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How this middle school teacher builds connections with ELL students

Smiling English language learner teacher from a middle school in Minnesota.

Feeling a sense of belonging in class can come with extra challenges for English language learner (ELL) students. While trying to adapt to a new language and culture, they may feel reluctant to speak in front of others and may struggle to connect with their teacher and the rest of the class. Educators may also find that some ELL students seem shy or don’t raise their hand in class, and that it’s subsequently more difficult to build a relationship when experiencing language and cultural barriers.

For middle school educator Kristina Robertson, a multilingual language teacher at Murray Middle School in St. Paul, Minnesota, these challenges have served as inspiration. Murray Middle School is part of the Saint Paul Public Schools district, which is the most diverse school district in Minnesota with students who speak more than 114 languages. Robertson has built a regular system of communication in her classroom that encourages strong, ongoing teacher-student relationships.

“I have set up structures and practices that focus on social-emotional skill building, creating community, and helping students have more agency and voice in the learning space,” said Robertson.

A classroom strategy centered on being seen and heard

Robertson has focused her strategy on three main classroom practices: 1) a zone of regulation framework, 2) asking her students questions in Along; and 3) weekly circle time that focuses on a specific activity.

When students enter her classroom, they identify the state of their feelings based on a four-color quadrant.

“A student may say,’ Today I’m in the blue zone because I stayed up late.’ I look at what zones all of my kids are in and configure the activities that will work best that day,” said Robertson. “As we start the fourth quarter, my next step will be to help them advocate for themselves to speak up when they need support or a different activity to be successful.” 

Asking these questions around feelings are also part of a deeper practice using Along, the teacher-student connection builder. She started by asking students ”getting to know you” questions on the platform with multiple choice responses, and many students started using the comment box to share. Gradually, she moved toward asking more in-depth questions.

“I asked them in the platform, ‘What things could we do in class to reduce stress?’ Many of them suggested having plants in the classroom, so I brought in a couple of plants,” said Roberston. “It’s important to close the loop and bring it back to the students.”

Robertson adds that she allows her students to respond in Along in either their native language, or they can copy and paste answers using Google Translate. She can easily use Google Translate to understand what the student has written, too.

Connecting with harder-to-reach students through focused actions

Every week, Robertson also has students come together as a group for circle time. She asks questions to encourage engagement using a specific system that meets her students where they are.

“We have Patty the Platypus, a Beanie baby, and when you have it in your hands, you can speak or pass,” explains Roberston. “By doing that activity over and over, I’ve had a couple of students who would not speak at all and barely said ‘pass’—but now they’ll say something. We’ve modeled a system and now they can do it.”

Robertson provides sentence frames to help ELL students respond. And, she keeps track of students who aren’t participating regularly so she can follow up one-on-one. She uses Along to help facilitate ongoing, direct conversations with each student and to encourage harder-to-reach students to participate in larger class discussions.

“After they have passed a certain number of times, I talk with them individually about how they can contribute to the class,” she said. “I let them know that I’m interested in them, I am listening, and that their participation is important in our learning community.”

For Robertson, success for her ELL students is all about setting up classroom structures that give them a space where they can grow both emotionally and mentally, and to develop the skills they need to be ready for high school. It’s important that students feel heard and seen so when they share their ideas it leads to action.

“I know some of the kids better than teachers who have been working with them all year,” said Robertson. “I was recently asked by a teacher how I knew all about a student and her interests. ‘Well,’ I responded, ‘I just asked her and she started talking.’”

She added, “We need new, innovative ways to connect with students and Along is a unique, ‘ready to go’ platform that can support teachers and students in building relationships.”

Do you have an inspiring story to share about strategies for forming connections in the classroom? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out at media@gradientlearning.org.

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