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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.

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Susan Clarke: Featured Educator

September 2015

Susan Clarke is a 3rd grade ESL educator at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster, AL. She is entering her 25th year of teaching and her 14th year at her current school.

photo of Susan Clarke
Susan Clarke

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?

SC: I am entering my 25th year of teaching and I have been at Meadow View Elementary for fourteen years. Eight years ago I did a lateral transfer into the ESL department. I had been a general education teacher for about sixteen years before becoming certified in ESL.

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?

SC: We are a Title I school located in the small city of Alabaster near Birmingham. We have about 850 students spanning K-3rd grade. About 200 of our students are ELLs with the majority being Spanish speakers.
Q: Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job?

SC: It is in my blood—my father was an English professor and a poet. I felt like it was my calling. I get a thrill from helping students turn on that light blub while learning something that they previously didn’t understand.

I really love working with ESL students. They are so eager to learn. Every year it is a challenge with new students with various language proficiency levels. It is a unique puzzle to put together and I enjoy this challenge.

Q: What made you want to switch to ESL teaching?

SC: I had always watched ESL teachers from afar because their students seemed to always be learning in innovative ways. Then I had a parent come for an unscheduled conference. I had planned a bilingual lesson for that day and he happened to speak Spanish so I asked him to join our reading group. He joined in and read the Spanish part of the story while the students read the English. After that lesson, I felt like I was on cloud nine because the lesson was a huge success! That just sparked something in my soul and heart. When I saw the ESL position open up, I was encouraged by my peers to pursue my passion.

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

SC: My approach, first and foremost, is to lower the affective filter by creating a safe and comfortable environment. Once I have that established, then we really try to delve into who we are as individuals and where we came from. A theme in my class is, “Home is where your story begins. What is your story?” I think it is important for them to know who they are, where they came from, their parents’ experiences, their experiences, and compare and contrast these. I let them know that no matter who they are, where they came from or what language they speak, we all have so many similarities and differences to embrace.

I feel a big part of my job is helping my students feel confident when they walk into a general education classroom. I find great joy, and the students do too, when they can make a connection from what we have been learning during the ESL instruction with what they experience in their regular classrooms. It gives them that extra boost of confidence when they are learning with their English speaking peers.

Q: How do you decide what language to focus on in a unit or a lesson? Describe your planning process of a unit you have designed to address the needs of ELLs, if possible.

SC: This year the reading coaches and I worked to unpack the Common Core Standards to make sure each standard was attainable and to figure out what skills students needed to reach each standard. From there, I devised a unit that would teach these standards in a way that was accessible to all my students. I made sure that the vocabulary and learning experiences would be meaningful and comprehensible.

In one unit, we took several versions of the folk tale, Stone Soup, depicting different settings around the world. As we read the stories, we compared themes and story elements with Venn diagrams and story maps; we used maps to locate where each version’s setting originated. We talked about cultural connections, measured and looked at (and sometimes tasted) the different ingredients that went in to each soup. It was amazing how engaged the students were, and how they were easily conquering every standard we set out to meet. At the end, we had an open house in which families came in to see all the students had learned while sharing a stone soup feast.

Q: What does collaboration look like at your school, and how have you fostered collaborative partnerships with your colleagues?

SC: We are presently increasing our collaboration skills. As a new school system, we have been afforded some extra time to make sure we are all working towards the same standards and same learning targets while using common assessments. The ESL Team also meets with the general education teachers every nine weeks to review students’ progress, make changes to accommodations, and look at both formative and summative assessments.

Q:. How do you engage families of ELLs and why do you feel these partnerships are important?

SC: One of our school mottos is that “Everyone teaches and everyone learns,” and so we want to utilize the cultures of our students and involve their families to make our school enriched.

We have an adult ESL class at our school three days a week. While learning English, the adult students are encourage to visit their kids’ classrooms to increase their involvement in their child’s learning. I think that this strengthens the home/school communication which then in turn strengthens the home/school/community connections.

We also have a Spanish interpreter available throughout the day. All school activities have interpreters. We also utilize a special phone system called ELZA, to help us communicate with families that speak other languages. We have a summer feeding program where the entire community can come have breakfast and lunch. Students up to age 18 can eat for free. This opens the school all year to our families.

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

SC: I use a lot of interactive activities, such as working with peers, using manipulative, puppets, poems, and songs. I set challenges for my students that are optional, but I find most rise to the challenge. These challenges might be to bring a “pocket full of words” or to become a “word expert.” They bring words that match our learning focus or teach someone else their word and report back about their peer-to-peer experience. I try to find challenges that will encourage them to take ownership of the language they are learning.

We have started using learning targets, which is a simple way of taking the standards and objectives that are going to be addressed in a lesson and putting them in user-friendly terms, with models and examples, so then the students can take ownership. They better understand the expectations for their learning. By using exit-tickets or rubrics to check their comprehension and to self-monitor, the students are empowered to increase their own understanding.

When writing my language objectives that incorporate the CCRS for students, I use “I can… statements. For example, “I can describe the difference between living things and nonliving things,” or “I can explain my reasoning for sorting these words or objects.” We have to explain the expectations needed. For example, we want to use those higher level words like “recite” or “infer” but we must make sure we are explaining what this means to students and possibly rephrase it to ensure understanding.

Teachers have to put language and content objectives together and state the type of cognitive and linguistic thinking that is needed to achieve each standard. Again, this helps the students move towards ownership and self-monitoring of their learning while helping students become confident life-long learners.