Community & Hope: Teaching Refugees and Immigrants after Hurricane Harvey

I’m writing this blog on the floor of an empty house in Northwest Houston. Hurricane Harvey has finally moved off to the east. (satellite image from

I’ve had days of being on high alert, with rising waters, constant tornado warnings, helicopters and boats rescuing people around us.  Waters are still rising at my house but we are relocated now. My nerves were shot for a few days and we are now about to start the long process of dealing with the aftermath of the storm.  But right now, before dawn, I want to reflect and plan how I will help my students process all of this when we return to school next week.

I have an interesting group of students for a situation like this. I am a newcomer teacher so I teach students who have recently relocated to our city.  My NELD classes (Newcomer English Language Development) are students who were attending U.S. schools for only a few days when this hurricane struck. Many are coming from places of war, where they were displaced from their homes and had finally found a place to feel safe and out of harm’s way.  The irony.  Others have moved to Houston for a better life from Latin American countries and still, others have relocated here with family because my school is located in an Oil and Gas corridor.

So what will I do for my class?

I’m still deciding on all the particulars of the lessons but I know what my overarching theme will be for this first unit. Community and Hope.


My principal, Chad Crowson, just sent a heartfelt email to the staff to let us know that we are supported by him and the district.

2017-18 is about community.  It’s about a group of people coming together to support one another in a time of great need.  Stratford is not just a school.  Stratford is people – administrators, teachers, counselors, staff members, students, families, and community members – working together.  Stratford High School will not be defeated by a hurricane.  We’re too strong for that.  We’ll be better because of this.”

I’m so grateful for his leadership. If I carry this message into my classroom and make sure the students hear it loud and clear, I’ve done what all teachers want to do. I have opened my heart to my students so they might lower their walls of anxiety and uncertainty. Our classes must always be a place of refuge.  No matter what is happening in that child’s life, they need to feel safe with us.

So I will start by telling them that I am so grateful. My situation is one of inconvenience only. Our home has not taken on any water yet but as of today, it is still inching toward the door.  This could still change but we are gone from that house and safe.  My mother’s home was not so lucky. She is safe and staying with us.  But I will show them these pictures of her home from Sunday.

We will review the facts that Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, was brought to its knees after days and days of torrential downpours. Catastrophic flooding took so much from our neighbors and friends. I will allow any student to share what they might have lost or how they count themselves lucky.  No forced sharing and native language is fine. My home is located near them. It is right by the school.  We lost power, and the school is located dangerously close to Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which are at their limits and flooding neighborhoods around them today. (Reservoirs are outlined in green on in this image.)   By the time we are back in school, we will have more information about that situation to discuss.  It is worth showing the students how and why the reservoirs were established and how Hurricane Harvey affected this system.

When we go back to school I may still be staying in this empty house.  Going on the 2nd day of no power, and the threat of the dams near us, we left our home yesterday to take refuge in our old house about 10 miles away. We are in the process of selling this house so we can stay here for 2 weeks. It is empty but it has running water, electricity and wonderful friends who brought us bedding, chairs, a folding table and other necessities.  Again, our situation is a very comfortable one compared to many.  My husband and son are separated from us because the airports are shut down but I’m confident they will be back with us by next week and I can share that while we were very scared, we kept hope that we would be reunited soon.

Our district provided us with this link that includes lessons and resources for our families. I will definitely share these with the students and inquire about their own needs for shelter, food, and assistance.  Houston is responding in a strong way to each other.  Our mayor promised to personally defend undocumented immigrants who may be hesitant to seek assistance.   What a wonderful thing for all of our students to hear. They should know how their leadership feels about every resident of the city.


Once everyone has had a chance to share, and I feel that it is a safe time to do so, I want to draw on a feeling and mindset that many of us shared through this disaster: the feeling of hope. In that, we can discuss the feeling when you think that there is no hope. I want to honor their real situations and feelings. But most importantly, I want to bring it around to the real effects when you do have hope. I want to impart the strong power of hope to all of them.

Over the past few days, I was continually struck by the lift in spirit we would get when family or friends reached out to us. Many offered help for which I am so grateful. But even just messages of concern had a strong effect.

I feel as if our city was just taken through a huge, horrific empathy project for other displaced people in the world. There is so much we can learn if we draw parallels to what is happening to refugees and others. I think it will be good for my students to know that you can make a difference for refugees in many ways.

The UNCHR reports that 65.3 million people are currently displaced from their homes due to conflict or persecution. 

What Can We Do?

