Revolutionizing Language Learning: Inside Kilbourne's ELL Program
Worthington Kilbourne is a school with an incredibly diverse student body. Students have origins from around the entire world, and many of them are unfamiliar with or just don’t understand English, so our school is part of a nationwide program called English Language Learning, or ELL. “Kilbourne has close to 100 students that are EL [English Learners] from all over the world,” states Ms. Jarvis, the school’s EL Math Teacher. “It’s a really cool program. What we have here is basically students from all over the world: Latin America, Western Africa, Middle East [...] We have teachers with licenses to teach students who speak another language other than English support both their students and work with their other teachers,” says Mr. Berens.
“We have all of the necessary core classes: Math, English, Science, History, and they’re run by licensed teachers who are qualified to teach students from different cultures,” says Berens. “I teach ELD, or English Language Development [...] It introduces kids to the language and helps them understand the foundational elements of the language.”
Notably, Kilbourne has not been directly involved in the ELL program until very recently. “As the years went by, there continued to be a growing population of students from other countries in the area,” says Mr. Galloway, a Multilingual Education Aide. “The population was emergent and needed support. ELL didn’t exist [in Worthington] until 1998 and they were very responsive to the growing diversity. Thomas [Worthington High School] was the initial high school that provided full support for ELL. Students from Kilbourne would actually go to Thomas for their classes. Kilbourne started ELL [on-campus] about 4 years ago. Next year will be the year we finally start supporting Co-Ed officially.”
ELL teachers need to do much different things than normal teachers. “There would be two teachers,” says Galloway. “The main teacher and another one for EL support, like me. The students need that other teacher for proper support in learning the language.” They manage as much as they can about their students’ school career so they’re set up for success and they make sure that families are alongside their kids in this journey. “We’re the interface between students and families and every other department in the district. So if there’s a student that needs emotional support, we’d be the bridge between the family, departments and counselor.”
The need for ELL has grown incredibly in Worthington, especially among other districts in the state and even the nation. “The need for EL is wildly different across the nation. Rural Ohio would probably have 0 EL students. ELL has an increasingly larger population and we totally expect the population to continue to grow.” says Ms. Thesing, the ELL Science Teacher. “750 students qualify for ELL [in Worthington], from nearly 100 different countries. About 1500 different students speak 60+ languages in their home. By 2025, 1 in 4 students will be English learners.”
Now, teachers work with around 4-7 different languages in one class, according to Mr. Galloway, including Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Pashto, French, Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. Our teachers and aides, though all of them are either bilingual or trilingual, have a significant language barrier between them and their students. Miss Theising shares, “I was a stereotypical white girl and I had trouble speaking in class. Imagine English learners.” So they need to find ways to get lessons across despite the language barrier. “Digital tools like Google Translate are very convenient. But beyond those, it’s our job to make our lessons as simple as possible. We strip it all down to its most simple and vital parts, try to cut down on all the fat,” says Mr. Berens. “We try to create as many opportunities as possible for students to produce language. Opportunities for students to speak to each other in English, sentence starters, visuals, communicating without language. We’ll try to communicate with both languages and we’ll model things out beforehand for something like a project.” Visuals tend to be one of the biggest factors in getting ideas across, using images and ideas that are universal despite different languages. “Math is much more visual than other classes.” jokes Ms. Jarvis. “It’s kind of funny how students come in looking forward to math because they’re able to understand it better. You don’t get that same kind of eagerness in normal math classes.”
Some students have some more experience with English than others. Many came in knowing quite a bit and many were completely new to the language, so teachers find ways to make sure all students are able to understand ideas while trying to give each one of them an equal challenge in class. “The word we use in teaching is called differentiation. It’s taking the same activity but tweaking it for students on different levels. Simplifying ideas for students who don’t know English as well and giving different work for students with more experience.”
These teachers and assistants want their students to leave high school with plenty of preparation for an English-dominant country, and each one of them have their own goals for their students.
“Our biggest goal is setting them up for success after high school, and success is different for different people, whether that be going to university or being able to apply for a good job. And moreso, we want them to feel conversational and comfortable.” says Mr. Berens.
“Of course, academic success is important, but I also want them to feel welcome and integrated among their peers. They shouldn’t feel signaled out or less capable and that large barrier between them and others who speak different languages shouldn’t be as strong. We want them to feel welcome,” says Mr. Galloway.
“I want students to feel empowered to use their voices and share their ideas,” says Ms. Thesing.
“I want to make sure that they are a valued part of our school community, being both bilingual and bicultural,” says Ms. Jarvis.
“We work hard to get to know students on a personal level. We have a relationship that’s much different in our English Learning classes. There’s a feeling of trust between students and teachers and that trust helps the classroom flow,” shares Ms. Thesing.
According to Ms. Jarvis, “We have a deep connection between our students. We all have different cultures and sharing them brings so much value to our community.”