Strategies to Help ELL Students (Ep. 234)

In today’s episode, Candido speaks with educator Trinity Villanueva about working with English Language Learners. Listen as they discuss celebrating language and culture, programs that help students in meaningful ways, and Trinity’s best advice for teachers that work with English Language Learners.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Candido: If you teach in a place long enough, you’ll notice changes in the community, businesses and maybe demographics. The Latinx population has been steadily increasing where I teach. And along with that change came an increase in English Language Learner programs and students within the schools. I consider myself to be familiar with Spanish and capable of holding a conversation, but I am certainly not fluent, nor am I a bilingual certified teacher, so in an effort to continue transforming my class into an equitable art room, I had to seek out the information to do so.

Trinity Villanueva recently presented on this recently, and I thought we should reach out and get some advice. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Candido Crespo.

All right, I’m excited. We haven’t even started this conversation yet, but it’s already a pleasure of mine. Let’s start like this. Trinity, can you introduce yourself to the audience?

Trinity: Sure. My name is Trinity Villanueva and my pronouns are she, her, and ella. I could keep going with the pronouns in different languages, but I will refrain and I’m really excited to be here.

Candido: Thank you. Thank you. It’s important that the listeners know your perspective or the angle that you’re coming from. Why don’t you just share what your role is in education and who do you currently serve?

Trinity: Sure. That is a whole answer in itself, but I will keep it concise. When I think of education, I think I was so married to the ideas of institutions for a long time and I thought education is school or you’re graduating from something, you’re accomplishing, you’re getting a degree. But I worked in education for 13 years with very marginalized communities, mainly the immigrant community here in Washington, DC, which is where I reside, on the ancestral lands of the Anacostans.

And then my work started to permeate into different areas as well with trans immigrants, with African American, low income African American. The majority of the communities I was serving at that time during my large stint in education was primarily focused in low income communities with very little or no educational backgrounds. I think that kind of covers the audience, where my heart really is. My role in education now is a lot more in advisory.

I sit as a board of director elect for National Art Education Association under the supervision and administration umbrella. And then I’ll be serving on the board for two years after my elect is finished. I’m also an advisor for anti-racist art teachers. And I’m also a freelance artivist for the Institute for Anti-Racist Education as well. I do a lot of more like coaching, facilitating, a lot around education. But even though I’m not working a full-time job anymore within schooling or education-centric, that really is such a huge part of my identity now. I really do center learning and autodidacticism in a lot of my practices.

Candido: All right. You mentioned earlier in your introduction when you were in the classroom the populations that you were serving, and that’s sort of where and why I reached out to you for this conversation today. In my career, the population that I have served has predominantly been comprised of black and brown people but with the majority being from Central and South America. Countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia is probably like where most of the families are from.

English Language Learners have always been a part of my career. At this point, when I think of arts education, I think of how I incorporate them into my teaching and what they bring and what that community brings to the classroom. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like serving another population, what it would be like to not celebrate language, celebrate culture from that perspective. Even as a veteran, there’s just tons to still learn. I thought I’d reach out to you and maybe in this conversation, we can explore this a little bit.

Trinity: Yay! Plus I have just so much gratitude. Thank you for thinking of me.

Candido: Yeah, right. Why don’t we define English Language Learner and maybe what some of the other variations are of that term or that identifying group?

Trinity: Yeah. I’ll start by saying this. I think with English Language Learners, also known as… Now I think the more… I don’t know. It’s become a little bit more popularized is emerging multilingual learners, which is really fascinating how that changed in the last couple of years and I love it. I embrace that term actually a lot more, but I know that ELL has become a little bit better known, but really kind of falling under the same thing.

There are so many definitions that you can look up, especially I think the one that I shared with the NAEA… That’s how you reached out to me with that webinar that Natalia Ferro and I presented together a couple months ago. If you’re listening in your member of NAEA, I know that you can find that on the website or something.

Candido: It’s the virtual educator section of the site.

Trinity: Yeah. Maybe that can be included in here somehow.

Candido: Sure.

Trinity: There’s a more book terminology, I guess. But if I’m really speaking from the heart and what resonates with what my lived educational teaching experiences, really focusing around… It’s a person who is learning the language, but at the same time, and with the focus that I was really centered on it, or people who are coming to the United States who are learning English, and that’s an entire different dialect. If you were learning British English or you went to New Zealand or you went to other English-speaking countries. A lot of times that also, and we can explore this kind of becomes almost Americanization, which I’m really not for in any sense. Because I felt like a lot of times people who are focusing more on English Language Learners are assuming a lot, they’re assuming, “Oh, well, you might be literate in your own language or maybe you weren’t born here you’re necessarily an immigrant or…” There’s so many layers to it, but really ultimately the basis of that definition is somebody who is learning English.

