Founded in 2000, Heart House Dallas is a free after-school program serving at-risk students of Northeast Dallas. Since many parents work two jobs, their children had to stay home alone afterschool from 3 to 6 pm. These students are “at extremely high risk due to gangs, crime, violence, teen pregnancy, predators, drug trafficking, and other dangers that threaten to destroy their lives” (Heart House, 2011).
As a non-profit organization located at Wildflower Apartments complex, Heart House is currently serving hundreds of students of low income, refugee families from Thailand, Burma, Nepal and other Southeast Asian countries. To be illegible for the free after school program, students and their family have to be residents in this complex. The application process is easy: parents only need to fill out an application form. Bus transportation is provided from the public schools the students attend to the afterschool program. During the 2.5 hours each day, students receive snacks, helps with homework, and academic support from the program staffs and volunteers.
For the first 3 weeks, I served as a volunteer ESL teacher at Wildflower clubhouse, where the students are in grades K-3. The first day, I was impressed by the new playground outside of the clubhouse, as well as the clean and neat classrooms with lots of books and art supplies. I was amazed by how much Heart House had done for the children with limited funding from foundations and donations.
My learning group consisted of 6 children aged 7. They spoke 3 different home languages: Chin, Karen and Nepali. Most of them showed a strong sense of identity, frequently offering to tell us how to say an English word in THEIR languages. Their oral English skills varied greatly, from almost zero output to near-native proficiency, depending on the time of arrival. I noticed that the students with low English proficiency were the ones that stayed quiet for the most of time. Besides language and cultural difficulties, they also need to deal with things happened in their families: Cece’s mother just left home, and Cece had no idea of when she would come back again; Dominic tried hard to draw my attention, by requesting to sit next to me, and expecting to be treated differently from other children, which I believed derived from the lack of attention from his parents/guardians. Although apparently they are as happy as the children in Highland Park, their refugee experiences, language and cultural background, family structure, and SES will inevitably affect their learning and academic achievements.
We worked on the poem The Naughty Word by Bill Dodds to go along with the Poetry Karate at Heart House. Since their English proficiency is at the beginning level, they read with high frequency words, and concrete words represented by pictures (ELPS), I decided to employ pictures, visual supports (highlighters), card games in the vocabulary teaching. We started with highlighting the interesting/difficult words in the poem, and drawing pictures to illustrate these words. Then we played a flash card game with the high frequency and sight words in the poem and a rhyming game to help them learn the pronunciation of words.
I think pictures, drawings, illustrations, even highlighters and markers worked well with these young children. They showed great interest in learning vocabulary and found clue of meanings through these forms. Games are good strategy, as long as the class management is effective. Playing game was a sweaty experience for me, because I (had never taught young children before) had a hard time trying to control their voices and keep the game going smoothly.
I had to adjust the content and language objectives of my instruction, because it would be impossible for most of them to memorize the poem. I tried to help each of them know how to read the whole poem. I also learned I should break down the whole poem into several parts and work on one part at a time for these young children.
The students at Pineland location are older than those at Wildflower. My little group had three girls and one boy aged 12-13. Their first languages were Chin and Nepali. They also had some literacy in their first language. The time of their residence in the U.S. ranged from 3 months to 3 years. The boy who just arrived 3 months ago could understand and speak very limited English, but luckily, he sought help from Sui, a girl speaking the same language and had been here for 3 years. Sui was also the interpreter between me and the boy. From this I learned the support of the first language is very important for ESL students of older age.
My Asian face brought me closer to them, and made them very curious about my first language and background. They found a book written in multi-languages and invited me to read the Chinese part, while they read in their first languages. They asked me how to say “hello”, “goodbye” “Where are you going” in Chinese and made me repeat again and again, even asked me to give each of them a Chinese name. Later, I had to remind them I was here to teach English, not Chinese. However, these interesting interactions indicated that these students were very self conscious about their culture and language. In order to lower the affective filters of ESL students, their culture and language, their first language skills should be valued by the teacher.
The theme of our first class was the poem I Don’t Want to Do Homework. I started planning for the instruction by looking at my ELPS for their language proficiency level. The boy was definitely at beginning level, while the girls are at intermediate level. I tried the following 3 things in my group:
1. Music. Since the poem goes well to the tune of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, I used the music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ISrRTpqSJE) of the song. I chose the version without lyrics so that the students could match the music and the poem perfectly without being distracted. I brought my laptop to Heart House and led students to sing out the poem with music. The students were excited and enjoyed the singing. I think using music to teach English is an effective strategy, especially for younger learners. Music helps with their memorization of the poem, and helps them retain the memory that related to the leaning of language.
2. I used graphic organizer in the teaching of vocabulary. As one type of instructional scaffolding, graphic organizers help students organize and visualize the information they are learning. I used a revised Frayer Model to teach vocabulary such as “math” “parade”.
3. For the third class, I prepared a work scramble game on the theme of Thanksgiving. I chose this game mainly based on the consideration of differentiated instruction. I wanted to use something that allows both my beginning level boy and the intermediate girls to create their answers of their levels. This word scramble game provided us with this flexibility.
I also prepared a reading article on Thanksgiving for the very last class, and included 2 reflection questions, “ Did you ever move to a place that was very different from your former home? Was it hard to get used to? Did anyone help you find your way around?” “Thanksgiving is an American holiday celebrating harvest and giving thanks. Is there an important holiday in your culture? Use the Venn diagram to compare Thanksgiving with a holiday in your home culture. Consider the difference of their names, time of celebration, tradition, history, foods, purpose, etc.) Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to use these materials since the children were making art projects and we felt hard to interrupt them. Anyway, I think I had some good thoughts on relating the learning materials to the students’ real life circumstances.
Tutoring at Heart House was an unforgettable experience. Children benefited from this after school program. Ms. Jenny in the Pineland location said she witnessed great progress children are making months after their enrollment. The safe environment and academic support provided by Heart House made these immigrant children’s adaption to the U.S. easier. Heart House also helped build a community where these students can speak their home language, make friends, and find support from their peers. At the same time, Heart House also benefit the employers since the working parents could remain focused on their jobs in the afternoon knowing that their children are safe and supervised (Heart House, 2011).
Through the tutoring at Heart House, I learned in order to help ESL students, an ESL teacher should:
1. Respect and value their first language, relate learning with their prior experience and real life circumstance, praise their bilingual skills, celebrate their culture and build their confidence and self-esteem.
2. Focus on teaching vocabulary, because learning vocabulary is essential for learners of all proficiency levels. Provide visual support for younger learners and learners at beginning level.
3. Allow the use of first language among students. Provide support of first language when possible.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D.J. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: the SIOP model (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.
English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS). (2011). http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter074/ch074a.html
Heart House (2011). http://hearthousedallas.org/