I can’t help but make this connection and discuss it with my own children at home.  We see these heart breaking images of families in Houston being rescued by boats and losing everything they have.  But we have to take some comfort in the fact that if they survived this storm, they are being rescued.  Even while some in our city waited on rooftops for the boats to come, they had at least the hope that a boat WAS coming.

That is not the case for so many people in the world right now.  I have students who spent so many years without running water or electricity.  I have a student who was in a Burundi refugee camp without these things for 11 years.  Others that escaped war, persecution, and denial of education to finally come here. How will their perspective add to the collective knowledge and understanding of our class?

And what about the feelings of despair that my students have for family and others that are still in camps or seeking a place of refuge?  We will discuss ways that we can authentically contribute to the problem.  Last year, my students drew pictures and wrote letters of encouragement to children in refugee camps.  This may seem simple but sending out some type of support message is something we can all do tomorrow.  A friend delivered some of our letters said that the messages made such an impact on the people there.  The children in the camp were in awe that children on the other side of the world were pulling for them.  Matthew Garder, a friend, recently recounted a story to me by the actress Arta Dobroshi who was a refugee in a camp in Kosovo. She tells the story of when Richard Gere came there. She couldn’t get to him but just knowing he was there gave her so much hope. And of course, now, she uses her influence to help others as a Goodwill Ambassador. Hope.

Letting refugees know that we stand with them is an opportunity I will give my students again this year because I am keenly aware of the tremendous impact it can have. These messages and gestures of concern can affect the life of the person in need of help…and they also bring hope to the sender.

I will also let them brainstorm other ways we can help.  One of my classes recorded videos of their learning.

The videos show the students learning quickly, some going from non-literate to reading and writing in English and point out teaching strategies and reflections from the students. Those are shared publically in hopes that UN teachers and students in makeshift camp schools can benefit.

We will also look at what others are doing for refugees.  I am so fortunate to know about Techfugees and I will be introducing it to my students next week.   Moved by the plight of refugees in Europe, a number of technology industry people have formed a voluntary team  (which includes Matthew mentioned above) to create the series of non-profit “Techfugees” conferences, hackathons, and work with a global network of collaborators. The U.S. efforts are headed up by Andlib Shah who I had the good fortune to meet and thank at SXSW last year. (See photo)  

I’m grateful to Techfugees because they may not realize the reach of their efforts. Just knowing about this effort gave my immigrant students SO MUCH HOPE over the past two years.  A 24 hour live event by Techfugees founder Mike Butcher, Editor-at-large of TechCrunch and next to me in the photo, was the catalyst for using technology in my classroom. That shift in pedagogy has had a profound impact on the lives of my students and their families.  And they will be happy to know that Mike and the rest of the Techfugee team are pulling for us.

Techfugees helps us see that there is hope. There is always hope.

Back to Us Locally & Our Classrooms

I think it is important to go over community and hope in a global sense because that is what will make all of this more than just lip service to our  newcomer students.  If you are not in Houston, you can still use the events to help your students do the lesson ideas in this post.  Many of my students are not refugees but these conversations are growing all of our students as global learners. Point out Empathy, Grit, Resilience and Growth Mindset. These are character traits all students can use if we want them to be successful in life.

Here in Houston, we have so much community and so much hope.  My students are likely affected by this disaster.  I am grateful to be in a city where we are rising up to help anyone that is in need. People are leaving their homes right now, at 5:30 in the morning to volunteer at shelters, donate clothes and food and help our families rebuild.  We also have the assistance of people from around the world with many funds coming in from kind hearted people far and wide and our residents are ready to make good use of it.  We are so very fortunate.

At some point we will list all the acts of kindness we see in our city right now like Free Ice from H Mart, the Korean grocer.

Or the Mexican bakers who were trapped for days at El Bollio Bakery and used their time to bake bread for victims of the flood. We have so many everyday heroes around us. We have so much hope. All of this can be captured in shared writing with Language Experience Approach so my newcomers can be reading and writing and speaking in English that same day with content that is compelling, culturally responsive and relevant to them.

My wish for next week is that my students feel a strong sense of community in my classroom, in our school and in their new city.  I also want to drive home the fact that no matter what the situation, what people need most, is hope. If a person has hope, they will keep moving forward.  And moving forward is what we all need to be doing.


Newcomer Teachers’ Guide to a Strong Start

 I’m always scared at the beginning of the year! I worry that I won’t be able to meet all the needs of my new students.  I know this is silly because faith in them and high expectations are the two things they need the most. And we have that covered!

