Social Skills with Newcomer Students

The Importance of Social Skills with Newcomer Students
by Graciela Williams, Guest Blogger

turkeyThanksgiving is almost here, and, undoubtedly, your classroom is buzzing with excitement for the soon-approaching break. You might find that you and your students have finally found a steady routine. You may even feel that your students have some sense of your classroom rules and requirements, even if many of those aren’t exactly followed to a “T.” Your sense of classroom “normalcy” is at its peak when, suddenly, you get word that you will have a new student. Not only will you have a new student, but it will be a new student that speaks limited English. You have been here before and know the difficulty of adding a new student into the mix, but a student that speaks limited English is a step further. The classroom dynamic changes, and the educational “catch up” game quickly follows. This scenario is all too common in many schools across the U.S. Teachers and school administration begin to identify the challenges of students who start school mid-year, but they soon find themselves focusing on classroom dynamics and making sure that the student meets certain targets for educational purposes. An area that can be easily overlooked is the newcomer’s social and emotional well-being. Adjustment in the classroom involves much more than the student’s physical and mental understanding of school and classroom norms.

Research is finding that new incoming students require social and emotional support studentsduring school adjustment periods. Although the needs of the students increase, the school’s ability to provide adequate resources and staff to meet the needs of the students remains limited. Even with limitations, schools can still make sure that all of the newcomer’s needs are met in order for the student to be successful in the classroom. Incorporating social skills lessons within the classroom can promote an environment where newcomer students share experiences, establish connections, and practice their English abilities.

Sharing experiences, for newcomer students, in a non-threatening environment is a great way for students to start building connections and relationships with their peers. girlsBeginning conversations at the lunch table or at recess can be intimidating, but providing an in-class activity, where students share in small groups, can help promote effective communication and relationship building. It allows the newcomer to participate in the lesson all while learning essential vocabulary skills. Social skills lessons can help promote English by having newcomers practice their English skills within the four domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Social skill lessons can also help the teacher understand their student’s background in a non-intrusive manner. Understanding the student’s past experiences can shed some light on educational learning experiences and current levels of social, emotional, and physical adaptation to a new learning environment.

For a FREE sample social/emotional lesson, visit the “Newcomers/SIFE” folder in the English Learner Portal Resource Center.  This activity promotes the four domains, while engaging students in a fun, interactive activity where they feel comfortable sharing about their experiences.  The full lesson plan and Feelings Cards included!

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gracieGraciela Williams “Gracie” is a licensed bilingual school social worker in Annapolis, Maryland. Gracie currently works with newcomer students and runs several social skills groups around the county. She specializes in working with international students who have experienced trauma. She has done extensive work incorporating and facilitating student and parent reunification groups within the school system. Gracie has worked as an Adult ESL teacher and program manager for literacy centers in South Carolina and Colorado. She has a bachelor’s degree in counseling from Bob Jones University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of New England. Gracie is also an Adjunct Professor for Goucher College, where she teaches a graduate level seminar course regarding At Risk Students, and she is an Adjunct Community Faculty for The University of New England providing field instruction to current MSW students.

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English Learner Portal    November 2017

Newcomer Programs and Puppies…

IMG_7275[1]So you are already wondering why newcomer programs and puppies would be in the same blog…Our family dog passed away recently and we were all pretty devastated.  After a week we did what everyone tells you NOT to do. We adopted a puppy.  I am so glad we did.  Little Ginny (pictured here) has brought new energy and a lot of smiles into our world. She runs through the yard as fast as possible, so excited to explore.  Think of that crazy puppy run, and that is how I felt this morning finally getting the opportunity to speak with Carol Salva in a voice chat!!  Carol and I have communicated via social media over the past few months, as she so graciously gave permission for us to use her book, Boosting Achievement, for one of our online book studies.  Carol invited me to be a guest on her Boosting Achievement pod cast this morning and I am still that puppy excited!  We had a IMG_6123great conversation about newcomer programs.  When Carol’s team finishes working their production magic and post the pod cast online, I will send you the link!

To go along with the pod cast, I wanted to share my experiences with planning and developing a newcomer center in our district. While I am no longer working in that office, I can share how it started.  In no way do I see this as the perfect plan.  What I hope, is that the big ideas are clear, and that the heart of what we were trying to accomplish comes through. Every district has different resources, guidelines, etc. that make each plan unique.

I’m sure many school systems experienced the same struggles we did a few years back when the number of incoming high school age English learners really took off.  As a young people from various refugee programs and immigrants from Central America, particularly unaccompanied youth, poured into our schools, we worried that we were unprepared to support these students both academically and emotionally.

In 2014, our school district assembled what we called a “Think Tank,” a group of people who came together voluntarily to discuss this particular student group and to brainstorm a solid plan for addressing their needs.  This group included members from the English Language Acquisition Office, teachers, school counselors, high school administrators, pupil personnel workers, career education, and alternative education workers. We looked at student data and used our combined expertise to come up with the most effective plan for both our school system and these students. I consider working with this group – student centered and creative -to be one of my most rewarding career experiences.  Never had I experienced this many people, from a number of schools and offices, coming together with such a level of collaboration to address a common concern and mission to support students.

