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WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing email@example.com with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.
Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners.
Katie Milligan Harrison: Featured Educator
Katie Milligan Harrison is an elementary ESL specialist with the Tuscaloosa City School District in Tuscaloosa, AL.
Q: Where do you teach? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?
KMH: I am currently the Elementary ESL Specialist for the Tuscaloosa City School District, which I’m a graduate of myself. I just finished my twelfth year teaching. I’ve taught 3rd grade, 6th grade, kindergarten and 4th grade, and I served as a K—2 ESL teacher before taking my current position where I have been for four years.
Q: What is your district like?
KMH: We are surrounded by mostly rural areas with Tuscaloosa being the biggest city in the area. The district has approximately 10,000 students spread out among 13 elementary schools, 6 middle schools and 3 high schools.
The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa brings in visiting scholars, researchers, and professors (and their families). We also have a Mercedes Benz plant right outside of town along with several of its subsidiary companies that bring in families from all over the world, so we have students from everywhere.
The most common language other than English is Spanish, as 53 percent of our ELLs speak Spanish. We currently have 33 languages represented at TCS. That number fluctuates because our families are transient. The next most common language is Arabic, then Chinese. In one of my schools, we have about 25 LEP students with 13 different languages represented.
Q: Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job?
KMH: I come from a family of educators. My dad and older sister are both educators, and I have aunts and cousins who are teachers. So that’s what got me interested in becoming an educator. I stick with it and enjoy it because I just like helping people. It’s not just the students I feel like I’m helping. Their parents are so grateful, so appreciative. Anything you can offer for their child, they just love you for it and thank you for it. I also enjoy helping other teachers to find successful ways to work with their students.
I got into ESL teaching when I was teaching sixth grade in my second job. I was a reading intervention teacher and all the school’s ELLs were in my class. This was my first experience with ESL, and I fell in love with my ELLs. I talked to the ESL specialist and asked how long it would take me to learn Spanish, because I wanted to be an ESL teacher. She told me I didn’t need to speak Spanish because I would be teaching English to children who speak many different languages. This is a common misconception about ESL. That experience was what sparked my interest in ESL and was the start of my journey toward ESL certification.
I love that my job is more than just working with students. As an ESL specialist, I work with teachers and administrators. It’s really neat to see their excitement when something finally clicks for them. Some feel overwhelmed and not prepared to teach ESL students who might be brand new to the U.S. and who don’t speak any English. I love to work with them, to show them that they can do it.
Q: What is your process like after you’ve identified an ELL in your school?
KMH: I usually start off by meeting with the teacher beforehand. I find out how comfortable they are, and remind them that, for a few days at the beginning, it’s okay to just let their ELLs get comfortable being at school. Their primary goal at first is teaching them how to ask for basic needs and getting them through learning the school routine.
Then I’ll meet the student. If I know the student can already read in his or her home language, I’ll bring them bilingual dictionaries and bilingual books if they are available. If I know they can’t read or if I’m not sure, I’ll bring some picture dictionaries.
Once the student is settled in a bit, I’ll administer the W-APT. Whenever possible, I talk to kids when they can talk to me, and ask them questions, like, who’s in their family. Sometimes their parents speak two different languages, so I’ll ask, “Which language does your mom talk to you in?” and “Which language does dad speak?” and then, “Which language do you use when you speak to them?” We’ve got a lot of university families and couples who met at the university or at another university where they previously attended or worked. It’s really interesting to meet kids who have parents from two different countries or parts of the world.
After I have assessed the child, I go over their scores with the ELL committee, and we develop a plan for the student. I might suggest we go through the Can-Do Descriptors and focus on the language domains where the student needs the most help. Sometimes I go into the classroom and watch what the teacher is doing and offer suggestions and encouragement where I can. I also provide resources for the teachers and have follow-up meetings to offer support as needed. It truly is a team effort in my district. The teachers, instructional coaches, counselors, administrators, our bilingual social worker, and I all work together to ensure that every EL student’s needs are met. We also have a great ESL team that works very well together to meet the needs of all EL students across the district.
Q: What techniques or strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching ELLs?
KMH: I use a lot of modeling interactive strategies. I do a presentation as professional development for my teachers on interactive strategies. These are simple, easy strategies to get the students communicating. For example, “turn and talk” is an interactive strategy. I encourage them to use music, rhymes, poetry, even puppets, which sounds silly for fifth graders, but I have found that talking to or through a puppet lowers that pressure on the student and makes them more willing to take risks.
Our ELLs are not singled out in these exercises – mainly it’s about finding ways to get children working together and talking to each other. I encourage small group instruction, hands-on work in small groups. Of course, that has to be explicitly modeled so everyone is working.
We’re working to develop a way to share resources. We have 13 elementary schools, so to me, it makes no sense having every first grade teacher for example develop the same visuals for the same lessons. We can slice up the work and all share it.
Q: What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?
KMH: Alabama has a reputation for not being open to other cultures. In our schools, having the ELLs in the classroom really helps challenge that idea. The diversity adds something that’s lacking in other schools in the area. Kids in diverse schools see differences and learn to accept them. When they walk into their classroom and hear different words and phrases in other languages, they learn to value multilingualism. Everyone gets excited and wants to learn about those languages and cultures. They feel more intelligent. It also encourages them to learn more about their own culture, family background, and history. So it helps everyone.
Q: What do you do to engage families in your schools?
KMH: I think it starts with building relationships of trust with the families, listening to their needs, and being available to help them when they need it. Sometimes, it just takes being patient and caring. For example, recently a law passed in Alabama that really scared our families. Our bilingual social worker organized a community meeting with the Tuscaloosa Police Department, an immigration lawyer, and several different community representatives. We invited the school community in to ask questions about the law, and many families came. That showed an enormous amount of trust, because they wouldn’t have come if they didn’t trust our social worker.
Q: How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?
KMH: I was fortunate because I got a lot of training in how to use WIDA resources in an earlier job. When I came to Tuscaloosa City Schools, I was able to share that knowledge with colleagues. WIDA’s resources are so great. I go to the WIDA website all the time. I call when I can’t figure out an answer to something. If they don’t the know answer, they will find out and call us back, but usually they know the answer immediately. I’ve been to a lot of WIDA professional development because I feel it gives me opportunities to learn more, so I can turn around and share more with my teachers.
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