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

COMING SOON to the English Learner Portal Online Classroom – “Immigrant Family and Community Engagement” online course and the “Enrique’s Journey” online book study.

Sign up to be the first to hear about new online course releases here!

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!


To Protect and Serve

joe“To Protect and Serve” was written by guest blogger, Joe Hudson.  Joe is the Latino Liaison Officer with the Annapolis Police Department in Annapolis, Maryland.  This blog series highlights the partnership between the police department and school system to meet the social/emotional needs of our youth. 

Police departments across the United States have used the same motto for generations. The motto “to Protect and Serve” is a relatively simple phrase. The definition of “to Protect” for the most part has not changed. Officers investigate crimes and arrest perpetrators in an effort to prevent them from reoffending. The definition of “to Serve” changes on a regular basis, usually dependent on the latest, greatest idea. “To Serve” is defined by different ways of engaging the community in an effort to build community ties. These efforts are primarily done by going to community meetings, visiting schools, homework clubs, summer camps, etc. Traditionally, if your agency was active in the community, your agency was successful. Today the phrase “to Serve” should reflect a rapidly growing portion of our society. “To Serve” should move in a new and radical direction, changing from one that is currently based on being visible to one of engagement, understanding, and expression.

“To Protect and Serve” took on new meaning last year in Annapolis. In a partnership between the Annapolis Police Department and public school system, we instituted a program developed by The National Compadres Network. Before getting into the details of the program, some background is needed.

A concern since 2014 has been that our communities are being inundated with unaccompanied minors fleeing their homes in Mexico and Central America. (For more background on the reasons behind this surge, visit this site.)  Once the unaccompanied minors arrive to their new home, they often experience a let-down. Many of our children have a vision of what the reunification with their parents will be like. It is no different than what we would want for ourselves – warm hugs, big smiles, a cake, and possibly our own bed. Sadly, in many cases the homecoming is anything but the vision. Many times our children encounter a new stepmother or stepfather, and brothers and sisters they did not know they had. They are told that they can only eat out of one kitchen cabinet because the other renters in the house use the other cabinets. They are told they can sleep on the sofa, not being invited into the room the family rents. Then mother or father leaves to go to work. The crucial reunification never takes place. The children are enrolled in school. They attend school not knowing the language, encounter teachers that don’t always greet them, look around the room at the pictures of famous people hanging on the walls, and realize they do not belong in school. They do not feel welcome, the pictures on the walls do not look like them, and they wonders if they can be successful.

We know that every child wants to be loved. We have been told for years that the number one reason a child joins a gang is to belong and be loved. There are many reports detailing how MS13 and other Latino gangs have grown in recent years. I draw a direct connection between the lack of love the children feel in their homes and schools with the sudden rise in gang numbers. Unless you have talked to and work with our children, you cannot begin to imagine the horrors they have lived, the amount of trauma they carry, and the lack of ability to be able to express their feelings and rid themselves of some of the trauma. It is hard to imagine the violence, abuse, addictions and broken homes they have experienced or witnessed in their young lives. Most of us will never experience .01% of what they have experienced.

This does not discount the trauma experienced in many of our communities. They too experience the same traumas as the unaccompanied minors. They too do not know how to express and relieve the stress. The trauma that many of our youth carry will eventually emotionally and socially paralyze them.

As I mentioned earlier, “to Protect and Serve” took on new meaning last year in a partnership between the Annapolis Police Department and the school system. For years, the school system’s bilingual facilitators and I struggled with how to help our children. We each developed a sense of responsibility to help the community. We have all had restless nights worrying about that one child or that one family. We all worked tirelessly to attempt to find a solution. We developed and implemented programs both individually and in groups. Each program made a positive difference, however we truly struggled to connect with our youth. We understood the unique trauma and pain that each of our children have in making the journey from their homeland to Maryland and the horrifying events that set the journey in motion. We held classes for mentoring groups and citizens in hopes that they would see our new arrivals for who they are individually, and not with a preconceived notion that at times would cause our children to wish they were of another ethnic background.

In searching for solutions, Kelly Reider (school system representative & English Learner Portal founder) found Luis Cardona and the National Compadres Network. Grant funding brought them to us. We completed our training and before we left the classroom at the end of the third day, the bilingual facilitators and I decided when we would start our first teaching circles. The teaching circles met once a week for 12 weeks.  We had enough people to run two circles in one middle school and one circle at a second middle school. We decided to pick 10 – 12 young men that seemed to always be in detention or suspended from school. We selected our children and invited them and their parents to an orientation. We were confident that we would get parental support because we knew each of these parents and knew that they too were having problems with their sons. What we did not expect was the level of excitement that each parent brought. Not only did we get a resounding yes from each parent, but for some it was the first time I had seen them smile when talking about their sons.

