Building Relationships with Newcomer Families

lauraThis blog post is written by guest contributor Laura Gardner.  Laura’s bio can be found at the end of this post.

It’s our favorite time of year – Back to School!  As you begin to work with your English Learner students, please don’t forget about engaging their parents.  Numerous studies have shown just how important family engagement is and the positive impact it has on student achievement.  I would argue it’s even more important for our newcomer families as they learn how we “do school” in America.  Here are three tips for building relationships with newcomer parents as you start off the school year.

The most important thing any teacher or school personnel can do is to make ALL 02i11774families feel welcome regardless of what country they’re from, what language they speak, and so on.  Regardless of one’s feelings on the immigration debate, it is important that we check our politics at the door.  So smile!  Greet parents as you would want to be greeted, even if there is a language barrier.  Feelings can easily be conveyed through body-language so smile and say hello!  Even better – learn a simple greeting in another language or two.

03A38219.jpgThe second most important thing teachers and other school personnel can do is to provide newcomer parents with some kind of orientation.  There are so many things that seem obvious to us, but could be new to some families.  For example, school busses are yellow.  Families may not know these sorts of things, so explain everything!  Be sure to also explain expectations around parent involvement because in many countries, this expectation or practice doesn’t exist.  In fact, in many countries it is considered disrespectful if a parent visits their child’s school because it is seen as challenging authority.  Orientations may be delivered in person or by video (for an example, click here).

A third necessary component to building relationships with newcomer families is interpretation and translation services.  If your district has interpretation and translation services in place, please use them!  It is not up to you to decide whether a parent needs the language assistance or not – it’s the parent’s decision and their right. If your district does not have interpretation and translation services in place, please do not use students to interpret!  This will be tempting to do, but students often do not have the vocabulary needed in both languages, nor have they been trained as interpreters.  Furthermore, it puts them in a position of power with access to information they normally wouldn’t have access to.  A second word of caution: do not use Google translate!  This will also be tempting to do, but machine translation is far from perfect and can sometimes cause more problems than good.  A colleague of mine once tried using it for a poster that said “bully free school” and Google translated to “school without killers.”

So if your district doesn’t have interpretation services, what should you do?  ing_38192_23612.jpgProbably the most reasonable temporary fix is to see if any parents or bilingual community members can volunteer their services.  However, please note this really should just be temporary solution because anyone interpreting in a school setting really needs to have their language skills assessed and needs to be trained.  Just because an individual speaks two languages does NOT mean they know how to interpret.  Interpreting is a skill set of its own that requires practice!   Furthermore, language volunteers should go through whatever procedure is typically used to screen volunteers and to ensure confidentiality.

If you’re encountering language barriers with parents and do not have access to interpretation services, the most important thing you can do is speak with your principal and someone at your school district’s central office about the need for these services and share this fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Education.  It explains the federal laws around providing parents with information in a language they understand.


So there you have it.  Be welcoming, provide orientation, and provide interpreters!  Those are three suggestions to get you started for this school year.  Be on the lookout for a new online course on “Immigrant Family & Community Engagement” in the English Learner Portal Online Classroom.  It’s coming soon!

Please note: Welcoming America is sponsoring “Welcoming Week” September 15-24 and also just released a “Building Welcoming Schools” guide.  Check it out!


Laura Gardner has 16 years of experience working in public education (MD & VA), refugee resettlement, and social work. While in public education, she worked as a district level manager for immigrant family and community engagement as well as a school social worker. Prior to working in the schools, Laura worked for Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS) and managed their national technical assistance initiative to federal Refugee School Impact Grantees. Laura has facilitated trainings on building the capacity of teachers and school systems to engage immigrant families in their children’s education, language access, cultural competency, equity, unaccompanied immigrant children, immigrant family reunification, and refugee resettlement. Laura holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Education.

COMING SOON to the English Learner Portal Online Classroom – “Immigrant Family and Community Engagement” online course.  

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Starting Newcomers on the Right Foot

If you’ve ever had newcomer English learners in your class, you know the feeling.  They look at you with confused, helpless eyes and you give them the same look right back. Many teachers struggle with the best ways to make a newcomer English learner feel comfortable and successful in class.  Here are some tips to start the year off right for both you and your new students.

smile Smile!   Building a positive relationship from Day One is the most important thing you can do for your Newcomers.   You do not need to speak the same language for students to know that you care about them and that they are welcome in your class.   Check in with students often.  A simple smile and “Doing OK?” shows you are approachable and care.  Help your Newcomers “see themselves” in your classroom by displaying books and posters that reflect their culture. This will help them understand that they were welcome even before they arrived.

