroom,” said Irina McGrath, the co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP). “We knew that teachers were asking for help and asking for strategies, and that’s how the idea for this workshop came about.”

McGrath has coordinated ELL workshops for the LWP for several years, and they decided to expand the project, using KWP teachers who are also ELL teachers to hold three academies, one in Lexington and two in Louisville.

“A lot of teachers are very much interested and have communicated to us, ‘This is what we need,’” she said.

Beth Wren sees that need. Wren teaches at the ESL Newcomer Academy in Jefferson County, the only school in the state’s largest system specifically for ELLs, and she was one of the facilitators at the Lexington workshop last month.

“You can’t just say, ‘Well, we have this ELL teacher over here, and she speaks Spanish.’ Everybody’s going to have to do it. And it’s more and more important to feel empowered in what they’re teaching, because they’re going to have to do it,” Wren said.

Sara Porter is trying to facilitate that in Montgomery County, which is why she came to the workshop. Porter is one of two ESL teachers in her district, responsible for ELLs in grades K-12 in four of the system’s schools, and she wants to involve more Montgomery County teachers in working with them.

“I am organizing an ESL orientation for the high school teachers, and I want to focus on strategies that I think can fit any level, any grade, any course, and have it be a starting point for having accommodations and modifications done more universally, and also to let them know I’m there to support them,” Porter said.

The workshops serve not only as a place where teachers can absorb new ideas, but also where they can put them to the test by participating in the same activities they are learning to teach their students.

“We introduce them to different hands-on ideas, reading and writing strategies that they can take from here and implement in their classrooms. And we provide them with time to participate in those strategies and to try those activities themselves so they can deeper understand what it is,” McGrath said.

Erika Martin, who helped led the teachers in the Lexington workshop through some of those activities, said demonstrating them is important if teachers are to do the same thing in their classrooms.

“I’m here to try to take best practices and research-based strategies for teaching of ELLs and give models,” said Martin, an LWP consulting teacher who is on sabbatical. “Just as we model materials for children, modeling for teachers really sound strategies they can use in their teaching that include differentiation is really important because we have ESL kids at so many different levels of language proficiency.”

Those levels language proficiency, 1 through 6, are in some ways more important than grade levels for ELLs.

“It’s not just about what grade an ESL student is in, it’s about what language proficiency they have. What level are they at? Are they a beginner? Are they an emerging person or developing?” Martin said. “They need to understand that that’s what the focus is. Where is that child, and what can I use at that level to move him to the next?”

Leon Buford-Kelly, the administrative dean at Leestown Middle School in Fayette County, said he came to realize that teaching ELLs starts with understanding those levels.

“It’s been very insightful, looking at the different levels,” Buford-Kelly said. “They may look like an ordinary student, but they’re not. Things need to be modified or broken down for them, whether that means drawing a picture or working with vocabulary, working with words and then building up to complete sentences and then building up to complete paragraphs. It takes time, but it definitely starts off with knowing what level they are at.”

Teachers from elementary, middle and high schools attended the Lexington workshop, and Martin and Wren said the content they were given works at each of those schools.

“I hope that they develop some new tools to add to their toolkits. I want them to be able to take things and if they were to go back to school tomorrow, they could photocopy some things and be ready to put it into place,” Wren said.

Wren said that wasn’t the only thing she wanted teachers to take with them.

“I’m hoping to build their confidence. They’re already doing things well, but when they hear us say, ‘Well, you should be doing this,’ then I want them to say, ‘I do that!’ or ‘My school does that!’” she said.

“They’ve already been doing a fantastic job at meeting ESL kids where they’re at, and I want them to leave with the understanding that teaching ESL kids requires a lot of best practices,” Martin added. “It includes using good literature, it includes using differentiated approach, allowing children to express what they know in different ways and accepting those things as formative assessments.”

Some of those who attended the workshop at Beaumont Middle work with ELLs, but McGrath said most were “content-area teachers who have limited knowledge but would like to learn more.”

Owen falls into the latter category. She has worked with many Spanish-speaking students and said she speaks only enough Spanish to get their attention class, but this winter, she also got five new students from the Congo who speak either French or Swahili or both, and she speaks neither.

“Now I’m dealing with cultural differences as well as language differences,” she said.

Buford-Kelly said his school is also home to a large ELL population, and he said it’s important to know where those students have come from.

“One thing I love about being at Leestown is it’s so diverse. But with a diverse population, we have to learn our students and reach our students,” he said. “That’s why I chose to come to this PD, so I can learn more about the ELLs, how they learn in the classroom, what they need to know and how to help the teachers.”

Wren said that’s what she wants for all the teachers attending the ELL workshops.

“We hope that they will have a better understanding of how to work with English-language learners, what their students bring to class. Because each child has a wonderful story to tell, they have so much experience, they can contribute so much to each classroom,” she said.



Leon Buford-Kelly

Erika Martin

Irina McGrath

Patt Owen

Beth Wren