Image result for languagesAlso, many newcomer teachers agree that we have the most grateful students in the building. That is worth remembering if you are feeling nervous.

So no need to be scared!  But still, I like to be sure I am setting up a classroom culture that honors each child and maximizes every instructional minute.  Here are my non-negotiables for the beginning of the year… and oh! We do these with a lot of native language support to ensure comprehension and allow the students to reflect freely about these important topics:

Social Contract Created by the Students

It’s critical that none of the norms are created by me. But I usually have to ask them to be more specific than “respect.”  I might offer examples and non-examples such as tossing books at each other or laughing at someone who is taking a risk.  These are the questions we use which were told to me by someone who attended a Flippen Group training, Capturing Kids Hearts.

  • How do you want to be treated by your peers?
  • How do you think your peers want to be treated by you?
  • How do you want to be treated by your teacher?
  • How do you think your teacher wants to be treated by you?



Also, Dana Baker Larrick offered me these ppt slides that I used with my 2nd year students. Worked great!

Create a “Banish IDK” Poster with the Students

I start with three questions that will allow any student to participate as soon as they are ready.  Questions like these support our English learners in other classes and in their daily life.


Selfie Kahoots

We play a Kahoot I’ve made about myself on Day 1. They then get planning pages to bring in one question about themselves so we can make a class #SelfieKahoot.


There are many more ideas for Back-to-School Kahoots here.  I also have many Kahoot ideas on this site and you can find ESL Kahoot ideas in these blogs on Kahoot’s website.

At least One Structured Conversation with A New Classmate.

This quick video shows one of my newcomer classes on the very first day this week.  We practiced the frame and all were willing to read this frame from their name tent.  “My name_____. My family is from _______ and I speak ______.”  It is a little awkward as it is Day 1 but we are setting the norm of finding and working with different partners in the room.

This is not too bad for the first day! By the end of the year, everyone is very comfortable with one another.  In fact, I get a lot of buy-in from the students by showing them videos of our students the year before. 

They see that everyone is following the Social Contract and they are all collaborating.  When I didn’t have recent video of my own students, I used this video of Gerson Bermudez.  

Your students can analyze the behavior and progress of the students in my class. I have many here.

Through all of this, and throughout the year, I am explaining the brain friendliness of the activities, and also stressing metacognitive strategies so they begin thinking about their thinking. They need to know that it will be easy to speak and understand English in the Newcomer class. And that the more they engage, the faster their progress will be.

I had so many things planned for my first week and we only got to a fraction of them.  No matter. My main goal was to make sure students knew that I was happy to have them in my class. That goal was met.

Have a great back to school season!


The Power of Compelling Text & Easy Tech for ESL & SIFE + Week 5 Questions

No more baby books, please.  If we want our students to become better readers, we must hook them into reading for pleasure.   We must find ways to support emergent readers as well as on-level readers to continue reading.  The power of reading (more and more reading) is profound for mainstream students, for newcomers, and for SIFE (students with interrupted formal education).   Every student needs to learn to read, but older students do not need to do it with baby books.

I am always on the look out for text that might be compelling for my newcomers.  This blog post by Emily Francis was a powerful text to use for shared reading.  

The short video below shows some of my students’ reactions to Emily’s story. She has a few blog posts that work well so we read them over several days.  The recording of the video took place at the end of the school year so many of my newcomers had basic English to express their thoughts.  But some were brand new to the class.

My post last week discusses the importance of compelling input for second language acquisition. (Krashen 2011)  Emily’s story is certainly compelling.

This week we look at how this compelling story can help us with foundations of literacy.  Tracking print is what makes this activity powerful for emergent readers. It is offering them exposure to sight words and opportunities to build phonological awareness.

Technology use is simple here: I recorded my voice reading the blog on my phone. This is important so that I am able to walk around and monitor students’ ability to track the print. It allows me to analyze the behaviors of the class and to process the text with them if I am not reading while they track the print.

Every student benefits from exposure to words in context.  Still, we must differentiate for our more advanced reader.  For those students, this text is still appropriate because it is the message of the story that is important.  As a teacher, I have set a purpose for reading. We are reading about real people who have overcome challenges such as ours. But we can easily be also looking for setting, author’s purpose, theme or other grade-level standards.

I hope you can see how using narratives like Emily’s can absolutely develop foundational literacy but they are also culturally responsive and can help our newest students develop a growth mindset.

This padlet has many narratives that can be powerful for teaching reading to learners who are SIFE.

