Connecting the Community

Tracey Smith makes integrating English language learners into her school’s community a lesson in empathy

I’m the principal at Brookwood Elementary, where we serve more than 1,200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Approximately 10% of our students are English language learners (ELLs). That may not be an especially high percentage (my previous school was 25% ELLs), but our ELLs speak many, many different languages. We have two students from Romania who speak zero English. This morning, I met a family that just arrived from China. None of them speak any English at all. 

We’re an elementary school, so these kids are eleven and under, and they’re coming into a school where they know no one and they don’t know what people are saying to them. I tell my staff that if we can help these kids feel safe, happy, and successful enough in communication that they can contribute to the classroom, I think that’s a success story. 

At Brookwood, we have a Positive Learning Environment Committee that chooses a theme for every school year. For this year, the theme is “we are connected,” so our common goal is for everything we do as a school to inspire every single teacher, student, administrator, and employee in our building to feel that sense of interconnectedness. Here’s how we’re using this mindset and other social-emotional learning (SEL) principles to not only overcome the language gap our ELLs face but to make all of our students feel that they are part of the same supportive community.

Recognizing the Diversity of ELLs

As educators, we often use “ELL” as a category for all of our students who don’t speak English as their first language. When you’re dealing with little kids who are new to a school, though, you have to remember that all ELLs are not alike. 

In my previous school, Mashburn, almost all of our ELLs were Hispanic students. Because these families were mostly Spanish speaking, we tailored how we welcomed both students and parents to the school and the community. We always made sure we had somebody who could speak Spanish, and my teachers and I made a point of doing cultural activities related to the Spanish-speaking countries our kids came from.

At Brookwood, we make welcoming our diverse population of ELLs part of everyone’s job. 

Our Whole-School Welcoming Committee

When students arrive here in Georgia from all of these different countries, they often lack social awareness. They don’t yet understand our customs and norms. They don’t feel at ease because they don’t know their place in the classroom. Of course, language plays a big part here. These students may not know how to go up and make a friend because they don’t know the right words to even introduce themselves. Relationship skills are one of the cornerstones of SEL, and from the first second an ELL student arrives at our school, we do everything we can to model how to create emotional connections with people around them.

Before we meet a new student from abroad, we make a point to learn a little bit about their culture. How do they greet each other? How do their families function in relation to the educational system? Some cultures believe that school and home are separate entities, while some believe in a partnership. We’re working to provide all of our families with what they need from us, without making them feel like we’re intruding on their privacy.

When I say “we,” I mean the whole staff. When families come in to register, our secretary will let us know what language they speak, and we’ll work together to make them welcome. When we’re placing kids in homerooms, their teachers will look to see if there’s another student who speaks the same language so they’ll have each other. If we happen to have a teacher who speaks their language, she’ll teach the other teachers some common words. 

Empathy First, Language Second 

When these students first arrive and don’t have much English vocabulary, we work to make a connection with them and help them to feel safe and successful. I tell teachers that if, on their first day, a student can tell you that they need to go to the bathroom and they can play with somebody on the playground, it’s a good day.

We use an SEL curriculum, 7 Mindsets (7mindsets.com), in all of our classrooms, and with every new arrival, we teach our English-speaking kids about empathy. We ask them, “What would it be like for you if you were at a school in Romania? Or in China? Or Russia? How would it feel? Wouldn’t you want somebody to come up to you and just take your hand and walk you over to a swing and say, ‘Let’s swing’?”

Those ELLs who are new to the school and the country may not know the words “let’s swing,” but playgrounds are universal. Kids chasing each other and playing ball is universal. Playgrounds break down just about any language barrier, because kids don’t need language to play. For our ELLs, having one kid be a friend to them and help them play makes their day complete. Once they feel welcome and safe, then they can start learning the language.

Turning Language Barriers into Language Bonds

We do whatever it takes to overcome language barriers. When kids first arrive, we use Google Translate to learn basics of their language like “bathroom, “welcome,” “Do you need help?,” “Are you feeling okay?,” “Are you hungry?” We have one fourth grader all of whose tests are given one on one so that a teacher can help him understand. But really, kids are amazing. When you create a culture in a classroom where kids feel connected and want to support each other, the kids who don’t speak English will learn it very quickly.

We also empower our ELLs to teach us their languages and cultures. When they help the rest of the class learn, they feel like they don’t have to completely be somebody they’re not—and at the same time they fit in more. Every October, we have Heritage Night, a festival where families can sign up to perform. Kids get onstage and do everything from hip-hop dancing to playing instruments that I’ve never seen before. There are all kinds of amazing things we can learn from each other.

The Shared Language of SEL

All of our students are part of our Monday and Friday meetings, in which we focus on SEL. On Mondays, the whole school does the same mindset lesson. Then, on Fridays, we do a follow-up class meeting during that time. Our fifth graders partner with our kindergartners once a month to work together on a mindset. There’s not a fifth grader or a kindergartner who wants to miss that. It’s beautiful, and it’s a powerful way to model the mindset “we are connected” for our new students. Our students love this time together, and the proof is in the attendance figures. Our Mindset Lessons start at 7:40, and we’ve actually seen a decrease in tardiness on Monday mornings, because the kids want to be there.

But our approach to SEL is much more than those two meetings, and it goes beyond the walls of the school. We want to make parents feel like they’re part of the community, too. Even if they don’t speak much English, we can all share the common language of SEL. We send all of our parents a “Mindset of the Month” video so they can see what their kids are learning and they can talk about it at home. Every Wednesday, I send a weekly newsletter called the Brookwood Beat. I’ll include inspirational videos or something that touched my heart that I think will touch theirs. 

We embed the vocabulary of social-emotional learning into everything we teach. Even when our ELLs go to their pullout classes to work on vocabulary and schema, the teachers talk to them about mindsets like “everything is possible” and “acting and adjusting.”

A great example of acting and adjusting would be if an English-speaking student asked an ELL, “In the U.S., this is how you ask somebody if they want to play. How do you do it in your country?” Making the new student feel a part of the school isn’t something we can teach in one lesson, though. It has to be in everything we do.

Tracey Smith is the principal of Brookwood Elementary in Forsyth County, Georgia.

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