Teach all of your students to be classroom guides.  Make it clear to your students that you expect them partnerto welcome newcomer English learners as they would any new student, and that sharing a smile or just saying “Hi!” is a good start. Teach your students a few strategies for helping. For example, share that they can point out important papers, words, images, etc. to new students.  Encourage your students to invite Newcomers to join in and talk to them even if they don’t understand.  Try a few activities like charades that show how much can be communicated without words.  It’s the thought that counts!


Know what you can reasonably expect your Newcomers to do during instruction.   Newcomers can point, match, and use single words as they acquire them.  What activities will allow them to show what they know? Check student files or check in with your ESL specialist to ask for their latest English proficiency levels.  There are many resources online to refer to when determining what should be expected of students at the various proficiency levels.  The WIDA CAN-DO Descriptors and Performance Definitions provide you with the information you need to plan lessons and activities that will include your newcomers. 

IMG_4869Have visuals and labels posted around your classroom and during instruction. Write important words and phrases on the board AS you talk.  Incorporating pictures, manipulatives, multi-media presentations, videos, etc. will make content more understandable to a Newcomer, even though he may not know English.  Point to visuals and labels as you speak, to help students make connections between the spoken words and objects. This approach will also be appreciated by non-English learner students who are visual learners.

Plan hands-on, collaborative activities that Newcomers can participate in with their classmates.  All students, not just Newcomers, will  retain information better when a variety of senses are used.  Hearing language while handling materials and watching a classmate will help Newcomers make connections between what they already know and the students’ native language. They will gain confidence as they realize that they perhaps already know something about the topic.

Allow for an occasional break.  Processing in two languages can be exhausting.  Breaks on the computer, skimming through books, drawing, etc. are necessary in the beginning and as the day wears on, Newcomers may feel as if they have just “run out of English” and shut down.  Use caution though.  You don’t want a student to miss important opportunities for acquiring language and building relationships.  Keep the breaks short and only as needed.

In many diverse classrooms, there is another student who may speak the Newcomer’s language.  It is 3acceptable to have students who speak the Newcomer’s language translate from time to time, especially the first day, to help the student acclimate. HOWEVER, it is important that you first  ask the veteran student’s permission, and if he or she really wants to be a translator.  Some students may be embarrassed or feel uncomfortable speaking a foreign language in front of their peers. The goal of the student translator is not to be a one-on-one interpreting service, but rather to serve as a resource during the first difficult days in your Newcomer’s new classroom.

These are some simple tips to make newcomer English learners feel at home in your classroom.  It is difficult being a newcomer English learner in an English speaking classroom, and it is challenging for teachers who work with them.  Be sure to be gentle on yourself and the students. Unfortunately there is no magic wand you can wave to suddenly have your Newcomers understand and speak English, but know that they will recognize your kindness, caring, and effort, and that it will make all the difference to them on what could be one of the most difficult periods in their lives.

If you have any questions or concerns about your students, feel free to drop us a note at

NOW AVAILABLE in the English Learner Portal Online Classroom – “Road to Proficiency – First Steps in Differentiating and Scaffolding for Language” FREE webinar

“Immigrant Family and Community Engagement” online course and the “Enrique’s Journey” online book study.

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Peace and love and Carlos Santana

Today’s blog is a personal reflection as I think back to the past two weeks and all that went by my ears and eyes.  It’s been a lot to process.  There is so much anger and hate.  I feel the need to reinforce what English Learner Portal stands for and why we do what we do.  ALL children deserve to be loved.  ALL children deserve a quality education.  ALL teachers deserve the support they need to make that happen every day.

ELP Staff, Left to right: Susan Zimmerman,  Adriana Brown, and Kelly Reider

Earlier this week some friends and I -you may recognize them from the ELP website- sat on the lawn of a local concert venue and enjoyed the exhilarating sounds of Carlos Santana. While one of the hallmarks of a Santana concert is always the intersection of his musical reflections with his words of  spiritual  awakening,  this night’s performance seemed more poignant than usual given the forces of anger and divisiveness of our country in recent days.

Yet even as Santana invoked the desperateness of recent events, his message focused not on the negativity of people’s actions, but rather on how each of us can harness the power of love and peace within to overcome the negative forces around us. “The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart. The most powerful weapon you can be is an instrument of peace.” As Santana spoke, the entire audience rose to their feet in a spontaneous demonstration

photo credit:

of love and support.  And as we stood, I was reminded that, despite of all the anger and hate we may perceive around the country, good things really ARE happening in our nation’s schools. Thousands, perhaps millions, of good people dedicate their careers and their lives to supporting and educating some of our most fragile learners. 

