Teach what you love
Stephen Mullaney works as a half-time ESL resource teacher/half-time second grade language arts teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary in Durham. This article focuses on his advice for teachers working with ESL students.
Teachers in North Carolina and across the nation are instructing more and more students in their classroom who are English language learners. Stephen Mullaney is an English as a Second Language (ESL) resource teacher for K–5 students in Durham, North Carolina. Primarily working with students within their classrooms rather than pulling them out for instruction, Stephen offers advice and techniques for classroom teachers working to teach all students effectively and with enthusiasm. His guiding philosophy encourages teachers to incorporate topics and activities that interest them as they plan curriculum.
Stephen Mullaney’s beginnings in the teaching profession were anything but conventional. Although he did well in school academically and both of his parents are teachers, Stephen rarely felt personally connected to curriculum or to his teachers and never planned on becoming an educator. His lack of enjoyment and investment in school eventually led to behavior problems. After leaving Framingham State University in Massachusetts, he spent time touring in a punk band and working construction.
Stephen’s then-girlfriend and now-wife, Christine Fantini, teaches first grade. She began her teaching career in Boston, then worked in South America, and eventually settled at Club Boulevard Elementary in Durham. Whenever Stephen visited Christine, he spent time volunteering in her classroom, eventually choosing to move to Durham. After working construction in the area for a year, he became a teaching assistant. Once he entered the environment of an elementary school, Stephen followed where his interests led. Tired of working as an assistant, he earned his teaching certification by taking classes at nearby North Carolina Central University and interviewed and was accepted into Reading Recovery training. As a Reading Recovery instructor, he worked with several students who were learning English. The “amazing” progress made by these students led him to become interested in acquiring his English as a Second Language (ESL) certification.
While he was earning this certification, a second grade teacher, Elizabeth Wintermute, approached him about sharing a classroom. Stephen now works during the mornings as an ESL resource teacher and in the afternoons teaching Language Arts in a second grade classroom. Elizabeth teaches math and science to their second grade class in the mornings and is a Reading Recovery teacher in the afternoon.
A typical day begins at 7:30, as Stephen arrives early to prepare or work on one of his many special projects around the school. He begins the morning in the second grade classroom that he shares with Elizabeth and greets students as they arrive around 8:45. At 9:00, Stephen gathers a rubbermaid tub filled with teaching supplies, a clipboard with his schedule, his jacket, and a water bottle and begins working with students as a resource teacher. From 9:00 to 12:00, Stephen moves from classroom to classroom, usually working with groups or individuals within the classroom, sometimes bringing students to the library for one-on-one instruction. At 12:20, he accompanies his second grade class to lunch and spends the afternoon in the classroom teaching Language Arts.
Stephen works with thirty-two ESL students each week, dividing his time among them based on their individual needs. Except for one Vietnamese student, all of his students are Latino.
Although he spends some time pulling students from their classroom for one-on-one instruction, he prefers to work within students’ classrooms for several reasons. First, Stephen is interested in partnering with students’ teachers to model instructional modification. In addition, by working in the classroom, he can tailor his instruction to support and reinforce the goals of the classroom teacher and the student’s work. Through his experience as a Reading Recovery teacher, Stephen found that removing students from the classroom can sometimes send the wrong message to a teacher who may assume less responsibility for students receiving special services and defer to the resource teacher rather than working as a partner with him. Finally, Stephen thinks that most students learn best when they are supported while spending time with their peers, particularly when they may already be removed from the classroom for other special instruction.
Many of Stephen’s recommendations to teachers apply not just to students learning English but to students in general. Some of these general guidelines are listed below. Specific recommendations for ESL students follow this general list.
Teach what you love. Think about the things that interest you. Brainstorm connections to the curriculum by mapping out the topic with possible links or activities in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Stephen recommends “twist-turning a topic upside down and inspecting it from all perspectives.” He says that when he teaches topics that excite him, the students “latch onto” his enthusiasm. This kind of student interest can create classroom momentum as students “move to higher levels of thinking quicker.” In addition, as Stephen works to incorporate his own interests into the curriculum, he enjoys his time in the classroom and wards off “burn-out.”
Stephen gets many ideas for topics to incorporate into his classroom during the summer months. For example, last summer, he hiked 100 miles of the Applachian Trail while reading philosophy. Based on this experience, he began teaching and studying philosophy with his second graders and began after-school philosophy discussions. On the day I visited Stephen, two students began animated discussions with him about Henry David Thoreau. One student described a retreat in the woods he’d created for himself “just like Henry David’s.” Another child gave Stephen a computer disk filled with information he’d found about the philosopher on the Internet.
Make personal connections with students. Talk with students about their lives. As Stephen walks through the hall, he greets students by name and may chat about the weekend or compliment new haircuts. He uses his knowledge about students’ lives as part of his instruction. For example, one of his students loves games and shares games with Stephen that his father teaches him. Most of the activities that Stephen incorporates into his instruction with this student are framed as games - racing each other to create words from Wikki Stix, playing Go Fish with sight words, and collecting pairs of letter and picture flash cards.
While playing these games, Stephen maintained a steady stream of conversation with the student. At one point, the student correctly named the picture on a card paired with the letter J as a “jar.” When Stephen asked him if he knew what was in the jar, the student shrugged. Stephen told him about “jelly,” asking if he’d ever had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and describing jelly as “sweet” and “purple or red.” After learning that the student had never tasted jelly, Stephen promised to take the student by the cafeteria on his way back to his classroom and ask the cafeteria workers to let him try some.
Modify instruction based on student understanding. By frequently checking for student understanding, Stephen can make continual adjustments to his instruction. For example, while kneeling next to a student’s desk during a class review of calendar skills, Stephen quietly asked the student if he knew the months of the year. When the student shook his head, Stephen quickly wrote down the month abbreviations across the top of his page. The visual cue jogged the student’s memory as he whispered the months to Stephen. After this quick review and visual reminder, the student successfully participated in the class discussion.
In addition to the above advice, Stephen recommends the following for classroom teachers with ESL students.
- Be specific with what you’re saying and encourage students to give specific responses as well. Try to think about all areas of language development — reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
- Take full responsibility for students who are pulled from your class for resource services. Work to communicate with resource teachers about what they’re working on with students and what you’ve noticed during classroom instruction. A classroom teacher should be as knowledgeable as the ESL teacher on the specific strengths each student brings to her classroom.
- Be willing to modify work in terms of content and amount so that students are not overwhelmed in your classroom. Ask for assistance from other teachers or from the ESL instructor as you need it.
In working with parents of ESL students, Stephen has found that some avoid speaking to their children at home because they don’t speak English. Parents express concern that speaking their native language may impede their children’s ability to learn English. Stephen encourages these parents to speak to their child in their native language so that students are accustomed to communicating and have language skills and so that students are able to retain their own language, culture, and identity.
Recently, Stephen began a Tuesday night class for parents of ESL students, focusing each class on attendee’s needs. He encourages them to email him questions or concerns throughout the week and to carry a journal with them so that when they think of questions or hear unfamiliar words they can write them down to ask him. A focus of recent classes has been preparing parents for upcoming teacher conferences. By thinking about his own interests and incorporating them into his planning, Stephen injects enthusiasm into his work with students. This enthusiasm, his personal connections with students and his attention to each students’ understanding and progress fosters an environment of learning and care.