English Language Development teachers change lives

10 mins read

The English Language Development (ELD) program seeks to integrate non-English speakers into mainstream English classes by their senior year, a challenging task undertaken by some of the kindest teachers on campus.



Nelson, the EL I teacher, has students in his class with a vocabulary from 0-500 words.

James Nelson is passionate about teaching students English as a second, or sometimes third, language. Inside his new classroom in the G wing, there are English and Spanish verb conjugations on the board. “The courses are geared for people who are high school age, but they come from places where English is not spoken.” Nelson teaches EL 1, with students whose vocabulary is between zero and 500 words.

Though the majority of Nelson’s students come from Spanish speaking countries, he has received students from all over the globe. Teaching English to students with absolutely no knowledge of the language is a very onerous task. It is made much more difficult when “there are some students who don’t know the English alphabet… you can imagine the challenge in that.” This year, among others, Nelson has Ukrainian and Chinese students.

The ELD program is supposed to be immersive, uniting all students regardless of their mother tongue. However, “speaking Spanish from time to time can really make things go faster since almost all of my students speak Spanish,” says Nelson. “ I don’t think that we should have English only… I think that America would be a much greater nation if we were more bilingual.” Nelson himself speaks English, Spanish, and Norwegian fluently.

Unlike Spanish I or French I, once students leave EL I, they continue their day at Menlo-Atherton in a language they barely know. Nelson emphasizes that speaking in Spanish to EL students does not do them any favors; in order to fully learn English, they need to continue to speak and hear English from peers and friends in an immersive environment. He encourages regular and AS English students to befriend his EL students, which serves a dual purpose; EL students improve their English, and regular and AS students can improve their Spanish.

A big problem for Nelson is prodding his students to speak more and branch out. “Do we actually have strength in diversity? Part of the reason my Spanish-speaking students are afraid of speaking English is because when they try to speak English, they get laughed at. So they just sit silent, and never say anything. If you never say anything, you’re never developing your language ability.”

Students in his class often choose not to speak or potentially embarrass themselves. “The idea that they are going to learn English by saying 35-40 words in 110 minutes a day is ridiculous.” However, some students have blossomed- “When we truly try to embrace diversity, when we tear down the things that keep people apart, we are bringing in some of the most creative, intelligent, and hardworking students.” Varsity athletes, leads in school plays, ELD students- sometimes, there is no difference.

Nelson began his journey to ELD by teaching both English and Spanish for several years. Then, he moved to Spain with his family. “When we were in Spain, no Spaniard reached out to make my kids feel more welcome,” he says. “We shopped at the equivalent of 7-11 for school supplies because we didn’t know that the equivalent of Target existed. Nobody helped us out.”

While in Spain, Nelson was offered the ELD position. Nelson was thrilled. “My EL classes are my favorite classes. They drive me nuts, but they are absolutely wonderful. I enjoy working with that population of students more than anything.”

While Nelson teaches students English, the students teach him, too. A diverse array of students has taught Nelson to never make assumptions about people and to always be patient.



A student shows her wish list, written in ELD class. Credit: Carla Ferreira.

Carla Ferreira knew that “it was love at first sight” when she interviewed for her ELD and AS English positions at M-A. Ferreira sees her immigrant parents when she looks at her ELD students. Teaching such a worthwhile class helps Ferreira find “meaning and purpose in life.”

The students in EL II are a heterogeneous group. “Many have a more advanced vocabulary and can converse relatively well in English, while others are still learning basic phrases.” EL I and EL II count for high school credit, meaning they get students closer to graduating. However, they do not count for college credit. Ferreira describes the class as a “ticking clock” because she will hopefully get students ready for EL III the next year, which does count towards college requirements.

Integrating all of her students “is an ongoing area of concern for me as a teacher.” EL students do not interact with mainstream students as much as they should, and vice versa. “I often see my AS I students enter class and my ELD students leave… they pass each other with no acknowledgment of the other person.” Ferreira has students in honors English “debate the humanity of undocumented immigrants”. The next period, she teaches undocumented immigrants.

