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 | 

Whatever It Takes: Advocacy is Imperative

As a teacher or leader of English Language Learners (ELLs), you can often find situations that make you feel like you need to speak on behalf of your students. This blog will discuss the different situations in this lesson and some recommendations so you can play your role as an advocate in a professional manner.

Why Speak on Behalf of ELLs?

Imagine you are teaching a class of English Language Learners and you notice that the materials the school provides for English as a Second Language instruction are not adequate. This makes the struggle of your students even worse. In this kind of situation, you should not be afraid to say something tin education we often where many hats, hence advocacy should be one that is a well defined platform for change.

Advocating on behalf of ELLs for different reasons is imperative. The primary goal to advocate for your students is to ensure their academic success and equitable access to resources essential to their well being. Let's look at some common situations to understand when and how to advocate for our ELLs.

Different Scenarios

You might encounter countless situations in which you'll be called upon to use your advocacy skills. However, before you decide to speak on behalf of your students, make sure you take these basic actions:

  • Identify a legal right or an ethical need ELLs have are not being fulfilled. (i.e. inadequate materials, ELLs in your schools are being segregated, etc.)
  • Identify the person(s) to whom you can speak. (i.e. grade teacher, your school administrator, the Department of Education, etc.)
  • Prepare a few options to propose so that positive change occurs (i.e. you suggest a specialized printing house for materials, you propose a model to include students in regular English classes, etc.)

These steps ensure that your advocacy is reasonable and effective. Now, let's look at the possible scenarios in which advocacy might be required.

Under-prepared Instructors

Very often, school teachers and administrators are not fully prepared to understand the struggle of ELLs. Diplomacy when advocating is key so that other professionals do not feel threatened. The best strategy is informed content to help those under-prepared persons in your school.

To illustrate, let's meet Susie. She is a third grade teacher who has a total of six ELLs in her class. Her ELLs struggle with math and science in particular. Susie knows her ELLs have limited English proficiency and she is not prepared to deal with them because she is a grade-level teacher. Susie's ELL students are lucky because they also have Hoda, a specialized ELL instructor. However, Hoda wants to see progress in her ELLs as soon as possible. When she notices progress does not happen fast enough, Susie begins to suggest to the Literacy Department that her ELLs should be tested for learning disabilities.

Now, let's analyze this case. There is nothing wrong with grade teachers being unprepared to deal with ELLs because even grade teachers who have ELL certifications may feel overwhelmed when working with ELLs. However, teachers can too often suggest learning disabilities in ELLs. In our case, Hoda first talks to Susie. Hoda shows understanding about Susie's frustration and explains to Susie how language lack of proficiency can affect academic progress of ELLs. Hoda also gives some tips and easy strategies for Susie to apply with her ELLs. This way, Hoda advocates for the six ELLs by talking to the grade teacher and by offering solutions to the slow academic progress ELLs make.

Inadequate Policy

Very often, federal, state, or school policy can be inadequate. Remember that policy is issued by human beings and error is a possibility. The good news is that policy is not unchangeable. We only have to keep in mind that policy change requires presenting good arguments in favor of change and following the right steps, which vary depending on each situation. Local authorities usually have the knowledge to guide us through the correct path to follow.

Let's look at this case: Hoda, our ELL instructor, has noticed that the state policy for ELLs is inadequate because it mandates ELL instructors to teach ELL students entirely outside of the regular major classes: science, math, and social sciences. This means that ELL instructors suddenly face the responsibility to teach like grade teachers do for those subjects. The situation is overwhelming for ELL instructors but also for ELL students because they are being segregated from their peers.

Luckily, Hoda knows she is not the only instructor who has concerns on this issue. Other colleagues in her school have her same view, plus she knows a number of colleagues in the school district who want to advocate for a policy change. The instructors find support with their administrators, and there are many among them who know how to prepare a policy memorandum to present to the Department of Education as a first step towards change. Luckily, they will succeed within a short period of time.

Inadequate Materials

Sometimes, schools purchase materials for ELL teaching that do not meet the academic needs of students. This can happen because the quality of the teaching material is not appropriate for the different levels of English proficiency, because the material is outdated, because there is not sufficient quantity of materials, etc. Either way, ELLs have the right to receive appropriate instruction to address their language proficiency issues, and this goal can only be obtained with the right materials.

Let's look at a specific scenario. Hoda notices that the school materials for ELL teaching are not grade-appropriate. She and the other ELL instructors suggest some better printing houses the school can do business with. To suggest this, Hoda evaluates the cost of the new material against the allowance the school district has for ELL materials. This way, Hoda ensures that her proposal is reasonable and feasible.

Other cases

Let's keep in mind that any case, whether it is about the school ELL instruction program or about a single student (such as the case of a student who has been placed in the wrong proficiency level) is a sufficient reason to speak on behalf of ELLs.

Teachers and leaders of English Language Learners advocate for their students in order to ensure their academic success. Before teachers or leaders speaks on behalf of their student(s), it is recommended to do the following:

  • Identify a legal or ethical reason to advocate
  • Identify the person(s) who can help change the situation
  • Propose specific action that leads to positive change

Scenarios that are good reasons for advocacy vary, but the most common include under-prepared instructors, inadequate policy, and inadequate material. Other cases include but are not limited to wrong placement of student(s), lack of sufficient teaching materials, wrong approach to ELL teaching programs, etc.

Food for Thought:  Does you district have appropriate ELL programming?  Perhaps reimagining programming is essential to level up opportunities for all staff and for all students to be receiving equitable and rigorous teaching opportunities.  

How can Wagner Educational Consulting help Facilitate these conversations.  Contact us for details.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | 2018