Spreading Kindness to ELL Students

Over the past few years, there has been an influx of different cultures and ethnicities move to the Millcreek Township School District with many of them learning English as another language (ELL). From El Salvador, Ukraine, Turkey, Bosnia and more, there are so many different cultures and languages spoken in the halls of McDowell. With the ELL classroom recently gaining additional members, it’s a very important time to include and respect these new peers.

With eight new students coming into the ELL classroom this school year, seven of those from Ukraine and one from El Salvador, McDowell students might be hesitant to interact with the students who do not speak English.

Sarah Granahan, McDowell’s English Language Learner teacher, explains, “I think coming to conversations with them from a place of curiosity makes us quick to think that they don’t want to talk to us, they can’t talk to us or we can’t talk with them. But a lot of them at this point do know some conversational English.”

Being nonjudgmental and accepting is one of the greatest tools you can use to help new students adjust to McDowell’s learning environment. With having ten different languages being represented in both McDowell Intermediate and McDowell Senior High School, it is especially important to remain open-minded to their situations and realize how intimidating it might be to understand others around them.

“I think that Gen Z especially does a good job of this because they, in general, are more globally minded than generations before,” Granahan says. So far, McDowell students have been seen doing a good job with communicating and helping new ELL students. “I think it’s a very positive environment and that just shows the students here are very empathetic people.” Granahan says. “I’ve been really impressed with how McDowell students see an ELL student sitting alone at lunch, invite them over, make the effort to talk to them on Google translate, or even just say ‘Hello’ to them in class every day.”

She continues to explain how it wouldn’t hurt to go up to international students and ask how they’re doing or just to say, “Hello,” because even with a language barrier, simple conversations will always be understood. It helps the new students to view McDowell as a friendly home where they can feel safe and comfortable.

Some may even come from war-torn countries like Ukraine. These students have come into the district to escape the war between Russia and Ukraine, adding another layer of empathy that students need to take into consideration when trying to help ELL students adjust properly.

Radislava Titarenko and Ella Burlakova are two Ukrainian ELL students who have recently enrolled at McDowell. “Some teachers, when they ask me where I’m from, and I answer with ‘I’m from Ukraine’ start to talk to me about their Russian friends. Like please, I don’t want to hear about Russia!” Burlakova says.

She also explains how students have been nice so far and have been engaging in small conversations or making sure to say “Hi” in the classroom. Burlokova says the positive environment has allowed her to learn and socialize.

“For me especially, my teachers will make sure that I understand what they are saying.” Burlokova says.

Ramiro Rodriguez Hernandez, a new ELL student who came from EL Salvador, also talks about his experience at McDowell so far. “It can be a little hard at times.” Hernandez states how working in groups has helped him learn and talk with others in at McDowell.

Of course, new cultures will always bring new perceptions and people may be quick to judge or put a stigma on immigrant students, which leads to potential outcasting and bullying. Granahan explains that she doesn’t think students do this on purpose, “but I think everybody no matter what country you are from are quick to judge. We all have internal biases that we always need to examine and think about in general.”

So far, teachers have been observing McDowell students and have been seeing them doing a great job in spreading kindness around the building towards ELL students and befriending them so easily which is nice to see. “I’ve worked in other schools where students are not as welcoming as they are here, so a big thank you to everyone who’s been so kind,” Granahan says.

It’s easy for people to make assumptions and to be scared to speak with new students so it’s crucial to understand that we need to show new members of the community love and support as they are going through rough times. “I encourage all the McDowell students to take a moment to try and talk to somebody in your class who might not know English yet,” Granahan says. “Include them in a casual conversation even if it’s just something very simple like asking how they’re doing. They might be somebody you really get along with, but you’ll never know if you don’t reach out to them.”

If you are looking to learn some simple phrases to start communicating with ELL students at McDowell, look for online apps and find a video on how to say some basic greetings. Or sometimes a simple smile can let someone know you are open to learning more about them.