Content area teachers may consider this practice of tracking print for textbook passages, primary source documents, or word problems.  My suggestion is that you incorporate the strategy with a Talk, Read, Talk, Write approach keeping in mind that you’ll want to stop more frequently for more complex text or less compelling themes.

Hope you give them a try!


All questions for weeks 1-5 can be found on the book study landing page.

Part IV of Boosting Achievement:  Implementing a Practical Approach to Instruction  (Answer some of these, all of these or none of these. We welcome all ideas, reflections & insight!)

5Q1) p. 64 This section opens with examples of tasks that SIFE are capable of doing.  Illustrating is one example. Drawing my understanding of democracy is more cognitively demanding than repeating what my teacher just said about it…or choosing an answer from a multiple choice test.  What is another way that a pre-literate language learner might show you his knowledge on a subject? Do you have anything else to share on this?

5Q2)  p. 65 – 67 Structured conversations are key learning opportunities in any classroom.  Why are opportunities to participate in structured talk are critical for SIFE?  These pages show examples of ways to support and structure conversations.  Please share thoughts or any more that you could add to these.

5Q3)  p.72 This is a memory of a difficult to reach student, asking for more reading material.  It shouldn’t have been such a surprise because we can remind ourselves that every child wants to learn.  Have you ever had a hard-to-reach student show you their desire to learn? What do you think made the difference for that child?

5Q4)  p. 73 & 74  Balanced Literacy: These two pages attempt to offer a high-level overview of the balanced literacy approach.  Most secondary teachers (and even upper elementary teachers) do not get training in balanced literacy. Is any of this new learning for you?  Rephrase or respond to the parts of this overview that stood out to you the most.

5Q5) p. 75.  But what if they can’t read in their native language?  And we are in high school?? Read page 75 and respond to this question.  Use some of the facts mentioned about SIFE learning to read. Please add additional considerations or thoughts you have about things we should keep in mind.

5Q6) p. 76-p 81. These pages explain different activities that scaffold reading so that SIFE can get access to grade-level text while they are learning to decode print.  Watch the two short videos (  and and then look over the activities again.   Besides a newfound growth mindset, what practical reading strategies on these pages may have contributed to Nabil’s gains in reading?  Why do you think that?

5Q7)  p.  82 Language Experience Approach: What are your thoughts about ESL teachers using this approach for reading and writing instruction of SIFE? Revisit the components of the balanced literacy approach on p 74.  Which best practices from p. 74 are carried out when we use an LEA approach?

5Q8) These final pages of the book are worth deep reflection.  Please reflect on:

  • 85: It is a written reflection of the video  We looked at how the activity propelled his reading, now reflect on how authentic writing was supported.
  • 86-87  The writing process for SIFE.  This process is best practice for helping any student learn to write authentically.  What are the implications for our SIFE learners?  Do you think their basic writing skills will improve if we allow them to participate in grade-level writing with support?
  • 90 – 91.  SIFE need many opportunities to write with support in every class. Benefits of writing in content areas is not limited to the SIFE population.  How is writing in math, science, social studies practical for SIFE while boosting achievement of the entire class?


That’s a Wrap! Almost….

Thank you for completing this book study.  Your work is so important. It can inform our collective knowledge as we study how to best support learners who may have been away from formal education for some period of time.

In writing this book, we received a great deal of help from our colleagues and our online professional learning network.  I ask that you join us so that you can add your voice to the conversation.  We use the hashtag #BoostingAchievement so as to be able to collect and review all that people are saying about this topic.  Your unique perspective can only add to what we know and how we think about education.  We hope you’ll help us keep the conversation going!

Carol Salva

@MsSalvaC on Twitter



Anna Matis

@AnnaTeachesELLs on Twitter


Compelling Desire for Assessed Standards? Step by Step for the ESL Field Trip

As an ESL teacher, we know that our students must produce the target language to acquire the target language.  I love Stephen Krashen’s Compelling Input Hypothesis which suggests students need reading material that is not just interesting, it needs to be compelling.  I have seen this happen in my classroom and I am also noticing that my newcomers will produce more English when the desire for output is compelling.

We are near the end of the 2nd semester now.  Quite a few newcomers have developed intermediate or advanced speaking skills and listening comprehension is advanced for most of my class.  They are more comfortable taking risks and so it is a perfect time to do a study trip. These students will need to take a US History state exam to receive a diploma.  So I am looking for compelling units of study that also align to their state standards.  My hope is to generate compelling desire for output with US History so that the students have an authentic desire to produce the language.