We were excited and thought we were ready. We knew that the majority of our children were apprehensive about attending. They each would have their own machismo and rough exterior. They did not disappoint. In the beginning they were not serious and each had a nervous smile or laugh. When we started to tell the “bridge story” (a generic story that describes how traumas enter our lives, change everything, and we realize we were not ready for what would happen next), we suddenly had their undivided attention. Each of their eyes were locked on the teacher like lasers. We could clearly look into their eyes and see a great deal of pain. We could see that they understood and felt everything we were saying. We did our best not show the pain we were feeling. What helped us the most at that moment was the additional excitement knowing that we had our starting place and we were going to move up from there.

groupJNThis new approach to the term “to Serve” paid off. Parents told us they saw improvement in their children’s behaviors and teachers began to acknowledge our children for who they were and not for who they thought they were. Across the board, grades improved and five of our children made honor roll for the first time. Bonds between family, community, school and police were strengthened.

Last year’s success has inspired us to bring El Joven Noble and Xinachtli to more communities. We continue our school based programs and have added programs outside schools, including two programs in the African American communities.

The gang problem is not a problem that we will arrest ourselves out of. We have tried that for many years and have not made measurable progress. These programs will not eliminate gangs either, however, they will strengthen communities. They will allow a child to be himself, they will provide a child an honorable path and not one of gang life, and they will create a lasting bond between police and community. It is time to redefine what “to Serve” stands for.

Coming up next….more details about El Joven Noble, Xinachtli, and a closer look into the summer programs taking place to heal our communities

Service Learning for Language Development

You’ve heard about Project Based Learning (PBL) for language development at English Learner Portal.  One of our favorite features about this approach is the opportunity it affords for students to give back to their community through service learning and for our schools to build community partnerships, especially ones that highlight the positive contributions our immigrant students can make.

Today’s blog highlights a few examples of recent student projects in hopes of inspiring you to provide your own students with similar opportunities to develop their language and give back to the community. We hope you enjoy them as much as our teachers and students did!

First grade students created quilt squares showing how they bring the idea of kindness to life. They collaborated with the Annapolis Quilt Guild to assemble the quilt. After displaying them in the school lobby, the quilts were donated to the Lighthouse Shelter so that kindness can continue to spread in our community.


High school students researched and created a Health Fair for students at a nearby elementary school. Elementary students visited stations where they heard about nutrition, germs, exercise, and more.   They were excited to see each other again at our Project Celebration!



Kindergarten students created a three-dimensional map of their community. Each class was responsible for a different group of map features (natural resources, transportation, goods, services, etc..). Students from each class presented their contribution standing on the stage in front of all the kindergarten classes and teachers! The next day, an Annapolis police officer stopped by to see how they built the police station and visited each class.



High school students elected to give back to the world community by supporting Lantern Projects, an organization established in 2003 to raise funds for small projects around the world. The projects request small amounts of funding for specific items which enables adults and children to see that they can really make a difference in someone’s life. Our students researched the poverty level of various countries and chose Malawi for their fundraising efforts. Using concepts from our Geometry unit, students created lit tissue paper lanterns of various designs. Students presented their lanterns and their learning to visitors, and then auctioned their lanterns, donating the proceeds to

Project based learning is not only developing language and content knowledge for students, it is inspiring teachers to be excited about teaching again and showing our students make a difference!

Coming soon:  Teacher reflections on a PBL based curriculum for language development

Curriculum Rewind

Curriculum Rewind – Why PBL??  The development of a project-based learning approach to English Language Development Curriculum K-12

In the last blog, I shared our Project Celebration Day and the amazing work of our students and teachers. Today we rewind to share how we got there……

When the state of Maryland became part of the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium and a Common Core state, our English Language Acquisition (ELA) Office initiated the development of an innovative Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach to our English language development (ELD) curricula.   At the time, the elementary ELD curriculum was aligned to a reading series that was being phased out of the mainstream classroom curriculum, while the secondary ELD curriculum was aligned to the middle and high school language arts curricula. With the new standards, it was clear we needed a new, creative approach to supporting our K-12 English learners.