For example, if today’s headlines have you longing for a feel good moment, all you have to do this Back to School season is follow a few teachers on Instagram. It is a joy to scroll through all of the amazing classroom designs, creative first week of school activities, and positive personal reflections teachers are sharing.  When I think about how many students those creative teachers impact each year, I feel better about the world.

Joven Noble Team:  Nicole Vaden, Jacky Munoz, Hilda Ramirez, Joe Hudson (not pictured: Monica Lopez)

In fact, we are surrounded by so many good people, not just teachers, who are dedicated to the future of our children. Closer to home, a partnership between the school system, police department, and the National Compadres Network pulled together over 60 students in August for camps dedicated to the idea of “La Cultura Cura” or culture heals.  This partnership works together all  year  to

Xinachtli Team: Monica Lopez, Nicole Vaden, Hilda Ramirez, Jacky Munoz

provide adolescents with structure, guidance, lessons of self respect and the respect of others, as well as a lasting support network.  I was able to visit during Joven Noble camp and the scene was beautiful.  One leader was on the patio with a student who was visibly upset sharing that “people think I’m a badass and I don’t want to be a badass”. Chart paper was posted with reflections of earlier conversations about what posterpeople think of them and what they need. Partners were focused on creating the loudest machines possible with their STEM kits. (OK, the goal was to learn about circuits and create a machine that worked, but they were LOUD.) Students had four full days of escaping the pressures of the neighborhood and building relationships that will support them into the school year.


The leaders of the Joven Noble and Xinachtli camps will be writing their reflections for the ELP blog soon.  For now, I will leave you with a few images that illustrate how they, like you 20479759_268173540345261_5810586968681802259_nand many among us, continue to work tirelessly day after day with an open heart: just being there, showing concern, being available, giving students a means and a place to express themselves.




THANK YOU to all educators, both in the schools and from the community, as we dedicate ourselves to a new school year.  You make a difference. A special thank you to Carol Salva, who said it so well in a short video she created for our online book study. Carol said, “All language learners are an asset.”   At English Learner Portal, we specialize in working with English learners, but our hearts and work are dedicated to ALL students.  Pointing out those small moments that often go unnoticed, but make a difference in the lives of children, will be a focus of the ELP social media outreach this school year.  Please follow us and share your moments as well!

Instagram: englishlearnerportal

Twitter: @EngLrnPortal


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When the teacher becomes the learner…

I promise to get back to the blog series about the amazing work going on with our students and the National Compadres Network’s social/emotional character development curriculum this weekend (Xinachtli camp this week, Joven Noble last week).  For now, I am taking a little bird walk to share the latest happenings at English Learner Portal.

deskI had planned to spend a chunk of my summer giving English Learner Portal a greater web and social media presence.  Get the website up ( – check!  Create a Twitter account (@EngLrnPortal) – check!  Create an Instagram account (englishlearnerportal) – check!  Post more to the Facebook page  – check!  Research a platform for delivering online professional development for teachers – check and instant gauntlet thrown!  I learned quickly how rusty my tech skills have become!

I found the platform and dove in head first.  For the past two weeks I have been watching webinars, reading blog posts, exploring numerous technology options for video editing, meeting with various creative colleagues, participating in my first Google Hangout call to share ideas, clicking a lot of clicks and wondering how I got to where I was, …  I now remember how much I love to create professional development and I also remember how exhausting it is to learn new technology!

This is the home page of the English Learner Portal Online School.  Isn’t it beautiful?


That was the easy part!  Now it needs courses and students!  I am 3/4 of the way through creating our first online book study for teachers through this new platform.  My head is spinning from all of the technology options out there, but it is a true joy at the same time.

IMG_6123Our first book study will be “Boosting Achievement – Reaching Students with Interrupted and Minimal Education” by Carol Salva and Anna Matis.  I ordered this book a few months ago after seeing it on Twitter.  I know many programs and teachers struggle with reaching our students who come to us with little English and little formal education, especially those who are coming to us as teenagers and young adults.  I thought the book was very easy to read and provided a good mix of research and practical examples that I could implement tomorrow.  I reached out to Carol and, to my surprise, she gave her full permission and excitement to create the online book study!

So, when my brain is on overload and I’m dreaming of computer screens and video edits, I remember that soon teachers will be able to join the book study and take advantage of not only reading this great book, but also the variety of related resources we’ve gathered to support teachers of newcomers as well.

Please stop by the new online classroom at and click the “Enroll Now” button.  That enrolls you into the “school”.  Once you are enrolled there, you will be the first to receive notification when this book study opens, as well as many more professional learning opportunities to come!

If you have any feedback or suggestions, I’d be happy to hear from you!  Please email me at  I’ll be back to the blog soon with more about Joven Noble, Xinachtli, and my technology learning curve!