Last year, Ferreira had her “AS I students write letters to the EL students, and the EL students responded back.” For a student not in Ferreira’s class, joining clubs like Intercambio and LUMA can show solidarity, also enabling one to meet and become friends with EL students.

Teaching ELD has been a learning experience for Ferreira. “When we first go in as teachers, we have a lot of ideas, from textbooks and theory and practice we’ve done as student teachers… and then we get our own EL class, and everything gets thrown out the window.” Ferreira compares it to “building the bicycle as you ride it”. Many of her students are still learning how to behave in a classroom; traditional teaching methods don’t always work.

Ferreira’s teaching style is to “present myself as a human being… students really respond to that, across all classes.” She tells her students how much she loves them, and that when they misbehave in class, it hurts her feelings. “They’ve taught me how to become a compassionate teacher,” she says.

“AS I offers me a lot of wonderful intellectual freedom. ELD is the more challenging to teach,” says Ferreira. Each class offers its unique challenges and rewards

“We were all outsiders once,” Ferreira says. This year, she is teaching a class of native Spanish speakers, with one student from Samoa. It’s important for students to realize that not everyone speaks Spanish. Ferreira normally tries to pair up native Spanish speakers with non-natives, in order to bridge the gap. It is hard with just one non-Spanish speaker.

Ferreira’s curriculum involves lots of “news articles and CNN student news.” As a year-long unit, the class is studying Hamilton. “I would say it’s above their level, but they rise. Students tend to rise to your expectations.” By the end of the year, her students wrote essays on Hamilton, a task Ferreira did not think possible.

“It’s seen as left-wing to say that we’re a nation of immigrants, but we really are. It’s a fact.” Ferreira uses the district’s Milestones textbook. A whole chapter is dedicated to the topic of immigration. What’s missing is any mention at all of Central or South American immigration. “It mentions Poland, Ireland… all of Europe. It was relevant, but a long time ago.”

Ferreira makes it clear to students that English is a key to opportunities, but not the only key. “An accent is a sign of bravery- a sign that you’ve left everything you know and are in a new place.” Ferreira does not want to tell her students ‘No Spanish!’, especially when the decision to immigrate was not by choice. “Immersion has limits,” she says. Ferreira wants her students’ bilingualism to feel like a gift.

EL II, like all of the EL classes, has students of all grades. Ferreira’s seniors often go to community college, work, or adult school. Some return to their home countries. If all goes well, her freshmen, sophomores, and juniors go on to EL III, a college prep class.



EL students collaborate on a project. Credit: Carla Ferreira.

Leia Asanuma teaches EL III, the final class of the ELD program before English learners mainstream into ‘benchmark’ English classes. Asanuma began her journey of teaching language while tutoring fellow students in college. She taught overseas in Japan for two years, then at migrant farm communities in Monterey County and Watsonville. “It’s pretty hard to find people who actually have experience teaching English language development,” said Asanuma, and she was hired to teach ELD and AS English at Menlo Atherton.

“The course encompasses reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” Asanuma encourages her students to speak as much English as they can in her class. For the ELA portion, she teaches a foundation of literary technology, like “how to write paragraphs” and essays. This year, Asanuma has kept her role of an ELD teacher but switched from teaching AS I to AS II.

In the past, Asanuma’s class has been very diverse in terms of linguistics and one’s vernacular language. This year, Asanuma is teaching “two Chinese speakers and one Tongan.” By EL III, students are becoming proficient in the English language, and different mother tongues are not as much of an issue.

“I strongly believe that it needs to be full immersion,” says Asanuma. With students of varied cultures and backgrounds, the universal language becomes English. “I have a lot of sentence frames on my walls.” Students often can’t think of a word or phrase in English, and as long as they ask for the meaning in English, Asanuma is fine with the lapse in language.

Asanuma believes that she impacts her students in two major ways: “How to access academic concepts through the vehicle of language… and teaching them how to be students.” As in EL I and EL II, many in Asanuma’s class have had gaps in their education. Part of the role of ELD is acculturation, integrating students into a classroom environment. By EL III, many of them are used to a California school.

