Making Education More Than a Grade

Anne Paonessa assesses the impact of service learning on English language learners

While the current focus in our field is on increased academic vocabulary and overall college and career readiness as driven by the Common Core, I believe we must proceed with caution. Potential dangers include English language learners (ELLs) experiencing increased academic frustration based on their current English proficiency levels and the quality of the instruction they receive. Many students may “check out” if the academic experience is not comprehensible at their level, internalize a negative message based on their perceived inadequacy, and not receive the meaningful engagement with language needed to increase their language acquisition.

“Teacher, I have a question.” I remember hearing this statement in my first few days as a sixth to eighth grade ELL/bilingual resource teacher. “What do I need to do to get out of ELL?” I quickly learned of their desire to blend in and be like their native-English-speaking peers. They didn’t want to be in different classes where they received ELL support. They felt self-conscious about the need for extra help and the deepening of the differences they were already feeling from the general education students. Many of my ELL students were also struggling with the barrage of emotions and adjustments that come from moving to a new country or witnessing the very real struggles of parents who chose to leave their home countries in search of a better life. The stress they were feeling as outsiders at school, and the difficulties their parents faced being made apparent to them at home, resulted in many of the ELL students in my classroom being withdrawn and reluctant and feeling diminished in value.

I knew that I needed to do something. Simply talking to my students about how special they are for speaking more than one language and for the unique experiences they bring to school would not be enough. Explaining again and again how one day they would have more opportunities than monolingual students was not changing their reality today. I needed a way for them to feel for themselves that they had value and power at that moment. I wanted them to view themselves through the same lens that I saw them: amazing young people full of energy, creativity, and caring human spirit.

I remember the opportunities I had in school to help others. I collected money for sick children in a small cardboard box given to me by my teacher. In Girl Scouts we visited area nursing homes and an orphanage. These interactions left me feeling important because I had made a difference for someone else. I walked just a couple of inches taller and knew that I mattered, even though I was “just” a child. This was a feeling and experience that I wanted for my students.

In order to effectively teach my students, I needed to find a way to engage them in school and in life in general. Their various home-life stressors and lack of belonging in school left these students in danger of checking out. They needed an experience that would help them discover their own power and change their perception of themselves. This immediate need I saw within my ELL students combined with my own past positive experience with community service resulted in the formation of a service-learning group.

The involvement of our middle school ELL students in a service-learning club has had a profound impact on both their engagement at school and their self-view. We formed the Westlake Helpers — “Global kids taking action!” — comprising of our ELL students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and varying English language proficiency levels. It has been a means to connect them both to the school at large and to each other as a community, and to provide the opportunity for them to see that they can have a positive impact on others.

The majority of our ELLs have a relatively low socioeconomic status (SES), and very few are involved in after school clubs or activities even when a late-activity bus is provided. Some of them are responsible for younger siblings after school or their parents want them to return home right after the school day ends. Our club meets in our language arts block during school. The students have been writing letters and creating projects for injured veterans and senior citizens at an area nursing home. In order to make the activities meaningful, we began by providing background knowledge on the life of soldiers, especially those who are sick or injured, staying in the veterans’ hospital. We showed videotapes of soldiers in action, clips of those in hospitals, and actual letters from soldiers sharing their experiences. Two war veterans, relatives of teachers in our school, came to visit the students and share with them their own experiences of serving in the armed forces.

We talked to the group about the many changes that take place in people as they grow older. They even took turns wearing science safety goggles with some petroleum jelly smeared on them to replicate diminished eyesight, walked with hard corn kernels in their shoes to experience corns that can grow on aging feet, and tried to watch a video segment with the volume turned low. We discussed the way that the elderly are treated in many different cultures. We showed pictures of senior living centers and asked them what receiving a letter would mean to them if they had no family living nearby and had lost most of their friends.

Giving the ELL students a glimpse into the daily lives of injured soldiers and aging seniors allowed them to sense the very real need they would be addressing. This step was important for them to realize the true value and possibility of the impact that they could have. Working on providing this background knowledge also immediately placed the focus away from the students themselves and placed it on real needs within their community. With the foundation set, the students were ready to help make a difference.

We found a corporate sponsor, which allowed us to give each student a free t-shirt with our club logo on it. This alone was a powerful step in helping them feel a sense of belonging to the school and a sense of community within our group. The sponsor also provided us with supplies such as stickers, paper, and markers to create the cards, letters, and other projects that would brighten the lives of recipients.

The students are engaged in all four domains of language as they work together to make a difference for others. They listen to each other and the teachers, they speak to each other, they write to share their voices, and they read each other’s letters and any letters they receive. The 8th graders take on a leadership role as they help to guide the process with the students in the lower grade levels. The students write about themselves and thank the veterans for their service and ask the seniors questions. Their writing improves throughout the year. According to Dr. Stephen Krashen, “This is due to the Comprehension Hypothesis; the students are trying to make sense of input that is compelling and interesting to them.” The students are motivated to do their best; knowing it will be read by someone else, that this act or written expression is representing them, their native country, and our school, encourages them to give their best effort.

