Hamline News


The Language of Learning

With support from a new federal grant, Hamline helps teachers unlock the potential of 70,000 English language learning students in Minnesota


By Erin Peterson

If you're a native English speaker, it’s probably been years since you’ve had to think about why the “a” in “mat” sounds different than the one in “paw.” You probably intuitively understand that if you’re giving instructions, like a recipe or a reminder, you should use the command form of a verb, in which the subject is implied. (“Park in the driveway,” not “You park in the driveway.”)

These are just two of the countless challenges that nonnative-speaking students face as they learn English, often considered one of the most difficult second languages to master. And, depending on a student’s circumstances—if she’s a refugee whose family is trying to find a permanent place to live, for example—cracking English’s code might not exactly be a top priority.

But, with support from a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Hamline will be helping to ease the burden. The grant will fund the School of Education’s English Learners in the Mainstream Project, which pays for specific coursework and books for hundreds of preservice teachers. It also provides funding for teacher-trainers, who will learn core principles and coach teachers at their schools to implement the ideas in their classrooms.

In the end, this work is designed to help today’s young English language learners (ELL) in every classroom—not just English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms—become skilled speakers and writers who make the most of their education.

“We want to ensure that the rights of English learners are met in education,” says Michelle Benegas, who coauthored the grant with Ann Mabbott. Both are faculty members in Hamline’s School of Education.

Meeting the needs of these learners is a big job. According to 2015 statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education, there are 70,462 English learners in the state’s public schools—about 8 percent of the total enrolled. Part of the reason? Outside of Florida, Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita in the country.

The funded coursework covers topics including challenges of second-language acquisition, approaches that make all subjects more accessible to English learners, and techniques to help students learn the formal academic language they’ll need to succeed in school.

There’s no question that Hamline is up to the task. Its history of ESL teaching licensure extends back to the 1980s. “We’re the oldest and largest ESL program in the state,” says Mabbott. “And, our online programs are helping students no matter where they live.” 

Though the coursework is designed for teachers helping English learners, most teachers find that the ideas they learn end up benefiting everyone in their classes. “For example, there’s a difference between social language and academic language—and nobody speaks academic language at home,” Benegas says. “So, when teachers help students pay close attention to academic language, that’s good for everybody.”

Benegas and Mabbott are already hard at work teaching the first groups of preservice teachers, and teacher-training programs begin in May. In addition to helping teachers work more effectively with English-learning students, the coursework will help ensure that teachers meet the requirements of the 2014 Minnesota LEAPS Act, legislation mandating that all teachers be trained to work with English learners.

Both Benegas and Mabbott are thrilled about the launch of the programming and believe that they’re just getting started. They see a future that could include more robust in-school training and online education for teachers and trainers living in rural areas. Indeed, because Minnesota has some of the most comprehensive English learner legislation in the nation, other states could use Hamline’s work as a model for their own efforts. “We think this can grow and serve a much broader audience,” Benegas says. “[This grant] is a seed for something we think can be much bigger.”


Teaching in action

Here's how teachers working with English learners have put their Hamline education to work.

Ashley Rudolph MAT ’14, a second-grade teacher at Whittier International Elementary School in Minneapolis, wanted to do something different for the most recent weather unit in her class. While Rudolph had often asked her students to create posters or short essays so that she could assess students’ learning at the end of the unit, this time she told them they could create a video.

For students like Nala (not her real name), a Somali immigrant who had long struggled to pin her thoughts onto paper, it opened up a whole new world of opportunities.

“She just lit up,” Rudolph recalls. “She said: ‘Oh, I can tell you all about weather. I can talk about it all day.’ And, she could! It was amazing to watch her video, to see her lead the group she was working with, and to see the confidence she had for that project that she might not have had if it had been a pencil-and-paper [exercise].”

That confidence, Rudolph hopes, is something she’ll carry with her as she works to improve her writing skills. For Rudolph, Hamline’s coursework to support English learners has helped her stay focused on ways she can help all of her students—both the 40 percent who are English learners and the 60 percent who are native speakers—find ways to genuinely excel in the topics that excite them.“The best part is knowing that I can help students get the education that they deserve,” she says.

There’s no question that Amy Hewett-Olatunde MAEd ’02 EDD ’15, an ELL teacher at LEAP High School in Saint Paul, is devoted to—and optimistic for—the English-learning students in her classroom. It’s a big reason that Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, named her Teacher of the Year in 2015. She’s also clear-eyed about the challenges these students face in their education. “There are teachers who have English learners in their classroom and they see it as a deficit,” she says. “But, it’s also such an opportunity. These students are bringing in all sorts of other languages, cultures, and ideas that they can teach their peers.”

That’s why she’s so excited about the work that Hamline is doing for mainstream teachers working with English learners. In some ways, she notes, every teacher is a language teacher, helping all of their students learn the language of specific disciplines, whether that’s science, history, or literature.

English learners add a layer of complexity to teachers’ work, but every student benefits when teachers develop clear, creative ways to communicate ideas and find new ways for students to share their knowledge.

People often lump “English learners” into a single, homogeneous category. But, the reality is that English-learning students bring with them needs and desires that are as diverse as their backgrounds.

Just ask Molly Trudeau MAT ’15. In her first teaching job, she worked primarily with high school students of wealthy Chinese parents who were eager for their children to go to American universities. Both the parents and the students were exceptionally focused on academics and test preparation.

In more recent jobs, she’s worked extensively with students who are refugees from Somalia. Some came directly from refugee camps and had parents who were still seeking jobs and housing, or they were living with aunts and uncles while they waited for their parents to arrive. Those challenges, unsurprisingly, caused most students to put their academic success on the back burner.

The mindset she’s carried to all of these experiences—something she learned directly from the coursework she took at Hamline—was the critical importance of staying emotionally connected to her students’ experiences. “You can’t teach a student who you don’t know and who you don’t understand,” she says.