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Students in English Language Learners program learn much more — from mindfulness to manners

Laura Hatfield with Partners for Youth, offers a 'great shake' to students in ELL program

Laura Hatfield with Partners for Youth, offers a ‘great shake’ to students in ELL program

By Tammy Lane
Special to KyForward

Rising third-grader Mame Bousso Ndiaye summed up “The Great Shake” nicely, saying, “Everybody won!”

Mame and more than three dozen other English Language Learners spent a month focusing on life skills from mindfulness to manners in a summer program at Northern Elementary.

In the culminating activity, community volunteers engaged the students in mock interviews – weighing their handshake, confidence, and ability to think on their feet. The rubric scored on a 1 to 10 scale, from unprofessional to unpolished to good to exceptional.

A handful of finalists also shared short essays on how to improve their school. Mame tallied 280 points, earning a small trophy and her peers’ admiration. “It feels like a dream,” she said as friends gathered around to offer congratulations.

Relaxed, informal conversation

Relaxed, informal conversation

That brand of selflessness was also evident to Laura Hatfield, executive director of Partners for Youth, which provided a grant for the ELL program. “What impressed me was how some students wanted to help others in their interviews (when they had trouble finding the right words),” she said. “And I loved to see how they incorporated skills I know they just learned.”

Hatfield and the other volunteers noted how the children held eye contact, nodded their heads, and posed questions of their own. Proper body language also demonstrates interest and respect, according to Dorcas Amunazo, a rising fourth-grader from the Congo. “We learned not to put your elbows on the table, and we learned phone manners,” she added.

The students had several opportunities to show their best as they rotated through three group sessions as well as individual interviews. “We want them to have an understanding of what to expect when they go into the real world looking for a job,” ELL teacher Jamie Wright explained.

The taco-bar lunch was also a test, as the volunteers observed the kids’ table manners and conversation skills. One popular topic was the ELL program’s service project, which challenged students to collect bottle caps to make a “buddy bench” for classmates who might be lonely at recess. “A big part of our program was teaching that even the smallest people in our community can make a big change,” Wright said. In addition to the bottle caps, essay subjects included encouraging more parental involvement, adding water fountains, and providing lockers.

The overall goal was to target the four domains of language – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – as they relate to “The Essential 55” rules for success from The Ron Clark Academy. Academy co-founder Kim Bearden spoke at Northern last fall, and Wright later spent a day in Atlanta for training.

“The standards they set are so high, and I wanted to raise the bar for our students,” Wright said. “The summer school program was an opportunity to pack in a whole lot more, and we wanted to focus on teaching language around manners and respect, and teaching about current events happening in the world. It gets our students talking more.” 

Learning table manners and conversation skills too

Learning table manners and conversation skills too

Wright and her colleagues taught five rules a day reinforced through role-playing, and the children enjoyed structured games as they learned cooperation, teamwork, and sportsmanship.

The group also went on a field trip to the Lexington Public Library, where they modeled appropriate behavior in a movie theater. The youngsters – a mix of Spanish speakers and refugees from Africa and elsewhere – also paused regularly for a mindfulness moment, with slow-breathing exercises to calm their nerves.

“We want the kids to remember basic common courtesies and manners and respect and take with them strategies for overcoming anxiety in high-pressure situations,” Wright said. “We’re hoping that when they come back to school, it’ll be instilled in them as a habit and they can influence other students and make new friends.”

Tammy Lane is website editor for Fayette County Public Schools.

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