A few years back I was approached by a district level leader to showcase a few new English Language Learners in our district.  The leader wanted something different to capture the essence of the changes in our demographics.  As the supervisor for English Language Programs I was thrilled to see the shift in thinking and the progressive ideas to allow our students to tell their life stories.... that is until he said, "Lets get the boy who picked rocks in Mexico to talk about his life working in the fields."  Immediately, I realized my colleague had completely missed the mark!

Changing Demographics

Over the past 15 years, school districts across the United States have experienced explosive growth in the immigrant population. The increased enrollment has strained the resources of schools—whether they've had experience with English language learners or not. And as school districts struggle to find additional funding and resources to support this diverse group, they also have to contend with the fact that English language learners fall behind in standardized tests and many are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than their peers. Beyond these facts is the idea that our students come in with a wealth of knowledge that far outweighs what a language proficiency score tells us... they each have a story to tell... and from which we as district level leaders, teachers and communities can learn from. 

Eventually, our conversation lead to my colleague going to the young man and asking him to recount his life picking rocks  for our up coming school board meeting.   As the conversation started I could tell that the request did not sit well with the student.  He tried to comprehend really what our district leader wanted him to do.  Once the conversation was nearing its end, our student simply said with conviction,


In that moment I had realized that we had judged his life story on the chapter we walked in on.

Shifting Our Thinking to See the Whole Child

ELL students are a highly heterogeneous and complex group of students with diverse gifts, educational needs, backgrounds, languages and goals. This diversity is an asset. However, the current one-size-fits-all traditional education model is struggling to adapt. ELL students have long been provided with these one-size-fits-all intake practices, educational programs and services, and the results show that we miss understanding what value added assets our students bring to our districts.  We have essentially equated our ELLs to their language proficiency levels.  

Reflecting on our conversation with our new student, it was evident to my colleague that he too had missed the mark.  However, good came from that moment. The conversation taught us we needed to do more as a district.  In the weeks and months that followed we started to think critically about our cultural capacity and the cultural capital we had in all of our students.  Our approach became more holistic, as we moved beyond just looking at hard data and language proficiency levels.  We started to enlist student voice.  We began to open our third eye and adjust our systems to be accountable to the students who provided us with more knowledge then perhaps we could provide them.  

Moving Forward

A key shift for schools to make is working together across the system and with not only with educators to maximize learning opportunities for ELL students, but also with stakeholders that include students and families. English language acquisition should be a coherent part of ELL students’ learning and integrated into academic content courses, but so should showcasing who our students and families are as people.  This requires a much larger shift in thinking than simply teaching English vocabulary in a math or science course. Personalized, is about teaching and learning about the whole child, from academic learning to culturally responsive teaching, to developing student and district skills and dispositions necessary for success in building a system that emphasizes the cultural capital that all of our students bring. 

Last thought:  Advocacy is critical.  What burns in the heart of an educator is the passion that we must have to be certain that we do not allow a child to be judged on a standard that discounts their very being.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | 2018 |