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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 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.

Margaret Brown: Featured Educator

March 2016

Margaret Brown is a Middle School ESL teacher in Norman, Oklahoma. She is known by her students, their families, and her colleagues as an advocate for her ELL students.

photo of Margaret Brown
Margaret Brown

Q. Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

MB: I have been teaching for 26 years. I love working with middle school students and I have spent most of my career working with them. Five years ago, I became certified for ESL teaching and this was such a great move for me... it is all so rewarding! I currently teach ESL at two schools, Longfellow Middle School and Whittier Middle School.

Q. What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body?

MB: Both Whittier and Longfellow Schools are part of the Norman Public School District in Norman, Oklahoma. Being close to the University of Oklahoma, we get quite a few bilingual students whose families are connected to the University. Many of them come to our district with high proficiency levels and test out of ESL services although we still monitor them and make sure they are doing well. Whittier has just 3.5% ELLs, mostly Spanish speakers, but since the school is quite large, the majority of my case load is here. Longfellow has a higher percentage of ELL students, 18%, but the school is a bit smaller. At Longfellow we have various languages represented amongst our ELL students.

Q. What does the ELL support look like your schools?

MB: I teach ESL classes. I know that all the various program formats (for example, pull out, push in) have benefits but I love the connection I am able to establish with the students in my classroom. Because of the relationship I am able to build with them, they feel comfortable coming to me with any problems. They all know I am their advocate. I monitor their grades and talk to their teachers if I see someone is struggling.

Q. Why did you want to work with ELL students? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

MB: I became certified in ESL because I wanted a new challenge. Immediately I fell in love with working with ELL students. One of the things that strikes me about my ELLs and their families is this wonderful sense of closeness and respect. The children speak so highly and affectionately about their families and the parents are very responsive and supportive. Whenever I call home, parents are behind me 100% and eager to work together to support their children. Their main concern is their children and many of the families came here because they want their children to get a great education and have a better life. It amazes me the amount of love I see in these families and the students are confident about voicing this love and respect in their writing, through their stories and through the class discussions.

Q. What is your approach in your classroom/school towards ELLs? What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching ELLs?

MB: I teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but with my ELL students, the learning has to extend far beyond the four language domains and core content areas. I try to teach the whole child and acknowledge the cultures in which they interact. I also teach about the culture here and about the opportunities they have available to them. For example, every year, I take my 8th grade students to the University of Oklahoma campus. How do you encourage them to dream and strive for college when many of them have never seen a college campus? I want to help them start envisioning themselves on a campus and I want to help them get there.

In addition, I have started a service learning project with my students. This year we studied Zambia. The kids organized a fundraiser to buy materials to make blankets to send to malnourished children in an orphanage hospital. We talked about how many of us as kids had special blankets or objects and how these kids don't have anything. So we came up with the idea of making blankets that would help them in the hospital and which they could also take with them when they leave.

This was all part of a bigger unit on the importance of giving back and what it means to be a good person and friend. We talk about the opportunities we have living in America, and how we need to be good global citizens and help those around us. So I don't just teach the content area subjects. I feel that my ELL students' learning needs to extend beyond that.

The other thing I think is essential in student achievement is, you have to get to know the families of your students. I hold a monthly luncheon with the families and the students join us, if they are available at that time. These informal luncheons help me get to know each family, their goals for their children, and they get to know one another. I can use this time to explain documents coming home, and let them know about any upcoming tests or units we will be covering. It is an opportunity for them to ask any questions about what is happening at school.

I really enjoy this time I get with the families and it has really helped to strengthen the home/school relationships. A while back, we noticed that many of our ELL families were absent from school events and parent/teacher conferences. So I set a goal for myself to find a way to engage my families and make them feel comfortable coming into the school and talking about their concerns. And we are seeing a lot more families at these events and at conferences because they feel safe and welcomed at the school.

Q. How do you advocate for ELLs with your colleagues?

MB: We have a wonderful ELL coordinator who works with us, the ELL teachers, to provide trainings to our colleagues that are geared toward helping them understand how to support these students. We give them lots of strategies they can use in class. So it is really a collaborative effort across the whole district to support the ELL students.

We often find that the classroom teachers are nervous when they get an ELL students and they are unsure how to effectively teach them. So these trainings help the teachers feel supported. They are given an opportunity to build an awareness around who these students are and gain empathy for the challenges they take on in school.

Q. How do you encourage ELLs to learn?

MB: I talk with my students about their dreams and their goals. I talk individually with each one about what it takes to get there. We talk about what their interests are and we discuss what majors are related to these interests. Then we look up colleges that offer these majors. Some years I have had college students (who share similar backgrounds and challenges) come in and talk to the middle school students about how they got to where they are and share their stories of success.

I have found that every year my classes come with a different personality and every year they need something different from me. The constant challenge is figuring out what they need and how to support them‐the ways in which I support their learning and achievement is always changing too.

Q. What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?

MB: I think having ELL students as part of our learning communities helps all children understand other cultures. They bring other perspectives that enrich whatever academics are going on, as long as the teacher make a space for this and creates an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing. Educators have to make sure that ELLs can be a part of the discussion and feel they are valued. ELLs often have seen aspects of the world that a lot of us, even adults, haven't seen, so we all have a lot we can learn from these students.