A guest post by Patricia Hanson
In this blog, Patricia Hanson shares 10 things that even the busiest teacher can do to ease the transition into a new school environment for both ELLs and their parents.
Having spent time internationally before I started teaching English language learners (ELLs), I have gained insight into how parents feel about having their child away from their side while in a new country. A new school year is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for many mothers and fathers whose children are starting that school year in a country with a different culture.
Over the years that I have worked with ELLs, the teaching assistants and I have engaged in some rituals in order to ease the transition into a new school environment for both ELLs and their parents. Here are 10 suggestions that should not unduly burden even the busiest teacher and can have a big impact.
1. Send a postcard. Before the school year starts, send a postcard to your new and current ELLs about a popular or significant local nonschool site or item, and also let them know that you are looking forward to seeing them.
2. Introduce yourself. Send an email or a letter to new parents introducing yourself and inviting them to the school before the year begins to meet with you and/or to tour the school with their child. Provide parents with the opportunity to express any concerns or make requests for accommodations for their child.
3. Check in on parents. Shortly after the school year begins, send an email to the parents to check in on how they perceive their child is adjusting to his or her new school and assure parents that you want to be contacted with any questions or concerns.
4. Capture moments. As you are checking in on your newcomers in the first days and weeks of school, take a few snapshots of the children at school and email them to their parents: “Here is what Muhammad is doing in science today. Enjoy!” Capturing moments throughout the school year when ELLs are with their new friends and emailing them to a parent is a nice way to help new parents know that their child is adjusting. At one point in the year, consider taking pictures of your new ELLs, placing them in small inexpensive frames, and sending them home with each of your newcomers.
5. Teach cultural traditions. As holidays that might not have been celebrated in the ELLs’ prior countries—such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and St. Patrick’s Day—approach, take a moment to share information with the students about the meaning and school traditions surrounding those holidays. Older newcomers will not have had the opportunity in most cases to talk about such holidays if they have entered the school system above the elementary school level. Bring appropriate treats or have a variety of stickers, available for students to take, if they are interested. Helping these newcomers learn about the American cultural traditions that they are unlikely to have heard of in their previous environments—for example, tipping them off as to why students might come to school dressed in green on 17 March—even if they are not Irish or even if they ultimately choose not to “wear the green”—will help their adjustment.
6. Learn cultural traditions. Many of our students from Japan enjoyed sharing their expertise on making origami figures. Setting out origami paper for students to share and teach each other became a fun tradition and an opportunity for kids to show their talents and share their culture at my school. Look for other easy cultural traditions that the newcomer ELL might be able to lead that other students would be interested in learning about.
7. Say thank you. Many ELLs bring gifts to their teachers as a thank you and perhaps as a reflection of their own traditions. Make it a practice to keep thank-you stationery handy. A hand-written thank-you note is another way to connect with your students and show your appreciation.
8. Create a cultural wall. Create a cultural wall or area to place different objects representative of your ELLs’ homelands and invite students and teachers to donate or lend objects for the cultural wall. Having a space acknowledging the value of their backgrounds and also recognizing their diverse holidays will help newcomer ELLs feel welcome and understood.
9. Involve the library. Arrange for your newcomer ELLs to meet the school librarian. Ask the librarian to order a few books in the native languages of your newcomers. A librarian that I worked with developed a special section of the library, showcasing the books available in different languages of the student population.
10. Facilitate participation. Encourage students to participate in school clubs and other school events. Emailing or mailing parents enrollment forms facilitates the process and can result in a better chance of students participating. After-school events provide more opportunities for newcomers to make new friends, learn new skills, and feel connected to their school community. Don’t forget to inform your ELLs of the possibilities of starting a new club at school that could be related to their ethnic or cultural background or a special interest and, if you are interested, consider being the advisor. It is an additional opportunity to connect with your ELLs.
The parents of many former ELLs have expressed their appreciation for our efforts and stayed in touch after moving from the school district or going back to their home country. We have followed many of our students through subsequent schools, college, and work. I believe that the role we played with these students and our efforts in trying to establish personal connections with them had a big impact on their success in school. Staying in contact with former ELLs and their families is not only rewarding but an opportunity for feedback and improving educational practices for future ELLs. Ultimately, it is by doing the little things that we can make our ELLs and their parents feel welcomed and appreciated and thereby increase the likelihood that we can give them the positive learning environments that can lead to success.
Patricia A. Hanson, PhD, received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, an MS from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and a PhD in Urban Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests include the schooling experiences and identity development of Muslim youth, Muslim communities, and educational policy.