A Day in the Life - Looking at the Whole Student as We Decide Best Practices for Our EL Students

By Abbey Algiers 

We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t judge a person before you walk a mile in their shoes.” This is a good mantra for educators to remember, especially when considering English Language Learners, because we all know that ELLs have walked a lot of miles - literally and figuratively. ELLs often come to us with a lifetime of experience far beyond their years, as well as struggles from their previous countries that impact them deeply in their new homes. In addition, they’re adjusting to life in our country. It’s a lot for a child or adolescent to manage, which is why it’s helpful for all educators to consider how ELLs experience our schools and culture.

One way educators are attempting to do this is through a technique called ELL Shadowing. This process involves an administrator or teacher shadowing an English Learner for a designated period of time (usually 2 hours) to show gaps in academic language exposure. The educator follows the student to a few classes, without revealing what they’re observing. This allows the observer to see how instruction and class environment affect the student, and become more sensitive to how an English Learner receives the instruction. The desired outcome is learning how we can better our practices for more engaged ELL students who want to stay in school and reach their potential.  There are many ELL Shadowing resources available online and in print, such as ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change or Professor Ivannia Soto-Hinman’s report. 

While valuable insights can certainly be gained by ELL Shadowing, perhaps the greatest insight comes from our students themselves.  To find out “the real story” of what it’s like to be a newcomer to the US, I spoke with middle school students who had moved to the US within the past year. I wanted to get a feel for their experiences as a newcomer - how they navigated through their school days in the first weeks, what helped them assimilate, what was frustrating, and how they were treated by both fellow students and teachers. For this article, we’ll look at two of those students’ experiences.

The first student I spoke with was an 8th grade boy named *Leutrim who came from a city near Athens, Greece with his parents and older brother. When we sat down, Leutrim had only been in school for a week, so his experience was truly unfolding. Leutrim told me that he and his family chose their location in the US because family members had settled here years earlier. Their quest to come to America was several years in the making, and possible only through the lottery system in his country. Winning the lottery for Leutrim and his family meant a chance for a new life in America, but it also meant selling most of their possessions and saying goodbye to friends and relatives in Greece.

While the prospect for a brighter future in the US was exciting to Leutrim, leaving his friends and family was the hardest part. He told me, “During the first days in the US, I missed my friends so much. I missed our walks and the things we did. I missed my soccer team. I missed my grandparents and godparents in Greece. The hardest part about leaving Greece was leaving everyone.” 

However, Leutrim noted that things were getting better. Thanks to FaceTime and Instagram, he can still stay in contact with people back home, and he’s starting to make new friends here.  While Leutrim has been studying English since he was eight, he said communication the first days was a little difficult. He couldn’t always understand what his new friends were saying or what they meant, but he’s now starting to catch on. School activities and schedules are confusing to him, but he gets help from his friends throughout the day via Snapchat.

In the classroom, Leutrim said his level of English allows him to understand most of what the teacher is saying, but he sometimes gets confused when teachers speak quickly. I asked him what could help make things easier. He told me it would help to see examples of how to do math problems and other assignments. Regarding classwork and homework, Leutrim felt the work was doable, but it took him a very long time to complete because of the language. To handle his assignments and work on his English, Leutrim is grateful to have ESL support. He said he understands things best in this class, because the teacher goes over the work with him more slowly and seems to know just how to explain the material so he understands it.

Getting used to instruction in English is just one part of the academic adjustment Leutrim had to make.  He noted that the entire school day is different, from the start time to the structure of the schedule. Unlike the US where students change classrooms each day, students stayed in one room all day in Greece and the teachers rotated. Frequent breaks were another thing Leutrim missed - in Greece, students had five or ten minutes between classes to relax, either inside or in a courtyard, and students went home for lunch. This isn’t the case in his new school, as his US schedule includes multiple classrooms and no breaks or outdoor access. He also mentioned that the class sizes were smaller in Greece and not as much technology as in the US.  “Here in the US we have great technology like Chromebooks and SmartBoards.”

While technology can definitely serve as an advantage to our EL students, it is another item added to the list of things they are getting used to.  All of this can indeed make the assimilation period feel exhausting, overwhelming, and mind boggling. And this is for a student who has a solid grasp of English. 

Another challenge that Leutrim noted was having to translate for his family as he is the only one of his father, mother and brother who speaks English. Yet, he is only an 8th grader and not fluent, so he’s not equipped to translate official documents or deliver important information.  Lucky for him, his aunt and uncle are well established in the US and help Leutrim and his family often with school, housing, jobs, and life in general. When considering the enormity of the adjustments our students and their families must make, school is just one factor in the student’s new experience. It’s no wonder it can be difficult for students to adjust. 

Another student I spoke with was a Spanish speaker named *Sandra, who came from the Dominican Republic. When I spoke with her, she had been in the US for just over a year.  She spoke of her first weeks as being “very confusing and crazy.” 

“I didn’t know where I was going or what to do. I was lost,” Sandra told me. Since her English was very limited, she told me that everything confused her during the first few weeks.  She went from class to class, and relied on Spanish speakers in the class to help her out. For the most part, she remained quiet in her classes and did as much work as she could. Like Leutrim, the cadence of the school day was an adjustment, with school in the US starting earlier in the day and going longer.  She also missed the time spent on breaks in her school’s courtyard, and the fact that students stayed in one room with teachers visiting them. 

While Leutrim had family here that helped explain what was happening in school and the community, Sandra didn’t have that resource as her parents didn’t have relatives here. She explained that it helped to have letters translated to Spanish and things explained by Spanish speaking staff and fellow students.  Without these resources, she would have missed out on a lot of information. For example, her first winter in the US happened to be one of the coldest, with many school days canceled. Luckily Sandra had someone to explain how snow days worked, but adjusting to the (extreme) cold was difficult. 

Both students mentioned several times that while their friends were what they missed the most, they were finding friends in the United States. They both thought the ESL room was their favorite place, because “everyone is the same in ESL.” Standing out in the crowd is not high on the wish list of middle school students, and our ELL students are no exception to the rule. They just want to blend in while they get used to their new school and home. 

With this wish in mind, our jobs as educators of ELL students is even more important.  We must help our students learn the language, manage their academics, and assimilate to life in the United States so they can receive the best education possible and become successful adults. ELL Shadowing might be one strong way to gain further insight into how your school is equipped to serve ELL students.  Another way is by asking them questions about their past and present lives. However we choose to learn about our students, the best thing we can do is always keep in mind the many miles our students have already walked to get where they are now, and give them the help and resources to get even further in school and life. 

*Student names have been changed.

To Further Your Learning:

ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change - Corwin Publishing Company

English Learner Shadowing  - Whittier University

Multilingual/English Language Learner Shadowing Protocol - NYSWE.gov

Student Shadowing Tools - Beth Skelton

Additional Information: 

Stepping into a Student’s Shoes - ASCD

Student Shadow Project - San Diego County Office of Education

See our set of professional learning offering options.

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