Stephanie Grasso: Coach and English Language Specialist
About the Author
With over twelve years of teaching experience, Stephanie calls herself a teacher at heart, and by trade. Her background ranges from adult learners to adolescents, and from college campuses to middle school classrooms. After spending time in schools across the country, Stephanie has found that all students demonstrate a desire for growth, showing that whether in New York, or California, the students she has worked with are more alike, than not.
Stephanie’s expertise is integrating English language learning and literacy into content area curriculum with a focus on new English language learners and students with academic language needs. She has spent the majority of her career working with newly-arrived immigrants, SLIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education), and teachers who work with these populations.
Currently, Stephanie is an independent consultant affiliated with organizations such as The Institute for Student Achievement, where she supports schools with high immigrant populations and diverse learners. Her expertise is curriculum development and instructional support for ELLs. She has degrees from UCLA, Tulane University and completed the Biligual and ESL Teacher Leadership Academy at Bank Street College.
It is a privilege to have interviewed Stephanie, who was my coach when I first began working at the English Language Learners International Support Preparatory Academy (ELLIS). While I had worked with English learners prior to teaching at ELLIS, I did not fully understand what it would mean to work at an Internationals school. Stephanie was a resource I could turn to supporting me through that first year. I remember meeting with her after class many times and telling her: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not doing anything right.” She would listen, validate my feelings and then remind me that I did in fact know what I was doing and her job was to support me. Stephanie helped me build resources and better understand the needs of my students. When I told her I started Stories of SLIFE, and wanted to feature her, she jumped at the chance to get involved. In fact, when I told her I wasn’t even sure Stories of SLIFE was worthwhile she replied that it was “definitely worthwhile”. Here are her thoughts on educating ELLs/SLIFE.
How did you begin working with ELLs?
I began working with ELLs by coincidence. I was teaching foreign language in a Middle School for my first year with the Teaching Fellows in New York City, and my principal asked me to support the ELLs in the 6th and 7th grades. I began to see how they struggled to receive needed supports from their teachers, so my colleague set up a meeting with a NYC Network Support Specialist, Norma Vega, who became my future boss. After that initial meeting, she suggested that I visit Bronx International High School - a school that is a part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools. I was so impressed by the staff, the school and the way in which students of all backgrounds and languages were learning together at once. When I found out Norma was opening a new school called ELLIS Preparatory Academy in the following fall, I applied for the position as the English Language Arts teacher. My journey in understanding ELL students truly began at ELLIS.
Can you talk about what has been most challenging and most rewarding working with this population (both ELLs in general and SLIFE specifically)?
The most challenging part of working with ELLs is their transience. Working closely with students, you see their potential, but many times because of home circumstances, they either miss school frequently or need to move after resettling in the US. This isn't the case for many students, but it can be difficult to watch for those students who you know could go so far but don't continue their studies because of a need to work, support family, etc. With SLIFE this is often compounded with challenging home circumstances. They are playing a game of catch-up at school. If they don't see their language and academic progress, SLIFE students can become easily discouraged and disheartened, leading to extended absences or even leaving school. Getting SLIFE students to see how small gains lead to a larger arc of growth is both the key and the challenge.
What have you found most effective when working with both teachers and students?
What I find most effective with teachers is showing them how to plan by using large concepts as the base for units, such as family, love, peace, survival, etc. These large concepts become the base for which all materials, essential questions, and activities, stem from in order to support students in both language and content understanding. I use this larger concept as a key vocabulary word at the beginning of units and have students connect themselves and their lives to this anchor word. This helps students access prior knowledge, develop background understanding about content and new vocabulary simultaneously. From there, more detailed understanding can begin. Without this base, many times units seem disjointed, abstract and unanchored.
Can you talk about policies/laws in place that have made it difficult to educate these kids and what policies you think we might need?
Overall, the state laws and federal laws to have SIFE students graduate in 4-5 years is unreasonable for most students with interrupted formal schooling. They are essentially outdated - ill-fitting for a population that is shifting. We need continued advancement on policies to support SLIFE student’s education, graduation and future job training.
Do you think SLIFE students (and ELLs in general) are receiving equitable education? Why or why not?
I think that administrators and educators are starting to understand that ELLs have different needs than their Native English speaking peers, but without well-trained staff to support ELLs and SLIFE students, I think it's challenging to say that all schools and districts provide equitable education environments and opportunities for ELLs. For example, I consult with a school that has seen a huge surge of ELL students over the past two years, but not all teachers were trained to support these students when they began to arrive. Along with the ENL (English as a New Language, according to NY State classifications) teachers, developed professional development and coaching modules to train teachers on how to support ELLs with differentiation and Native Language support throughout the content areas. They as a staff have made great gains within the last 1.5 years but there is always more to be done, particularly with students (and teachers) who struggle the most.
Within our education system, SLIFE students usually suffer the most as there may be one staff member trained to support that student but the majority of teachers do not understand their needs. It's not for lack of effort many times but rather lack of information and training about SLIFE students.
We have my books published that talk about how to help ELLs in the classroom, and recently more books about how to help SLIFE students as well as more professional development to train teachers - do you think this will be enough to help students graduate? why or why not and can you elaborate. (This may connect to the previous two questions).
Books are very supportive - teachers need constructive ways to create curriculum and practical solutions in the classroom. On-the-job coaching is one of the best ways that will help teachers develop classrooms and curriculum that are adaptive to SLIFE students and their needs.
What do you hope for our country going forward for these students?
I hope that the country as a whole will begin to develop the mindset that someone with a different language and set of life experiences is a value to our society. In order to truly evolve, we must move towards more educator and administrator training on SLIFE. If we learn that celebrating education, cultural and language differences in schools, we will be able to evolve past exclusion in our society as a whole.