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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 info@wida.us 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.

Mary Lou Donahoe: Featured Educator

September 2016

WIDA "Featured Educator" September: Mary Lou Donahoe is a life-long learner who works to provide effective and culturally relevant instruction to the students she works with in New Hampshire.

photo of Mary Lou Donahoe
Mary Lou Donahoe

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

MLD: I teach at the Fred C. Elementary School in Hooksett, NH.  We teach K-2.  I have been a teacher for 11 years and I have been in this school for 10 years.

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?

MLD: The district covers 3 towns, Hooksett, Auburn, and Candia.  I work in Hooksett. We have three schools in Hooksett split as follows: K-2, 3-5 and 6-8.  We are very lucky as we have 3 ESL teachers, one in each school.  Presently the ESL population is 3% of the overall Hooksett student population.

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

MLD: My first career was in business, I worked for 15 years in that setting. When my daughter turned 5 years old and my son was tired of being in day care, after school, and summer school programs for most of his young life, I decided to stay home with both my children. I became a “professional mother.” I enjoyed those years very much.  During that time, I volunteered in my children’s schools. It is then when I discovered my true passion and vocation: teaching.  I began to take education courses and prepared myself to become a teacher by the time my daughter would end high school.  One of my teachers in the master’s program convinced me to pursue a Masters in TESOL.  That’s how this journey began.

 I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to work with my wonderful students every day.  I love my student’s enthusiasm for learning.  I also love working very closely with the families and help them understand the American school system.  I believe it is very important to have a strong family connection and help them feel part of the school community.  This in turn is beneficial to the students as well.  What frustrates me? I feel the ESL students are very unique and have unique learning needs.   This uniqueness stems from their cultural differences and its important to understand that culture plays a critical role in how children learn.   When that is not understood, then ELL students are unfairly placed in special education.  I feel strongly about the fact that I see many minority students placed unfairly in special education. This is now the focus of my work and for that reason I am pursuing a second masters in Special Education for Culturally and Diverse Learners at The George Washington University.   

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

MLD: I like to preview and review the lessons with my students.  I mainly focus on building vocabulary and concepts to support understanding.  I use support materials as necessary, whether they are magazine photos, maps, music, foods, household objects, videos.  One year I was working with a first grade class and we were talking about recycling. I brought trash from my house and when the students entered the room the trash was in a big pile on the floor. I also brought composting worms. We sorted the pile into different bins.  Afterwards they created a display for the school. The children were so fascinated they became the “recycle team” for the school for that year.

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.

MLD: When possible, I like to work in collaboration with the classroom teachers so I can pre-teach the vocabulary the students will need to reach a particular lesson. It is important the students know ahead of time the critical vocabulary so they can focus on the content itself.  ELL students are very literal, so we need to be clear with our lesson goals.  Sometimes, the best of plans can backfire. This past year a group of students were asked if they knew the meaning of the word messy. The ELL student in the classroom who is a soccer player responded: “messy is a soccer player.”  Language and content objectives are very important, however, we also have to have learning goals.  This means we need to ask ourselves what does this student need to know or understand. In other words, what prior knowledge will a particular group of students need to access the content of this lesson?  What barriers are there in this lesson that will preclude a particular student from learning?  Then develop the necessary scaffolds to aid the student.

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

MLD: English language Learners bring a unique perspective of the world.  They have had many different experiences, particularly those who have lived in refugee camps. I feel ELL students in general are resilient, very hard working, and are very thankful.

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

MLD: To encourage language development, I use many different strategies.  I feel it is important to increase their vocabulary, not just the day to day, but also their academic vocabulary.  Our reading program in second grade offers many opportunities for language development. Each week we talk about “genre.” I drill that word to them, “a type of story,” then we discuss how many types of stories there are. When they know the genre they are reading it helps them with comprehension. If we are talking about a Fairy Tale, they understand this story will have a happy ending.  There will be a “wicked” person that will create havoc and a resolution at the end.  My goal is for them to “own” the vocabulary and use it as well as to have an in-depth understanding of what they are reading and what is happening in the story based on the genre they are reading.  I believe that for lessons to be equitable they need to enlist the students’ interests.  They have to be meaningful, culturally relevant and the student needs to feel a connection to what he/she is learning.

I am a strong believer that ELL students should follow the same curriculum as all the other students. I don’t believe lessons should be “watered” down.  They can read the same stories, but we need to pre-teach the vocabulary and build background so they can access the information.  In order to achieve that, I look at the language demands of a lesson and the language development of the students. I then plan accordingly.  Here is when I use the ACCESS test results.  It helps to target the lessons based on their language acquisition level.

How do you assess your students’ language learning? How do you use the results of formative and/or summative testing?

MLD: Entering Kindergarten students or newly arrived students are given the WIDA Model test.  This gives me a lot of information on the students. I used the ACCESS 2.0 this year and I liked it very much.  The students were more focused during testing.   Both tests are used to understand their language and academic needs.  I take the results and with the help of the Can Do Descriptors develop the goals for the year.

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

MLD: The New Hampshire Department of Education Title III office is very proactive in their training.  For years we have benefited by wonderful training offered by WIDA.  When preparing my lessons, I like to check the 2012 Amplification of The English Language Development Standards.  This book helps me focus on the language features of a particular activity.  For example, what discourse is used and what does this mean in relation to the English language proficiency of the student.  This helps me think of how can a particular student, based on his/her language development, participate in an activity. What supports/scaffolds do I need so the student can actively participate in that activity?  Next, I consider the sociocultural context. For example, in thinking about the genre of a story, what language do I need to teach? Is this culturally relevant to this student? Will the student grasp the topic based on his experiences? How is this student connecting to this lesson?  Last but not least, to think of the integration of all the domains in all lessons.  Sometimes all domains are not targeted in one day, but I do make sure all domains are targeted within any given lesson.