SAGA Innovations


Fellow Testimonial: How Working with English Language Learners transformed my life as a SAGA Fellow


SAGA Innovations


Emily Gazall | July 20, 2017

SAGA Chicago served over 100 students who speak as many as 20 different languages during 2016-2017 school year. Working with English Language Learners (ELLs) can be full of difficulties because students face the double challenge of learning academic content as well as the language in which it is presented. However, the SAGA Fellows at Sullivan have found valuable techniques to support the unique learning needs of their students. Here, Fellow Emily Gazall highlights the most effective strategies she’s put into practice and also discusses the transformative experience that she’s had while tutoring and mentoring Sullivan students.

How does SAGA’s Math Lab support your ELL students, considering all of the different challenges?

While unexpected challenges like teaching students how to use a multiplication table definitely cause us to move at a slower pace, it has been my experience that ELL students benefit an enormous amount from working with SAGA. Our model of daily small group tutorials allows Fellows to give individual learning support that carries over positive effects into their Algebra and Geometry classrooms. We are able to dedicate our full attention to two students at a time, so we are able to catch where their mistakes are coming from and to clear up any miscommunication. Because our students already have the added challenge of being taught in a language in which they are not completely fluent, most ELL students appreciate having a place for added reinforcement of new skills. One activity that many of my ELL students enjoy is playing the tutor, where they try to teach me how to do a math concept; this allows them to practice both their English and math skills, creating a comfortable and fun environment.

How do you structure your more challenging ELL tutorials?

All SAGA tutorials have the same “I do, we do, you do” structure, but there are so many unexpected challenges that arise with ELL tutorials. Effective tutors must master creative thinking skills to maximize student learning, as giving notes in English does not typically work for ELL students. For example, one of my students is attending school for the first time at age 16. She is a resettled refugee from the Central Republic of Africa, only speaks French and Sango, and has never learned to read. We can communicate a little because I took college-level French, and my student’s English has improved throughout the year, but I often have to find ways to teach basic math skills like multiplication or fractions visually or kinesthetically. For example, to ensure she conceptually understood multiplication and division, we spent several class periods moving manipulatives like toothpicks into different combinations that matched written math problems. While learning fractions, I color-coded her example notes to show the differences in numerators and denominators, as I knew the vocabulary terms would be difficult for her to remember. Because my ELL student had to rely on color-coded examples instead of written notes, teaching fractions was a repetitive and lengthy process; however, the extra time spent helping her learn visually is evident in the huge progress she has made this year.

What has been your most rewarding or transformative experience as a SAGA Fellow?

Not only do I love seeing my ELL students’ progress, measured both in basic skills tests and in their increasing confidence in answering math questions, but I love the personal relationships formed with them as well. Although having to rely on nonverbal communication was definitely frustrating at first, I have learned that it can be just as meaningful. Some of my favorite memories from this year include students, unprompted, pulling out phones to show me pictures of them playing in their first snowfall and bringing in photographs of their families in refugee camps. The personal relationships built from heartwarming moments like these also help tutorials run smoothly, as having a trusting environment gives students a space where they are comfortable trying a difficult math problem or asking a question about a challenging concept.

Working with my ELL students every day has taught me so much: I have redefined bravery as a student who comes to school unable to communicate with others but who tries his or her hardest to learn anyway.  Being a Fellow at Sullivan has even swayed my career path; the personal relationships I formed with my students and the fun I had creating tutorials specifically designed for ELL students has helped me decide to pursue teaching long term.


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