Olivia Weidemann, corps member serving on the Comcast/NBCUniversal team

Poverty and the achievement gap are a few of the challenges that our students face—some students, however, face the added challenge of being completely new to American culture.

Nearly 30 percent of students attending the Jeremiah E. Burke High School are English language learners (ELLs) enrolled in the Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) Academy. The majority of these students recently emigrated from the island nation of Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa. These students, who speak Cape Verdean Creole as their first language, must learn to speak and write in English. Importantly, they also are learning to adapt to the American society with being challenged to learn their core subjects, which are taught in English.  

The National High School Center, a non-profit advocacy group, noted that “for too many English language learners, graduation from high school, let alone college, remains but a dream.”

I serve in an SEI Academy, and I work with my partner teachers to make that aforementioned dream a reality for our students.

As a step toward realizing that dream for our students, in January, my geometry teacher selected four of her students who she believed would benefit most from working in a small group. Now, I tutor these students for 45-minutes every day after lunch.

Because my students are still learning at a basic-level of the English language, we focus a lot on vocabulary within math word problems. I noticed even the slightest word can change how they understand a problem. With word problems that are high in context vocabulary words, we first start by underlining all the words they don't know. Next my students and I define all the words and I help provide examples of what the words mean. After they have a grasp of the vocabulary words, I begin prompting through questioning and reasoning of mathematical procedures.

The other thing we focus on is explaining how they arrived at an answer and why they believe their answer is correct or makes sense. As often as possible, I give them independence to do their work, and I tell them they can only ask me a question after they have asked a classmate.

Through working with these students, I have already seen small growth. My teacher often comments that two of my students are participating more in her classes, and even teaching material to their classmates.

I believe you truly understand something when you can teach it to someone else, and these students are doing just that. I see that every day one of my students, who was hard to motivate to do work at the beginning of year, now comes to school ready with what she wants to work on.

Working with ELL students is challenging, but I remember to be strong. I remember to put myself in their shoes. I think about how they feel each day coming to school looking at words they don't know and are constantly trying to understand a new language. If my students can learn a new language, then I want to support them however I can in that process. I know that helping my students is a cause much greater than me. I don't have to do this, but I get to, and it is amazing.

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