Two major lessons students have taught Asanuma are “patience and resilience… They’ve got a lot of heart.” Students have been separated from their families, left behind everything they know. “I’ve really learned from students,” said Asanuma. “They’ve taught me to listen better, too.”

Asanuma’s students also face trouble with integration. She emphasizes the importance of talking to EL students, joining a bridge program to meet others, and helping others. “Sometimes they get a little bit lost in the conversation.” Asanuma likes the idea of a pen pal from a mainstream class to an EL class.

After finishing Asanuma’s class, students go into mainstream classes, usually with a support period as well. After high school, past ELD students have a variety of futures. “Those kids that already have a strong grasp of their primary language, if they have a high level of academic literacy, tend to go to university, often back in their home countries.” Others go on to community college, adult school, or begin working. “It just depends on the stability of the family situation,” says Asanuma.

Asanuma has learned strategies that not only work with EL students but also improve her AS and regular students’ writing and language skills. For her, the best part of teaching ELD is “getting the kids to be confident, and building community.” Asanuma’s class becomes a mini home for her students. “You can see some very real results.”


A student’s story: Luis Franco

Luis Franco, a senior in EL III, reflects on his journey at M-A.

Luis Franco, a senior, has it all planned out. “I want to go to Cañada College, or Foothill because I want to try to learn more about the future.” Franco plans to study architecture and landscaping. His interest in plants comes from his stepfather, who has his own landscaping company.

This year, Franco is taking ELD III. “Ms. Asanuma is my teacher. I’m still learning everything. She teaches me about pronunciation, English, how to write sentences… everything. And every day I speak more English and learn more.” Franco enjoys the class. He improves his English by speaking to friends and family outside of school and classmates.

Freshman and sophomore year, Franco was in EL I, with Mr. Nelson. Junior year, Franco took EL II, and now he is in Asanuma’s class. “We are reading books, papers, histories… a lot of things,” explains Franco. “We write essays, paragraphs. And now we write on Chromebooks. I write [about] my move to this country, how was my experience when I came to the United States. I like to write.”

Franco was born in Guatemala. “I had bad grades, I was a troublemaker, and every day I [fought] with my classmates.” Franco’s mother urged him to join her on a journey to the United States. “I said no… but my grandmother said yes. So I come to the United States.” Franco did not want to go to school in the US; he wanted to work. “But I started a new life in this country.” Franco began studying hard to get to where he is today.

“I come in March 2014, three and a half years ago. I like this country.” Franco misses his grandmother and other family members. “My first year in this school… I didn’t have any friends, no ideas for my classes, but when I came to B-20, Gonzalo helped me a lot.” Inside the student support center, Franco receives help with his schoolwork and makes new friends.

As a member of leadership, Franco went to the Welcome Back dance and homecoming. “I want to go to prom, too,” he says. Franco is also in the yearbook elective and the Dream Club, where he meets new friends and practices his English. “My first year in this country was terrible because I was shy.” Now, with his wide group of peers across many different interests, Franco is a much better English speaker.

“I speak with the white kids and they teach me pronunciation…. I help them with their Spanish,” Franco joked. “For me, this school is the best because of how they help me… the teachers, how they make levels for [ELD]. In Asanuma’s class, Franco and his peers speak only English. “She wants us to learn our pronunciation, how to make sentences. Every day she push, push, push for us to learn more.”

Franco used to work at the restaurant Sakura, in downtown Redwood City. Now, he is choosing to focus more on studying and improving his English. On Saturdays, Franco works with his stepfather’s landscaping company. “He helped me know what plants mean, and kinds of grass and trees… a lot of things.”

Along with support services and electives, ELD has helped Franco become a more confident and comprehensive English speaker. His journey at M-A has transformed him into a new person. Franco’s parting words, “I like to learn about everything,” were said with a smile.

Sarah Marks is a senior. This is her third year as a journalism student. She looks to continue writing news and sports articles as well as expand and write about issues in the school and surrounding communities.

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