The “Think Tank” met for 2 years, developing various proposals and presenting options20161208_145133 to the school district’s leadership.  In the spring of 2016, we finally had an approved plan with a budget attached! I loved the plan, as it truly demonstrated the heart of the “Think Tank” and my values as a leader – student centered and collaborative.

The Newcomer Program started with a proposal for up to 40 students at one high school.  Those students were all officially 9th graders (by credit count), though they ranged in age from 17-20.  (Our 14-16 year old 9th graders entered the traditional high school program with ESL support.) We also targeted students who had significantly interrupted or minimal education and literacy before arriving to our school.  Our goal was to build this program over the school year so it could be replicated at other locations in the future.

So here are the basic structures of the Newcomer Program plan…..

10:20 a.m. – Student Arrival – We had found that many students were working late hours and struggled to make it to (or be awake in) the 7:20 a.m. traditional 1st period class.  This led us to create a different schedule for our target group.

10:30 – Lunch – We began our students’ day by making sure they were fed and ready to learn.  This time also allowed for community building and for them to interact with students outside of the Newcomer Program.

science811:00 – First Class (traditional school 3rd period) – ESOL 1 – Students began their day in ESOL class with a hands-on, project based learning curriculum that allowed for language and content development to happen simultaneously.  ESOL 1 also counted as 1 English credit towards graduation requirements, as it was our goal to get as many students as possible to graduation, as quickly as possible.

Monthly social/emotional support lessons were also built into this class period.  A bilingual school counselor and bilingual social worker from the International Student Services Office (ISSO) led the monthly social/emotional support lessons.  We also had the support of the Hispanic liaison officer from the Annapolis Police Department, who often led the lesson for our young men or joined the full group.  These visiting professionals were trained in the “Joven Noble” (males) and “Xinachtli” (females) cultural healing curricula from the National Compadres Network and utilized those teachings within their monthly sessions.

Catherine's african mask12:30 p.m. – Second Class – Elective Credit – Foundations of Art, 3D Art, Team Sports – This class satisfied a graduation requirement and allowed students time to build their social language in a more relaxed atmosphere.  During this class period, students were integrated with other students who were not part of the Newcomer Program.  (NOTE:  Teachers for the first and second classes were paid through regular high school teaching positions as part of their duty day.)

2:00 p.m.   Break

(NOTE:  Because our Newcomer Program 3rd and 4th class period had not previously existed at the high school, as traditional students were dismissed at 2:00 p.m., teachers for these classes were paid through a combination of Evening High School funding and Title III supplemental support.  The Newcomer Program became a small group within the existing Evening High School Program, allowing us to maximize existing staffing.)

2:15 p.m. – Third Class – Science –The science course was co-taught by a certified science20161208_145019 teacher and a certified ESOL teacher.  We selected a science course from our high school Program of Studies that was the most hands-on.  This course also fulfilled a graduation requirement.

3:00 – Fourth Class – Elective – Some students choose to participate in the Culinary Arts foods4program which is part of the school system’s Career and Technology Education Program. This course already existed in the Evening High School.  A certified ESOL teacher was added for support. The Culinary Arts program was quite popular, as many students were working in restaurants and understood the benefit of working  towards a  ServSafe Certification.  Other students participated in the “Stretch Your Wellness” course where they practiced yoga and followed a health/physical education curriculum.  Some students also participated in Spanish I, which was focused on developing literacy skills for native speakers.yoga3

4:30 – Dismissal and Bus Transportation – Bus transportation was provided to various locations around Annapolis through a partnership with the school system’s magnet programs that ran after school hours.

We ended the year with approximately an 85% completion rate. This was SIGNIFICANTLY higher than what we had experienced with older newcomers in the traditional school program.  Here is what I learned in the process of watching the Newcomer Program staff embrace the students and their own leadership:

  • If you take teachers who have a passion for what they do, and give them some structure and creative freedom, they come out with amazing results!
  • A well-planned first year of schooling in the United States, with adults who understand the power of relationships, provides a solid foundation for future success.
  • Students need options that respect the numerous challenges and responsibilities they juggle daily. Alternative schedules, transportation, career skills, first language literacy, acculturation, and relationships are all crucial elements.

As the program continues to morph and grow, I’d love to see a continued focus on collaboration – truly it takes a village to have success.  Conversations with our local community college focused on expanding the career training options are promising.  An agreement between the Department of Labor and State Department of Education now allows the school to teach GED preparation courses for students who fit a specific profile, greatly benefiting those older students who just don’t have time to graduate. Exploring options with the school system’s External Diploma program will also provide a variety of options for students to earn a diploma.

More than anything, our students need options and our commitment to provide the best possible foundation.  With that, they are usually more than willing to do the rest!

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