Successful ESL Strategies

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High school teacher Kristan Taylor uses oral history projects and journaling to help ESL and non-ESL students "realize that they often share the same problems, frustrations and hopes for the future."

Too often, second-language learners sit quietly in the back of the room and become invisible in mainstream classrooms. High school ESL teacher Kristan Taylor believes school districts with a relatively small Latino populations have a special responsibility to ensure students don't fall through the cracks. Here, she shares some of her most successful strategies with Teaching Tolerance.

How do you use journaling projects with your ESL students?
When used effectively, I believe journaling can be the single most powerful tool in increasing self-esteem and exploring a sense of identity. Journals drastically changed my teaching methods, especially during my first year as an ESL teacher.

Journals are especially helpful in ESL classrooms if students are reminded that they are personal, thus they can put grammar and spelling aside and simply let their thoughts and ideas flow. Once relaxed, second-language learners can experiment with vocabulary and won't feel hindered by the idea that their paper will come back riddled with red ink.

Giving students the option to read their journal entries aloud creates a close-knit group of students who felt free to share what was on their mind. When I used journals in a general education setting -- which included all students, including ESL -- the journals helped students realize that they often share the same problems, frustrations and hopes for the future.

What tools have made a difference in your classroom?
Books in many different languages. I had a bookshelf of used books in various languages. During free time, students love to read them, studying the words and noting the differences. I have had books in Japanese, Italian, French, German and Albanian -- although we had no speakers of these languages.

I also stock the classroom with drawing paper, a collection of markers and artist-quality pencils. All of the boys in my high school ESL class were amazing artists and graphic designers. Yet they did not have the resources to buy art supplies at home.

Can you share your strategy for using family history and language activities?
During a discussion, my high school ESL students revealed they knew very little about their family's history. I decided to enable the students to explore their family histories by producing their own books.

Students first created sets of interview questions for family members. Questions were written in English, then translated to Spanish. Many students needed help in thinking of questions. We spent extra time reviewing the difference between a probing question and a "yes or no" query in order to ensure a successful interview. Students were issued voice recorders to record the interview. Then they transcribed it and later translated it to English. The "family history books" were completed in both Spanish and English.

Once the interviews were complete, students got creative! Students added their own personal touches, including favorite family recipes, memories of Mexico and sketches of deceased grandparents. One student drew a picture of her house in Mexico the way she remembered it as a young girl. Students were given disposable cameras to include recent photos of their family. Finally, they created laminated covers for their books. The final product was then bound with binding combs.

Were the students able to see how their personal family histories intersect with the larger history of immigrants in the U.S.?
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to combine the family history research with a class field trip to the Denton County Courthouse in Denton, Tex. There, students heard a presentation of the history of Latino migration to Denton County. Two students discovered that their extended family members were among the first Mexican families in the county.

How do you approach the topic of immigration with your ESL students?
Many immigrant students lack an understanding of their rights and the laws pertaining to immigration. Our high school ESL class spent six weeks collecting newspaper and Internet articles pertaining to immigration. I encouraged students to search for articles that represented all sides of the issue, even if a newspaper commentary was offensive to them. We discussed the importance of understanding all sides of the issue. Students then affixed articles on a "debate wall," with articles organized according to point of view.

Do students share or experience any apprehensions about the political climate around immigration?
Our class embarked on the "family history" project at an interesting time. Shortly after I explained the project, our rural town was abuzz with rumors of la migra, or the immigration police, raiding shops, supermarkets, apartment complexes and ranches looking for illegal workers.

Whether the rumors were true or not was irrelevant. Parents were weary and nervous about the presence of a tape recorder in the house, and they did not want to give details in the interviews. Although the projects were completed and, in my opinion, served the intended purpose, I believe it would have been more successful had the social climate been different.