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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.

Laurel Peifer: Featured Educator

October 2016

WIDA "Featured Educator" October: Laurel Peifer works to support language learners and their teachers in Pennsylvania, where she strives to make all learning meaningful for the students.

photo of Laurel Peifere
Laurel Peifer

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

LP: I have been the ESL Coordinator and Spanish translator for Grades K-12 in the Berwick Area School District (Berwick, PA) for the past 17 years. This position includes both teaching and administrative duties.  My role as the ESL Coordinator in the district entails being the ESL teacher for K-12, being the Spanish translator for the district, and fulfilling the district's ESL responsibilities.  I provide training to the content teachers either individually or in small groups. I began my teaching career 21 years ago as a middle school and high school Spanish teacher.

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?

LP: The Berwick Area School District is a midsized, rural, public school system in central Pennsylvania and incorporates five boroughs and townships surrounding Berwick and Nescopeck in two counties.  We have a high school (Grades 9-12), a middle school (Grades 5-8) and three elementary schools (Grades K-4).  In recent years, we have had between 45 and 60 active/monitored ELLs per school year.  This year we have students who speak Chinese, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Italian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.  The majority of the ELLs are from Spanish-speaking families. 

Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

LP: From the time I was a child, I always wanted to be a teacher.  I love working with students and seeing the “light bulb” moments of excitement when they master a new concept.  It is exceedingly rewarding to me to watch a student progress from a Level 1 proficiency, when they arrive on our doorstep, to a Level 5 (Exiting student) within a few years.  I would have to say that I get frustrated when a student who is very proficient with English in both ESL class and core classes performs fairly poorly on the ACCESS for ELLs exam due to not giving it his/her very best effort to succeed. 

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

LP: I feel that our district’s teachers do a great job making accommodations for our ELLs.  I provide them with each student’s English language proficiency level, the WIDA Can Do Descriptors, WIDA ELD Standards, and a list of possible accommodations, so the teachers can make assignments comprehensible.  We work well together and have open lines of communication. We communicate by email, by phone, or in person throughout the year.  I often get stopped by teachers or aides in the hallways when they have concerns. It is our duty to meet students “where they are” to make learning meaningful and I am here to support educators in this work.

I find that TPR, hands-on activities, group work, and games are very effective techniques to use with ELLs.  Students like to learn about American culture and our holidays, as well as discussing current events.  I love to hear about my students’ cultures and learn new tidbits from them along the way.  I never claim to know it all!

I hold an afterschool tutoring program to help students with homework.   I make sure that parents receive important school communications in their preferred language.   Parents often contact me with concerns and I supply answers for them.  That keeps the lines of communication open.

How do you determine/decide what language to focus on in a lesson? Describe your planning process to address the needs of ELLs, if possible.

LP: I keep in mind what proficiency levels I have in a class.  Vocabulary is one of my main focuses and I gauge what they know through questioning techniques/pre-tests.  I like to use realia and pictures with the lower proficiency level students and even with the higher level students, as the situation warrants.

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

LP: English language learners bring their language and culture to my classroom and our schools, which allows them to share a piece of the rest of the world with others.  They help students and teachers understand what life and school is like in other countries, from a first-hand account. 

How do you encourage ELLs to learn? How do you accelerate their language development and ensure their equitable access to content learning?

LP: I let them know from the start that learning another language is very hard work, yet so worth it.  I assure them that bilingualism will give them an advantage over monolinguals in the work-world, and encourage them to soak up everything around them.  I work with teachers to facilitate students’ content learning, and they are never denied access to any courses. 

How do you assess your students’ language learning? How do you use the results of formative (ongoing assessments of progress towards instructional goals) and/or summative testing (such as annual tests like ACCESS)? 

LP: I use the results of the WIDA W-APT and WIDA ACCESS for ELLs 2.0to determine what levels of adaptation the students will need in content classes.  I share the scores with the other teachers so that they are aware of exactly what they need to do to make their course content more comprehensible for the ELL.  I use questioning techniques and pre/post assessments with students to decide what units we need to cover and in how much depth.  What works for one student may not work with another.  It’s all about making adaptations for each one, as necessary.

Do you and your colleagues have the resources you need to teach ELLs adequately? What would you most like to add to your available resources or training?

LP: My district's administrators have always been supportive of our ESL Program and of me.  They allow me to participate in many trainings. I feel that I have many resources available to help me adequately teach ELLs via the PA Department of Education’s ESL web portal, PA Department of Education training webinars and conferences, educational training centers, and the WIDA website.  It is essential for me to stay aware of any changes and new avenues the state or federal government is taking, due to my coordinator responsibilities.  I also have to add that I have had an extremely beneficial resource network among other local school district ESL teacher friends for many years.   We bounce thoughts and ideas off of each other when we need some guidance on any unfamiliar issue that arises.  That is invaluable!

How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

LP: I use the WIDA W-APT, the W-APT score calculator, WIDA ACCESS for ELLs 2.0, and the WIDA AMS site to take care of the evaluations required by Pennsylvania.  I also use it to re-certify as an evaluator each year and to watch valuable webinar trainings.  I print the Can Do Descriptors and the Standards to use in my classroom and share with content area teachers.  I also attended an in-person training on ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 at a Pennsylvania conference.