Mike Gray is an English language arts teacher with more than five years’ experience, three of which have been within an online environment with Fuel Education. His passion and dedication to an alternative path to graduation comes from his own personal experience as an alternative GED student after dropping out of high school in order to financially support himself.
The following is a story that Mike wrote to show how important an online education can be to a young student who needs a non-traditional path to education, especially through the use of online ELL (English language learner) support.
Online Learning Journey Begins
Looking out the airplane window, Jinny* watches the Taipei 101 skyscraper become smaller as they ascend. Flying farther from Taipei, Taiwan, flat plains give way to jagged mountains that slope into the East China Sea. Jinny feels tears welling in her eyes, while at the same time feels a sense of joy and excitement inside. A fellow student sitting next to her squeezes her hand when she sees her tears. They both are leaving their family, their culture, their homes, and everything they have ever known to move to the United States and take their next steps into their future, including being in my online classroom.
Jinny is a ballet student who has been accepted to an elite ballet boarding school in Florida. Jinny is arriving three weeks late into the school year, so she is already going to be facing the challenge of catching up with her peers. She will also be learning a new culture, working to master English as a second language, making new friends, dealing with homesickness, and, of course—there will be plenty of dance. She will be taking several of her courses online through Fuel Education teachers in order to accommodate the rigorous curriculum—a combination of ballet and academics—that she will be following, in addition to much online ELL support.
All this means that there is no time to slowly acclimate in her new educational environment and that Jinny has to jump right into her schooling. She finds out right away that there are several international students starting with her. Some are even from Taiwan just like her. But there are also many American students to help ease her into her immersion of English. But, Jinny needs more than just the support of other students, she needs her teachers.
Helping an ELL Student to Excel
Her ELL mentor, Megan*, and I quickly get a plan together to help Jinny hit the ground running with her FuelEd English course. Megan will focus more heavily on her English course than other academic courses for a few weeks in order to help Jinny catch up.
During this time, Jinny goes through online course orientation, begins her first assignments, and receives one-to-one ELL tutoring. I use this time to send video announcements, email, and communicate through the first discussion board assignment, in order to build rapport with her. Once she feels comfortable within the course and the expectations, Jinny then switches off to working one hour every day on practicing English so that she can master her English language skills.
But English is just a small fraction of her busy days. Monday through Friday, Jinny has academic classes in the morning from 8 AM–12 Noon, dance and ballet classes from about 1–6 PM, and finally she has study hour from 7–8 PM on school nights. On Saturday, she has classes and rehearsals from 9 AM–1 PM, and sometimes until 3 PM. Near the end of each semester, she has performances and has to be out of school for an extra week for intensive all-day rehearsals.
It may appear that Jinny is facing mission impossible, but appearances can be deceiving. When I receive Jinny’s first assignment for her English course, it’s clear that she is a diligent student who will just need some strong teamwork from her mentor and me to aid her in expressing herself in English.
I grade her first assignment and praise her ability to analyze and express thoughts, while leaving some feedback on how to better translate her thoughts into English. She quickly responds to my feedback with an assignment revision that already shows her ability to make progress with English through much online ELL support. I also want to point out that and this was no simple English assignment—she was writing essay responses to classic English novels and poetry. But for Jinny, it’s no sweat because she has strong support from her teachers and is extremely hard-working!
An ELL student must actually think in English to express more complex thoughts and to persuade—because language is more than simple words. Language is a thought process.
As Jinny moved through the course for one semester, I watched more than grammatical skills improve. I’ve now seen her analyze themes, settings, and moods of poetry, create original narratives of her life as a ballet student, interact in written discussions, and even record a persuasive speech—all in English, her second language, with much online ELL support.
Online ELL Student Success
Teaching an ELL student to express abstract concepts is a unique challenge. An ELL student must actually think in English to express more complex thoughts and to persuade—because language is more than simple words. Language is a thought process. This means that a strong framework of understanding both the culture of the English language and its modern-day usage must be developed and regularly reinforced.
Looking back to just three short months ago, when Jinny boarded her flight to America, she couldn’t have possibly imagined all the changes and challenges that she would face as a student. Fortunately, being an online student eased some of those challenges by her blended learning experience. Having an online course gave her more flexibility to work at the pace that worked for her, while having the one-to-one help of her teacher and tutor in the brick-and-mortar school gave her the face-to-face interaction she was familiar with.
At the same time, looking back to three months ago when I was notified of my new student, Jinny, I knew she would be successful, but I expected her to have a lot of difficulty in some of the literature units. I know she had difficulty, but she rose to the challenge. I couldn’t have anticipated what a rich experience I would have with her as a student in my classroom. She brought a new culture into the classroom and showed how far hard work can get you.
Thank you, Jinny, for meeting all the high expectations I have had for you.
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.
About the Author
Mike Gray is an English language arts teacher for Fuel Education. His passion and dedication to an alternative path to graduation comes from his own personal experience as an alternative GED student after dropping out of high school in order to financially support himself. After a non-traditional start to his career in education, he tries to always keep a pulse on what his students are looking for so that he knows how to direct them and can make sure he can help cross any bridges that come along the way. Mike has a bachelor’s degree in integrated language arts secondary education from Ohio University.