Norman Sales says that he didn’t choose to teach the ELL class at Farrington HS in Honolulu. He thinks the class chose him. Norman is now in his 6th year of teaching students still learning to speak English, and does not think of switching classes any time soon.
One reason Norman connects strongly with his ELL students, is because so many of their stories are similar to his own. Norman moved to Hawaii from the Philippines and often felt like an infant in his new home. And he readiloy admits he is still learning and acclimating along with his students. He speaks their languages and he knows and understands the culture of the households they come from.
This interview with Norman Sales is the first of a new series in this BLOG where I will share space with some of the teachers who have inspired me. Let’s begin by hearing from Norman Sales:
Jim Warford: What expectations do you have for your students?
Norman Sales: More than anything, I want to help my students so that they can transition to the mainstream classes, maybe to the early college classes, and maybe to the AP classes. I want them to have the opportunities that may be difficult for them to achieve if they do not test out from the WIDA at the end of the year. I want them to be successful.
Jim Warford: What are some of your biggest successes?
Norman Sales: One of my biggest successes is the higher percent of students exiting the ELL program. When I started teaching the class in 2013-14, just 47% exited. In 2016 we had a 78% exit rate. I know these are just numbers, but I take pride in the numbers. I also know that there are numerous other factors in these passing rates, but I am proud nonetheless.
I have also seen my students in AP classes with some of them taking AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition. The AP Language teacher this year just told me that one of her current students wrote his gratitude essay to me.
Another success is that I’ve engaged my students in rigorous lessons and activities. I’m proud that teachers from Farrington and other schools come and observe how I conduct my academic discussions with ELLs. My ELLs have presented at a faculty meeting about a Quad D Lesson project they worked on collaboratively with students in the Art classes.
A recent personal success for me was when some of my students told me I ask difficult questions! I like to say that they meant I ask rigorous questions, because they said that to me after I asked them if the author we were reading at that point achieved his purpose.
Professionally, I think a success is becoming a teacher leader. I joined the Farrington Teacher Leadership Cadre, TLC, last year and have returned for a 2nd year. I am hoping to remain in TLC as long as possible. My colleagues also voted for me to lead the ELA department this year. I am at a position where I can advocate not only for my ELLs but all our GAP students.
Jim Warford: What have been some of the biggest barriers you have encountered teaching ELL students?
Norman Sales: Since I attended school in the Philippines my entire life, one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome is the diversity of the classrooms here in Hawaii. I went to school with people from my small hometown and I was taught by Filipino teachers. There is also the ethnic diversity. At first, I didn’t know how to reach my non-Filipino students. There is the diversity of skills even if everyone is ELL. I didn’t know how to address all the evident and unnoticeable differences that were present in my classroom. Because of that diversity, my classroom management wasn’t strong when I started teaching.
Also, my teacher preparation was in teaching English and not in language acquisition and development which I think are as important as my ELA curriculum. I feel bad for the first group of kids that I taught because I didn’t know many strategies that would have helped them test out. I started taking Professional Development seriously.
My mentors, Jessica Kato, Angie Koanui, and Sherilyn Waters were really helpful. The ELL department at Farrington is collaborative. A lot of people think I am with the ELL department, but I am actually, and was always, with the ELA department. Maybe that says a lot about the work I do with the ELL kids.
The most recent barrier is when WIDA transitioned to computer-based testing and when the State of Hawaii changed the requirements for kids to test out, making it hard to compare data over time. I am still trying to figure out how best to help my students since the testing change in 2017.
Jim Warford: You mentioned your shock at discovering Hawaii’s incredible diversity compared to your hometown in the Philippines. I know that, like most mainlanders, until I began working here in the islands I had no real appreciation either. Can you tell us a little more about what that diversity looks like in your classroom?
Norman Sales: I’ve only been teaching sheltered English classes at Farrington. Even if they are all ELLs, their abilities and experiences vary. Some of them are long term ELLs and some of them are recent immigrants from the Philippines, Chuuk, or from the many other islands in Micronesia and Polynesia. The ethnic diversity is also another thing that I wasn’t used to. Back home, we all shared the same practices and traditions.
The cultures of my students are also diverse. And when I say culture, I am not only referring to ethnicity or race. Their culture is complex – I have students who are gamers, some of them listen to K Pop, some of them are into visual arts, there are basketball players, and so on. There are other cultural aspects that are hidden from the surface -students view gender roles differently, discussion etiquette vary from student to student, and socio-economic backgrounds. They also have similarities. Many of my students talk about family separation through divorce, separation, or immigration. Even that contributes to the diversity in the classroom.
Jim Warford: Can you tell us a little more about how you use www.socrative.com in class? And how have the students responded?
Norman Sales: Here’s how I’ve used Socrative.
- I would create a “Short Answer” prompt from the teacher dashboard. It could be as simple as generate 3 universal questions. Students have unlimited chances to turn in responses.
- Students generate questions on their team and they turn in individual questions through their phones or a computer.
- Once all questions are turned in, there’s a discussion on the quality of the questions. Which one would yield to more conversations and more literal questions are addressed. Students also have the chance to consolidate similar questions.
- Once questions are narrowed down through answering literal questions and through narrowing down similar questions, students then vote on which questions they want to talk about in the succeeding discussion.
- Students take the chosen questions back to their groups and they prepare by answering and looking for evidence.
Jim Warford: What one thing would you suggest to any new ELL teacher starting out?
Norman Sales: I am often frustrated. I’ve developed a habit of taking a break to take a deep breath in the middle of a class activity just to reboot. The frustration sometimes come from plans that are failing or from other million things that are happening in the classroom. Sometimes progress take awhile to be evident in student work, interactions, and observations. And that for me is frustrating.
In other words, patience is key. And I know teachers are the most patient individuals in this universe, but ELL teachers or content area teachers who are teaching ELLs must carry an extra dose of patience everyday. The student who rarely speak may not start interacting with everyone in the classroom until April (school year in Hawaii ends in May).
You may have a new student from moving to your classroom from a different teacher after finding out that the student is misplaced or a new student from another country a week before the WIDA test. You’ll have a student who will be copying all his or her responses from the text you are reading because the student doesn’t have an idea of what is plagiarism, inference, or textual evidence. There will be other factors too just like changes in the curriculum or assessments.
But do not let your patience run out. It’s worth it once you see progress, and do not forget to celebrate the small victories.
Jim Warford: Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Norman.
You will find much more about Norman Sales and Farrington HS in my new book, The Chemistry of Culture, at: amazon.com/author/jimwarford You can also get a 20% discount direct from the publisher, Rowman and Littlefield at: www.rowman.com and using promo code RLEGEN19