And if you’re doing it here in the US where I’m located, somebody who’s learning English along with even all the cultures and the nuances and the idioms and the slang that go along with it in these regional senses.

Candido: Right. During the presentation you mentioned, and I can recall how terminology has changed, whether it was ESL or ENL. And I didn’t take into consideration where English as a second language is not viable because some of our students that are coming are already multilingual coming into the classroom. And that’s just something that we, as a nation have to wrap our minds around is that there are people coming from countries that they are taught multiple languages and they can navigate and we don’t do that. And so English as a second language was something that I think early on in my career is a term that we use. And I’m a little embarrassed about it now, but I’m glad that we moved past that one.

Trinity: Yeah. But I think that also comes with the mindset of the people creating these words, right. And these titles and labels, I should say for different folks. And it comes… And it really does stem from a lot of white supremacy or even US supremacy. You didn’t really tackle on a second language until maybe high school. And there are so many different educational institutions around the world from a global perspective that you start learning, like you said, you start learning multiple languages at elementary school level. You also might be raised in, let’s say, for instance, you’re a person who’s from Morocco. A lot of the Moroccan students that I worked with were speaking French and Arabic at home. And then if their parents were or they’re working in the kitchens, a lot of them would pick up Spanish and then by the time… And that’s to survive, right?

Candido: Right.

Trinity: And then by the time they would get to school, it’s like this fourth language. And then when you’re thinking about how literate someone is in the various languages and how familiar they are with Roman letters, there’s so many different layers to that. So I think the one biggest thing that I would always take away is that you can’t really translate culture. And so that’s a lot of times an error that people tend to do when they’re working with EML or ELLs, is that they kind of want to take everything. And then just, almost if you want to think of a Google translate version and kind of transfer all of that. But it’s not always understood in the same ways. And again, there are a lot of idioms and a lot of exceptions to the rule in English.

So that’s why my heart was really drawn to becoming so passionate about using visual arts to really kind of have a platform for the students to feel that they could engage and to bring that effective filter down so that they could open up and they could learn without always overthinking or constantly translating in their heads into English. And it felt a little bit more poetic in a sense, or just a lot more liberty to do that.

Candido: Okay. One last question, before we enter the classroom, where are most of our ELL students born?

Trinity: So that is always a fun, little myth to… I don’t know, to demystify, right?

Candido: Right.

Trinity: Most people, I think I alluded to it earlier, a lot of folks believe that ELLs are immigrants and not born in the US. But in fact, the large percentage is that they are born here in the United States. I think of my parents, my father was born in Hawaii and my mom was born in Puerto Rico. And so if you didn’t know that Puerto Rico is a part of the US, well, you do now. And so they both kind of migrated into the mainland to the state, the continental United States. And so that was not an immigration, but they were definitely English Language Learners. And there were no ESOL programs or ELL programs at that time. And it still continues to this day. So when you think about communities really holding onto their culture, especially like first gens or people who have come here to United States, a lot of times you’re going to places of worship and you’re going to community centers or you’re going to people’s houses or you’re working in different places. Because somebody told you that somebody had a job for you.

So when you think of it that way, a lot of the parents, especially if you’re an elementary school teacher, listening to this, a lot of times, they’re really just speaking that language all day long. And when they go home, the same thing. So when they come to school, that’s usually one of the only times, unless maybe the radio or TV. I mean, even then a lot of whatever language someone is speaking in they’ll watch that. So they’re getting the English mainly at school, which will then have them fall under that category of ELL.

Candido: All right. So, I think this happens maybe in math where people think, “Oh, numbers are universal language.” But without question, it happens in visual arts. And so, while it gives us an opportunity to make a connection like, “Hey, if you don’t know and the teacher doesn’t know the word for scissor.” But if you put an image on a smart board of a pair of scissors to inform the class, “Hey, we’re going to use scissors.” That is a teaching tool. But also, I don’t think that we should just rely on or feel comfortable in saying that, art is a visual language. Before we speak about that an…

Trinity: That’s so deep.