At the beginning, the students struggled with writing an entire letter, even when guided with parts of a friendly letter, sentence frames, or examples. As that year went on, students of all proficiency levels were writing with much more confidence and ability. They discovered ways to include their own voices and experiences in their letters. During our club meeting time, they would share their letters with each other and provide feedback. Some students opted to continue working on their letters or even start new ones outside of class on their own time. They were hooked!

In time, we added additional components to our letters. We worked together to think of projects that could be displayed in the hospital rooms or seniors’ rooms. The students’ creativity had a meaningful outlet; poetry written in seasonal shapes, paper flowers or snowmen, joke and riddle books, and bookmarks were all made with care. The students often worked with others on their projects, sharing ideas and negotiating their way through a small-group project. Soon our group was filling boxes instead of flat envelopes as their creations were sent to their recipients.

The Veteran Affairs Office has sent the students letters acknowledging their efforts and sharing the positive impact they have had on the veterans in the hospital. We made copies of the letters sent on official letterhead so that each member of the group could have their own copy. The students held on to those letters as prized possessions, often rereading them and sharing them with their families.

We were able to visit the senior living center at the end of the year. The students performed reader’s theater or gave short presentations on their native countries or topics that interested them. In preparing for our visit, the students continued to practice and work on their oral fluency. The energy and commitment they put into their preparation was inspiring. The students slowly gained confidence and coached and encouraged each other. No matter how the actual presentations went, the time practicing was well spent and meaningful.

The students ate lunch with the seniors, helped to serve them food, and cleaned up afterwards. The students sat at tables with the residents — some found themselves alone at tables full of seniors, and they all eagerly engaged in conversation. In watching some of the “tougher” students jump in and serve others, I felt as if I were watching a Hallmark commercial. Tears came to my eyes. It is incredibly moving to see the students, many of whom are missing their grandparents or other relatives in their home countries, engage with and show such respect for these often-forgotten members of our society.

The seniors admit to having had an overall negative view of today’s youth based on the many biased news stories they see. After our visits, they always comment on how the students have renewed their faith in the new generation. The conversations continued, young and old smiling and laughing together — the students weren’t ready to board the bus when it was time to leave. Several students said they would try to come back to visit with their families or to volunteer at the senior home when they were just a bit older.

The students were featured on CBS local news for their “simple acts of kindness that involved giving back to the community.” They beamed with pride as they watched themselves on the television, and their interviews gave insight into what the experience of being a Westlake Helper meant to them. Tamana from Afghanistan said, “I feel that when they read these letters, they might feel much better because they know someone out there is thinking about them.” When the reporter asked Jose, from Mexico, “What does it do for you?” he answered, “It makes me proud of myself because I am making people happy.” And Saad, who was born in Pakistan, shared, “I think it’s a great thing and every school should do it.”

The principal played the news segment throughout the entire school so everyone would be aware of the valuable work being done by the Westlake Helpers. Some of the general education teachers said that their students watched the segment and wanted to help too.

More important than any external recognition has been the internal shift experienced by the students. Many were reluctant to be identified as ELLs in the past, and their goal was to exit the program as soon as possible, to blend in with their monolingual peers. Now the students feel good about belonging to the club — they know they are contributing to others and making a real difference. The principal recently asked an 8th grader what she would miss most about middle school, and her immediate response was “Being a Westlake Helper.” The students have said they will seek out or start service learning in their high schools and throughout their lives.

School should be about more than standardized tests and grades; it should be about becoming a better person and reaching out to make a difference for others. Having the privilege of working with ELL students, we have an incredible opportunity to provide them with meaningful opportunities to use English to increase their language development. Involving our ELL students in service that involves more than collecting cans or pop tabs but true involvement in understanding an issue, working together to find meaningful solutions to make a difference, and then providing reflection on the experience is powerful. Our ELLs not only gain confidence and proficiency in their language skills, they see themselves as having value and power, here and now, at their current ages and in whatever living situations they find themselves in.

This experience creates a sense of identity and pride within their school and community. The students feel capable and successful — a feeling that may well be missing were we not offering these opportunities. Involving ELLs in service learning also plants the seeds of possibility to become lifelong agents of change. Projects can be easily adapted to fit all ELLs, from the youngest students to adult learners. This type of learning increases both proficiency and confidence, which positively impact academic growth and performance. A balanced approach, intentionally providing meaningful experiences with English, will better prepare our students for a successful future than the Common Core can achieve on its own.

Anne Paonessa is currently the ELL/bilingual facilitator for Lombard SD #44 in Illinois and an adjunct instructor for National Louis University through the IRC-Illinois Resource Center. She has been published in martial arts industry magazines and has contributed a chapter to a new book being published by TESOL, Language Teaching Insights From Other Fields, on lessons learned as a martial arts master that can be applied to teaching ELLs. She can be reached at [email protected]. Illustration by Devin Slatas.