The Story of ELL Stories

I can confidently say that the birth of ELL Stories came from a tapestry of experiences and borrowed ideas from the most amazing students and teachers anyone could ever have the honor to work with.  I am an educator and learner who has learned the most from the power of stories shared by the people that surround me and become part of my own story, and in essence, that is how ELL Stories was born.

As a collaborator, support teacher and passionate cognitive coach, I have been fortunate enough to have a career that allows me to really observe and listen.  There is very little work I do in my job that I do on my own.  My greatest contributions to education come from collaborations with others, teachers and students alike.  I consider myself a constant learner not just because I love being one but because it is an essential part of what I do.

I’ll start from the very beginning.  In the early days of my teaching career as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher back in Guatemala, I took many a course on the methodologies of teaching language acquisition.  In one such course, I came across a term that has stuck with me over the years: the ‘affective filter’ (Krashen, 1982) of a language learner. This filter refers to the emotional influence towards learning a language and whether it affects the input and learning.  Within its hypothesis, it asks the question: Can someone acquire a second/foreign language if they’re not emotionally open to doing so?  The answer is not as simple as one might think.  The language can in fact be learned even if the student resists it.  The power of acquisition of language and need for communication surpasses any emotional resistance we might have to it.  For instance, when I moved to Italy in 2010, I had a real hard time acculturating to the fast-paced, industrially-minded Milanese lifestyle.  For the first three years I lived, worked and was immersed in an (almost exclusively) Italian speaking community; yes, I of course learned it.  I figured things out and made connections.  I learned how to read it, how to hear it, and how to apply it when necessary.  However I didn’t identify with it as my own and by applying my ‘affective filter’, my only goal was to use it only if and when I needed to.  So, could I have read a poem in Italian and understood its meaning?  Yes.  Could I have written my own poetry in Italian to convey a personal message about myself? I don’t believe so, but then again, I didn’t try.  I wouldn’t have thought of expressing myself creatively or personally in a language I didn’t identify with.  I was living proof of the ‘affective filter’ I had learned about so many years prior.

When I started working in the international school setting, my role from language acquisition specialist started taking shape to more of a coaching role, a guide for English language learners to apply the language they were learning in a powerful way.  That’s when I started wondering to what extent an ELL learns to communicate in English.  When tasked to write personal pieces, powerful poetry or give speeches about something they were passionate about; how could I guide ELLs into doing that, finding their own identities and voice in a language that wasn’t their first?  

Three years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to co-teach a creative writing class.  Without realizing it at the time, co-teaching this class with my teaching partner and coaching mentor Nathan Lill was going to change my approach to language teaching.  It was then that I started focusing my support on empowering ELLs to apply English as a form of communication beyond just their academic requirements.  All writers in our class were given the opportunities to explore their writing skills and various forms or writing, without fear.  We created a writing community with a digital repository of writing, digital writer portfolios to showcase them as authors of their work and end-of-semester publishing celebrations where writers shared their beautiful powerful pieces to an audience of teachers, parents and their peers.  As their writing teacher and to model the writing process, it was then that I began to also find my own voice and identity in a language I had only used professionally until that point.

At this same time, I was supporting middle school students and also co-teaching with Nathan and Rosana Walsh, as we strived to strengthen a literacy rich Humanities curriculum.  While the seed of empowering ELLs had been planted in the creative writing class, it wasn’t until we co-created the ‘This I Believe’ Podcast project for grade eight students that I understood the power of personal narratives and the importance of making such opportunities for ELLs and all students.

In the past three years, co-creating projects of this caliber with Nathan, Rosana and other amazing educators; as well as working with ELLs with whom I started building strong bonds; nurtured the seed that was planted in the writing class.  We were unknowingly becoming part of our ELLs’ stories of finding their identity and voices in English.  The opportunities they were having to connect with the language were having a direct impact on them not just as learners but as human beings.  ELL Stories were being lived and experienced right before us, waiting to be told.

In my journey as an educator, I have found incredible value in creating digital spaces to curate student work.  Looking for ways our learners can have authentic audiences with whom they can share their work, creates a sense of personal connection to their daily learning.  For instance, instead of a writing piece turned in for grading, living a short life from creation to completion; I want students to feel their work has meaning beyond the grade they receive.  That their connection to the work they do defines them as more than learners, but that it starts to define the quality of who they’re becoming as citizens of the world.  This being a mindset, knowing these spaces to be effective in that purpose, it only took a five minute conversation with an educator and coach I admire greatly, Shaun Kirkwood, whose innovative ideas on how to make learning accessible and fun for all, showed me the space he’s created to share his ideas with the world.  His digital space screams “Take these strategies! Use them with your learners!  Have fun and make them your own!” and it’s quite possibly one of the humblest approaches to the deprivatization of good practices I have ever witnessed.  All I could think was: I want to be like Shaun.  I want to create not own, a space that has a positive impact in anyone who contributes to it and the people who use its content. I was inspired.

This past year, I was given the opportunity to tell a personal story, out loud, in a room full of people. In English.  It was quite possibly one of the most vulnerable, nerve-wrecking and, well, necessary things I have ever done as an ELL.  I could not thank Trey Hobbs and his Shenzhen Stories initiative more for giving me the opportunity to dig deep into my experiences and gather the courage to tell them.  It was a beautiful and important moment for me as person, not just a language learner and teacher.  It made me wonder what stories from ELLs we have not heard that would need a similar stage.  Inspired by this experience, Trey and I talked about organizing a student-led event where we would create that space for our learners.  The idea was great, the timing was not, and we weren’t able to get traction on our project.  But thanks to this, the seed that had been planted long ago in the writing class was growing roots.

You can see how ELL Stories started to come together, all the pieces falling into place.  For years now I have unknowingly been putting together this puzzle, but it hadn’t become clear what the pieces were forming.  And like any good puzzle, there’s that moment when the last piece is left which ties it all together to form a whole. This last piece fell into place when I read one of the most powerful ELL Stories I have ever heard.  Reading Emily Francis“New Land, New Opportunity” solidified my desire to continue to empower ELLs to find their voice and be brave enough to share their journeys as bilinguals, as learners, as people.  The power in Emily’s story about her family and her migration to the United States from Guatemala, the sacrifices and hardships that defined her world for a long time, and her resilience to overcome them to be where she is today was the definitive moment where I knew I must create a space for more stories to be told.

The seed, its roots; something sprouted.  Something grew out of the ground.  The puzzle complete.  ELL Stories was born.