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March 13, 2020 | 2 comments

Building Relationships with ELL Students and Newcomers: A Conversation with Emily Francis

Read this blog and interview from Re-Imagining Migration on the importance of building substantive relationships with ELL students and newcomers.


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Engaging with ELL Students and Newcomers

UCLA education scholar Pedro Noguera believes that the key to transforming schools is by putting relationships at the center of education. He talks about the importance of knowing ELL students and newcomers, not just who they are academically but who they are as people. A lot of us aspire to do just that; Emily Francis lives it. 

Adam Strom: Emily, thanks for taking the time out of your unbelievably busy schedule to talk with us. I am appreciative. I know that you came to the U.S. from Guatemala when you were 15. I also know that teaching wasn’t your first job. I’m wondering, how do you think your identity and experiences impact your work with teaching newcomers?

Emily Francis: Hello Adam. Thank you so much for this opportunity to share a little bit about me and my work with our ELL students and newcomers at Concord High School. I am so glad we are starting this conversation centered on identity and life experiences because this is exactly the core and center to everything I do and why I do it. Yes, I was born in Guatemala—lived there for 15 years. This, of course, was long enough for me to build a strong identity on my Hispanic roots and heritage. Once here in the USA, and as a teenager struggling with learning our English language, I found myself also struggling to maintain my heritage identity. I worked hard to blend into the American culture by learning English as fast as possible, I worked hard in classes to make sure I was meeting the academic standard. Unfortunately, my hard work was all for nothing when I had to drop out of high school and become a cashier. I lived in the USA for several years with a broken heart and, out of loss, not really performing to my highest potential. I share this because I worked hard to regain my identity. I took back what was taken from me to be able to inspire others to not do what I did. My identity is built on my experiences as an immigrant and as an English language learner (ELL). I embrace it and share this with my students as well. 

Adam Strom: I imagine hearing that story from a teacher must be very powerful for your students. At the same time, not everyone has had your experiences. As of 2016, about 80 percent of teachers in the U.S. were white. About 7 percent were black, 9 percent Latino, and about 2 percent Asian. Obviously, these categories only tell us so much about who people are, but that said, those demographics clearly don’t match the makeup of ELL students and newcomers in our schools. What advice might you offer to teachers of immigrant-origin students who are not immigrants or the children of immigrants?

Emily Francis: My answer may sound like a cliché, but learn your students’ backgrounds. Learning and understanding what your students have experienced can give a perspective you’ve never had. Learning their experiences can open up your eyes to a world you’ve never seen or lived before. Look for experiences where you feel what it is to walk in their shoes. Build your empathy toolbox! Diversity is sitting in your class. The world is sitting in your class. Use the best culturally responsive resource you have—your students!

Once you learn about students’ backgrounds, embrace it and display it in the classroom and outside the class for all to see and value your students’ lives. 

Watch the above video to see how newcomer and ELL students are welcomed to school in Dearborn, Michigan

ELL Students and Newcomers: Strategies for the Classroom

Adam Strom: Emily, I’m interested, what do you typically know about your students before they enter your classroom? And, what strategies do you use to really get to know your students? Are there specific things you do with each student? I also know that you are very careful to give newcomers space. Maybe you could speak to the need to know our students while respecting their needs as well.

Emily Francis: Ha! You know me well, Adam. Yes, newcomers need time and space. Time and space to develop trust and language. As important as it is for you as an educator to know and understand your students’ backgrounds and experiences, I also believe it is imperative for newcomers to be given time and the space to heal. Not all immigrants have the same experiences immigrating to the USA. The first thing you can do is gather very basic information as to what country the student is coming from, what language(s) is spoken at home, what level of literacy (formal education) he or she has, what’s his or her English literacy level.

Basic information can give me a great picture as to what else do I need to know and how to approach it. By knowing and demonstrating to the student that you know this basic information, he or she can immediately feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging in your class and school. The way I dig deeper into students’ lives and background experiences is through literature. We read articles and books that represent our students’ backgrounds; and by noticing that there are others like them, they open up to share more about themselves. We have to be sensitive and very careful as to what we’re using though; a lesson should be abandoned as soon as we realize that the lesson is making a student feel too uncomfortable and/or discriminating. Just be flexible with your assignments. 

Adam Strom: I know we covered this a bit, but I know it is important for you. What do your students and peers know about your experiences? Do they know your story (or did they before you were surprised on “The Ellen Show”)?

Emily Francis: Adam, I may sound like a broken record but as I mentioned above, my identity and my experiences are core to everything I do, how I do it and why I do it. My students have to know my story so they understand that what I do in the classroom is because I’ve lived it myself. If my expectation is high is because I know what is possible and what they can do because I did it. Same goes for my colleagues; I have to share my experiences as an immigrant and as an ELL student so they know that what I tell them is because I have my ELL students best interests at heart. I, too, believe that sharing my experiences with my peers would give a little more buy-in with the methods and strategies I share because they know that I’ve lived it too. About “The Ellen Show” clip—well, that’s my 10 minutes of glory I have to share with everyone who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s definitely a great platform to show students that no dream is ever too small. 

Adam Strom: One of the things I have been thinking about the last few years is that we often talk about those tasked with educating newcomers as ESL teachers; is there any contradiction, or tension, between being someone charged with helping newcomers learn a language while at the same time really educating a whole child and preparing them with the knowledge, skills and dispositions they will need as civic agents in society?

Emily Francis: Adam, I honestly believe that if our main task toward ELL students and newcomers is just teaching them English, we would be doing a disservice to them. Though language is imperative for success, we need to focus on the whole student. By the whole student, I mean home language, highlight assets, family background, cultural experiences, student voice, etc. 

We need to have a clear understanding of the skills needed to function in our society—how a student with a passion and clear perspective can do so much more than someone who can reach English proficiency but at a loss with his or her identity and potential. Empower students to embrace bilingualism, biculturalism and biliteracy. Students can impact others with what they are best at—being who they are. 

Adam Strom: Emily, I can’t help myself, and I have one more question. What advice would you give to educators, who are not ESL teachers, to help them be more effective working with newcomers?

Emily Francis: My one piece of advice to educators is to embrace the idea of being a language teacher. Just like your students are embracing the fact that they have to learn a new language and a new culture, you too embrace the thought about learning effective practices to teach your newcomers. When you focus on practices that are effective for ELL students, all your students benefit from it. You are using language to teach your content anyway, so why not be a little more intentional by employing practices that make your content more comprehensible? 

There’s no one best strategy that would fit all ELL students; that’s why it is important to read and learn and continue to add strategies to our teacher toolbox. 

Adam Strom: Thank you again for your time. Your students are very lucky to have you in their lives.

Adam Strom, Director, Re-Imagining Migration

Emily Frances teaches ELL students

Emily Francis is in her eighth year as an English as a second language teacher, and in her second year teaching at Concord High School in Concord, N.C. We met through Twitter, and it wasn’t long before I became a fan. In each post, she shares her love of teaching, her professional expertise, and her passion as an advocate for her students. 

Re-Imagining Migration

Re-Imagining Migration'smissionis to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive com


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angelc_3483080 March 18, 2020, 10:14 am

I attempted to access the SEL site listed for learning resources but the link did not work.

Andy Kratochvil
Andy Kratochvil March 18, 2020, 10:19 am

Greetings! The link should work now. Let us know if you need anything else! :)