Candido: Yeah. Before we speak about that in, I guess in a negative light, before we do that, I’m more curious about, what are some equitable approaches to teaching ELLs or EMLS?

Trinity: You can say either. We can make them interchangeable for now.

Candido: Okay. Yeah. All right. So what are some equitable approaches to teaching in the art classroom.

Trinity: So on that link, that will include the NAEA link. There’s an entire list on there. And I was… When you had placed this question for me to kind of ponder about prior to, I kind of wanted to snatch the ones that I thought were the most important that kind of really encompass the entire approach. First and foremost, it’s a mindset approach. I don’t want to get into the knots, but it really just is a mindset approach. It’s the way that you think about it. And even to get to that mindset approach, I think the first step in really understanding how to really engage better in the classroom with ELLs or EMS, is to understand who your students are. That’s the number one biggest thing. Yes. I spent my time in education in an area that is extremely international.

So I worked with students from literally over 128 countries. So that was a lot to kind of figure out over an amount of time. But you become better at it. And under that, understanding your students, you need to be intentional about your approaches as well. It can’t be something that… How do I put this? I would’ve loved to engage on certain projects or certain things or certain, I don’t know pedagogies, but I knew I was doing that for me. Or maybe I was doing it because I thought, “Oh, that would look really good. Or I could write an article about it.” But you got to throw that out of the window. And it really needs to be intentional. Like, who are your students? Where are they from? And not just thinking about who are the majority of your students, because I hear that all the time.

Like, “Well, the majority of my students are from blah, blah, blah, blah.” But it’s kind of, then now you’re excluding and leaving other students in the margins. So you really need to make an effort. There’s simple things, we’ve talked about this a lot in anti-racist, anti-bias approaches, but learning their names, learning how to pronounce them correctly, making even little things… It means that deeper, deeper stuff. How do they learn? How do they communicate? If you do have a majority of students from, I don’t know, Guatemala, have you ever thought about visiting Guatemala and doing one of those teacher… They have so many of those things that you can travel and learn from an educational lens. So you understand what the education systems were in that country.

What were the barriers? What would an equivalency look like when it comes to that? Who are their parents? What were the struggles that they’re also facing as well? If there’s a student and maybe they are low income, maybe they’re coming to school hungry every day. You really need to understand who your students are before you engage, because unless they don’t feel like they belong and they don’t feel comfort in your classroom, you’re never going to really be able to reach them. So I really was intentional about how I took the time in learning each and every student. And yes, people will say, “I don’t have time to do that.” Well then why are you an educator? So I asked those questions because it’s like, you have to give it at your all. If you’re passionate about teaching something, then you got to be passionate about knowing who you are teaching.

So having that simple yet very complex and layered mindset approach I feel is what really opens the door for having an equitable approach. And I can even think back to when I started engaging in more students from Africa, a lot of times in the US it’s very west African focused. It really is. A lot of times when you hear someone say African dance, that it’s usually west African. And so I started really learning about Ethiopia because I had so many students from Ethiopia and they just kept coming in more and more and more increasing over the years. And I remember one time, I’ll never forget this. I learned how to say hello to a man or to a woman because that’s… Their language is very gendered, was very binary.  And I said that to a student mistakenly thinking that they were from Ethiopia, they were like, “I’m from Eritrea”.

And I was like, “Oh.” And then I went down that rabbit hole. I remember that week, learning all about the civil war that had happened, how Eritrea became a new country. It was a part of Ethiopia. I learned about the 6% and the regime that’s happening there. I learned about why some of the students couldn’t focus because there was literally a war happening there and you don’t see it on the news. You don’t hear anybody talking about it here in the US, but that was happening. And so their brain wasn’t there in class. But when I started to uncover these layers of what was happening in current events and more about their culture, not just about the food and that they dance, I started to connect better with those students. And it helped me for so many years when I would meet the different students and ethnicities are not monoliths as well.

So just because you had two or three students from Guatemala, doesn’t mean that the next Guatemalan student that you have is going to fall under those same identities. And then there’s indigenous languages. Like I said, I could go on and on and on, but I think what I’m trying to say is being intentional, knowing your students, that is the first step of really having an equitable approach.

