Back to the Grind

I don’t know about you, but all the interruptions from holidays and weather are taking their toll on my rhythm and flow.  While any break is a welcome treat (Gramm, it can also be disruptive to routines.  Amid the breaks in routines, it is easy to lose focus and fall out of practice with what was once habit.  In all the stop-start of school, both weather related and meeting induced, I’ll admit I lost focus on students and classrooms and some of the work we’ve been investing ourselves in this year.  Fortunately, we had some colleagues come through for a learning walk to help me regain perspective and appreciate our staff and students all the more.

Prior to the learning walk, staff met with colleagues from other schools and shared with them some of the initiatives we’ve been working toward this year (GRIT, Enrichment, Critical Reading – #OM_HS, ELL Supports, and PLCs:  Culture, Poverty, Student-Centered Learning, Feedback to Students).  After the learning walk, colleagues shared feedback and evidence of the initiatives they’d seen in classrooms.  And while they evidenced seeing use of #OM_HS, could see GRIT posters throughout the building, and saw teachers facilitating student-centered lessons, I think I was most proud that these outsiders could come in and see how much teachers genuinely cared for their students.  Often they questioned and remarked they wished their own teachers and students would exhibit such rapport.  It’s pretty normal really – to have a student open the door for you, stop to say hello or to tell you what’s going wrong or right on any given day.  It made me realize that what I, at times, take for granted doesn’t always occur in other places and I’m quite fortunate to work with all of you in service to these students.  Thank you.

Now, maybe we will get a few full weeks of school in before Spring Break!

For some tips and reminders about supporting our ELL students, check out the Marshall Memo’s summary from this Educational Leadership article:

A Massachusetts Teacher Works to Understand His ELL Students

(Originally titled “Empathy Is the Gateway”)

In this Educational Leadership article, Massachusetts high-school teacher David Saavedra remembers what it was like being a Peace Corps volunteer for three years in Mozambique, and realizes that the experience provides specific ideas for connecting with his immigrant students. Saavedra believes that the greater a teacher’s empathy for what students are going through, the better they will learn. Specifically:

  • Treat silence gently. “When a person arrives in a country where he or she doesn’t speak the language,” he says, “observation is the first instinct. Silence is a coping mechanism during this adjustment phase as a newcomer focuses simply on taking in information.” Saavedra remembers arriving in Mozambique and being overwhelmed by unfamiliar words, sounds, gestures, people, devices, customs, and routines. “Imagine how overwhelming this must be for a child,” he says. Teachers need to respect this “silent period” and create a nurturing environment that scaffolds learning experiences and encourages students to speak when they are ready. Some key steps: talking one-on-one with new arrivals, welcoming them, learning how to pronounce their names, getting a feel for their mental state, and perhaps negotiating non-verbal signals for participating in class.
  • Offer content. Saavedra remembers being shouted at by a woman in a Mozambique market when he didn’t understand that something he was buying needed to be weighed (“PESAR!”). “Not having sufficient context to understand what’s going on around you is incredibly frustrating,” he says. “I felt stupid and believed everyone around me was judging me as such.” Teachers of ELLs need to create a context-rich environment in which students can get the support and cues they need from pictures, objects, exemplary work samples, and, of course, oral instructions.
  • Give them breaks. “Functioning in a second language is incredibly mentally taxing,” says Saavedra. “For me, this mental exhaustion came and went for months… At times, I felt an unusual need for sleep, probably because my brain just needed a break.” Teachers of ELLs need to understand this, check in privately if students’ heads are on their desks, and give them down-time when they need it. It’s comforting and helpful just telling students you understand and asking them to do their best.
  • Understand being “in between.” Saavedra remembers a point 7-10 months into his Peace Corps experience when he was struggling to integrate his new experiences with his American identity. “Cultural expectations no longer seemed novel, interesting, or exciting,” he says. “They just seemed wrong, and it made me angry.” He’s watched ELLs in his school get to this point and become withdrawn, less studious, and disruptive. Cultural and personal integration takes time, usually longer than a school year. “One small but powerful way to help students through this transition is to simply acknowledge the student’s reality,” he says, “even if you haven’t experienced it and don’t fully understand it.” A teacher might suggest talking to a trusted individual, drawing pictures, or keeping a journal (with no emphasis on grammar or syntax).
  • Build trust. Saavedra’s experience in Africa was extraordinarily helpful in empathizing with his immigrant students, but he knew there was a big difference: he had chosen to move there as an adult, whereas most of his students were uprooted and brought to the U.S., sometimes without even having the chance to say goodbye to loved ones. “The trauma associated with this lack of agency demands empathy,” he says. “And effective teaching for language learners demands empathy, the fuel for relationships, too. At its core, good teaching is about relationships – because students allow themselves to learn from people they trust.”

“Empathy Is the Gateway” by David Saavedra in Educational Leadership, February 2016 (Vol. 73, #5, p. 66-69), available for purchase at; Saavedra can be reached at





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