Key Steps in our Process:

Past successes in language development with hands-on, high interest lessons that were connected to real life led the staff to consider a Project-Based Learning approach. One of our earliest project ideas gave elementary school English learners the opportunity to design and carry out a plan to support troops returning from Afghanistan.  Among their efforts was collecting Halloween candy, weighing and calculating daily totals to share with other schools via Face Time and making goody bags to donate to Operation Welcome Home, an organization at Baltimore Washington Airport that greets returning troops. Local dentists donated $1 per pound of candy to the owh2
Wounded Warrior Project. Secondary students researched the social cost and science of PTSD and other war-related injuries and interviewed veterans via Face Time about the impact on their future activities. As a culminating activity, students traveled to BWI airport with Welcome Home signs, cheered and recited the Pledge of Allegiance for the returning vets.  View our project video here!

As our next step, the English Language Acquisition Office team and a few teacher representatives attended a summer conference at High Tech High, a secondary school designed around a project based, collaborative approach to learning. The match between the school’s vision and ours was immediately apparent. Our challenge then was how to connect English language development in order to make it meaningful for both content AND language learning.

Our trip to High Tech High was followed with further research on integrating the key components of PBL into language and content integrated units. We met with each content area coordinator K-12 to tease out the most important, high impact standards to use as a focus.  This list became a guide for brainstorming unit ideas that would incorporate content standards with Social/Instructional Language, the Language of Language Arts, the Language of Science, the Language of Social Studies, and the Language of Mathematics.

IMG_3114The professional development process of introducing our teachers to the concept of PBL began the semester before implementation. We presented the research behind PBL, shared examples, and gave teachers the freedom to experiment with their own ideas for PBL units.

Our first English language development units designed with a project based learning approach came to life the following school year. We began with 3 integrated units for grades K-2 and grades 3-5.  In secondary, we began with our ESOL 3 course.  Each year we have added new courses for secondary students, and new units for all levels, while continuing to fine-tune existing units.  Additionally, each year we offered professional development opportunities to reinforce our teachers’ knowledge and expertise, both face-to-face and on-line, using tools from both WIDA and the Buck Institute for Education.

After three years of implementation, the result are clear. Not only have we exceeded state expectations for language growth and the percentage of students reaching English proficiency, but also our teachers’ growing creativity and our students’ verbal 20161208_145019confidence demonstrates the powerful influence that Project Based Learning has had on our school community.   Ultimately, high-interest, hands on, project based learning has been more than a vehicle for learning content and acquiring language.  Both student and teachers have had the opportunity to experience the entire gamut of higher order thinking, from researching facts to synthesizing information to creating thoughtful and meaningful finished projects that connect them to the community, an unexpected and extraordinary consequence of what began as an experiment in creating a new curriculum for English language learners.

Coming up next:   Sharing more language development successes….

Project Celebrations – Best Day of the Year!!

On May 30th, English learners (and their teachers) from across the Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland, came together to celebrate and share their learning.

On May 30th, English learners (and their teachers) from across the Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland,  came together to celebrate and share their learning.  It was a day of smiles, questions, explanations, laughter, and most of all…..confidence with academic language.  I’m excited to share our day with you!

Middle school students created avatars to present the highlights of individual parks through informational videos.

Three years ago we began our project-based learning journey using our English language development curriculum. As recommended by the essential project design elements from the Buck Institute for Education, we sought opportunities for our students to share their learning and target their presentations to an authentic, public audience.  Throughout the year, our teachers arranged for various ways to make this happen for students ,whether partnering with local businesses and organizations, the county’s volunteer network, or other schools.


I believe it is very important for those outside of our program to participate in positive experiences with our students and to learn the value they bring to the community. By year two, we knew we wanted a way for our teachers and students to share their work with one another, not only as a celebration of their successes, but also as an embedded professional development for our teachers who were still learning what project-based learning looks like in action.  This year, our project celebration was double the size of last year and the quality of work was amazing!

Signing up to present at the Project Celebration was voluntary, with both an elementary and a secondary project room. Teachers and students worked on a rotating schedule, presenting to visitors and then being the audience for others.  Students K-12 mingled, presented, questioned, and explored eat other work.  Our school system television studio cameraman filmed and interviewed students, adding a level of professionalism and excitement.


I hope you are able to feel the pride and excitement for learning that buzzed through the building that day. That’s what we love about PBL – the student ownership and excitement makes teaching our students so easy!

Students studied how to care for pets. Using language of math, students explained how they designed and constructed a dog house to match the measurements of their class pet, Coco.  Students created a fund raiser for the SPCA and also took a trip to visit and share their literacy with the residents!

COMING UP NEXT – Curriculum Rewind – Why PBL??  The development of a project-based learning approach to English Language Development Curriculum K-12