Candido: Right. Okay. So I’m going to come back to it. I want to mention why I said, that the complexity in calling visual arts a universal language is that it’s an assumption that if you put up an image of pair of scissors, that the student that you’re teaching has had an opportunity to use scissors in their life, right. That’s just an assumption. You just made that assumption. Also, if you put the translation of the item on the board, then you’re assuming that they’re literate in their home culture, or I’m sorry, their home language. And it’s really an unsafe approach to do so. But what I do want… I think the big payoff and how we can wrap this conversation up is, If you are a teacher that’s dedicated to your profession, then you are looking to constantly evolve. You’re looking to constantly learn. You probably do this with your lesson plans, right? If you’re teaching a lesson and you don’t like the way it went, well, you do some self-reflecting. You make the changes that are necessary. So that the next time you teach it, it’s better.

You probably do this with your curriculum. You go through the whole year and you realize like, “Hey, that project didn’t work. Let’s move on. Let’s make space for another one.” And so you could do this same thing when teaching your ELL students. Take that trip, like you mentioned, sit down and learn language. I’ve seen some of my colleagues break through with their bilingual classes, prior to not knowing a lot of Spanish, but because they spent some time, a little bit of time learning how to speak Spanish that these bilingual students who at some point were just disconnected from the class were suddenly their best classes because they felt like, “Oh, this teacher’s trying to connect with me”.

And they’re trying to… And it’s a little bit of effort. And so, for me, Spanish would be my second language, but I’m not by any means fluent in it. And I also didn’t even start speaking it, as far as conversation goes until I became a teacher in this district. My family spoke Spanish. I totally understood it. I had no need for it. Everybody was a US citizen and Spanish was just for convenience in the home and for celebration when we have festivities. And so when I was in the classroom with these students, I realized, “Hey, if I…” Maybe in some of the other classes, they’re forced to speak English, so they have to break out of their comfort zone, but that’s not my job.

My job is not that… My job is to teach them art. I don’t have to correct their English. I don’t even have to tell them that’s a need. If they want to maybe well do an exchange, maybe I’ll speak Spanish so I can learn Spanish and exchange. They can practice their English with me. And that was a great way to build this relationship where we can laugh and learn at the same time. But that effort is such a productive approach. And making that effort to connect with them, it really does pay off. I mean, am I off base there?

Trinity: No. Not at all. And I feel like I should have mentioned even in that quickly that I was always centering belonging. And I feel like that’s what you’re saying. If a student feels at home in your classroom, they’re going to project better. They’re going to listen more. If they feel seen, then they’re going to feel more comfortable to learn even the simple example as scissors. Oh my goodness. You have every idea. It was just like, even just simple motor skills. There was something that you said that I feel like is worth mentioning of something not to do is assumptions. We come in with so many assumptions. I came in with so many assumptions thinking. Because I oversaw both visual and performing arts. So, I remember doing a class one time with students and we were talking about samples.

I thought it was a dope class. And I was like, “We’re going to listen to some samples that you find in hip hop.” And then call out where you think you’ve heard that before. And I remember one of the samples was using Beethoven’s fifth. And somebody said, “Oh, I know that song, da, da, da, da.” But then another student… And that student was from China. Another student from El Salvador said, “Who wrote the song?” And I remember I played a part of the actual song and I remember writing on the board, this is Beethoven’s fifth symphony. “Who is Beethoven?”.

Candido: Right.

Trinity: Right. It’s enough to give you that. So all of these things, when we talk about… Especially in anti-racist teaching and really trying to even just starting with diversity and diversifying who you’re presenting in your classroom. For me, I always thought it was… It didn’t work for me. Maybe it would be okay if the students kind of knew who these people were. A lot of times they didn’t because then it was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” Okay. So if you don’t know who these people are, then who do you know? And let’s bring that to class. And let’s co-create together.

Candido: Perfect. And I think that’s a great way to end. So Trinity, we’re going to share some of your information. So if other teachers want to connect with you and continue this conversation, they can do so. And for me, a super big, thank you for being on the podcast and sharing your knowledge.

Trinity: Oh, I feel like I didn’t share much, but I’m… I want to say this though. If people want to get in contact with me, please do. I’m very active on LinkedIn and Instagram. So reach out and touch. I’m here.

Candido: There are some common practices that assist us in our classrooms. In this case, knowing your students, strikes again. Taking the time to research and listen to your students will give you the first-person accounts and research needed to start constructing a classroom fit for ELL students. Trinity shared a lot of information to consider. And I know this may not be something every listener will have to put into practice, but you never know when you’ll receive a new entrant and they might be an English Language Learner. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. My hope you learned enough to want to know more. Catch you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.