This is where our trip to Varner-Hogg Plantation comes in.  This was our only study trip this year but a lot of language acquisition and background knowledge were acquired before we arrived at the historic site.  This was not difficult at all.  We watched the video on the Texas Historical Commission’s site and I allowed the students to translate pages into their native language for discussion.  I also made a Kahoot with facts about the history of the plantation from the site. The history of our first colonists in Mexican Texas, the revolution, slavery & the civil war are concepts that are generally covered in middle school.  So my newcomers would not have that background.  I appreciate how much we could cover in a short period of time that lead right up to what they should be studying in US History now.  We are already discussing the indentured servants, the civil rights movement, the cattle industry and more as they relate to this historic site in our area.

The students are finding so many parallels in history to what they have experienced or what has happened in their countries.  All of this, plus a chance to ask their questions, created very high engagement and a compelling desire for output.

This 3 minute video will show  you some of our day.  The students were on their phones, sure.  They were snapping pictures and taking notes and many sent me pictures so I made this video with our combined collection. It is worth noting that one of the students asking a question in the video arrived 2 days ago.  He relied on translations of what he was hearing but I’m excited about all the grade level learning he was doing. His language will come as it is for all of these students and even our brand new student was building background for state assessed history concepts.

I would encourage ESL teachers to review standards that are being taught in content classes so that you can use what makes sense in your ESL classroom.  If you are unable to plan with content teachers, they might provide you with their scope and sequence, their standards to be covered or you may be able to find this information on your own (ie: Common Core standards, TEKS, etc.).

Our main priority is to teach English speaking, reading, writing and listening skills.  But if  you can make science, math or history compelling to your students, it will benefit them greatly to learn English within a unit that incorporates those standards.

Step by Step for an Awesome ESL Field Trip

Step One – Understand Content Curriculum. You can ask your content teachers, curriculum folks or look online.

Step Two: Get to know your students and their stories.  You will want to pick a venue that has some relevance for your students.  Historical sites are great for culturally responsive teaching.

Step Three:  Set the field trip out a few months to work in literacy practice.  Shared reading & read alouds with content area text books, curriculum materials and web information.

Step Four: Create & teach with a Kahoot about the venue.  You can review with this same Kahoot a few times.  10 facts about the venue introduced through a Kahoot is a great way to build anticipation and background.

Step Five: Translanguage!  Use their entire repertoire of language to learn about the venue. Any website in Google Chrome can be translated with a right-click.

Step Six:  Look for volunteers.  Use this video! It’s hokey but effective to send out to the community:

Step Seven: Practice, practice, practice the authentic questions your students have about the venue.  Offer them the correct English and model pronunciation.  Lots of role playing and practicing on sentence strips or any way to help them get comfortable with what they want to ask on the big day.

Step Eight: Don’t demand that they use English on the entire trip.  Ask that they use their English question but allow native language exploration.  Students should have a great deal of academic and basic language about the venue at this point.  The day will reinforce all of the learning.  (The day is just icing on the cake.  Much of the learning has already happened.)

Step Nine:  Debrief and write!  There will be lots of shared experience now to be able to write together and on their own.

Be open to any opportunities to help them make connections and keep your expectations for them very high!

Thanks for reading about our adventures.  Can’t believe it’s almost year end!  Let’s finish strong!


PS:  Need more support? Contact Kathy Ballenger, Director of Operations at Seidlitz Education.

SIFE, Beginners & Intermediates Reading at Grade Level: Differentiation Idea

We can teach high school Newcomers at grade level in most classes. Sometimes we just need to get them excited about the topic. Check out this 3 min video that will show you the incredible results of newcomers preparing for an author visit.  There are 4 readers in this video. The young man is SIFE. He reads from this page. It is incredible that he lost 4 years of schooling in Jordan and began reading in English 8 months ago:

Note in the video that all of my students are tracking print.  Even my brand-new students can begin engaging with English print this way.  My English reading selections can be on anything so why not align them to their content standards?  I looked for documents that supported the story and the historical time period.

And now the day has arrived!

Tomorrow we will host author Dr. Paul Spellman.  We hope he likes the video.  Paul has written several books on Texas History which may peak the interest of some of our teachers down here in the Lone Star State.

But I teach high school this year and our focus needs to be US & World History.  NO problem! My friend Bryan McAuley at the Texas Historical Commission introduced me to Dr. Spellman because he just wrote and amazing book, Until I Come Home. The book is an entertaining and informative true love story of Dallas socialite Vera Diamond and Cherokee born Roscoe Chittim.

Paul will come and do some storytelling tomorrow! And we are ready because there were many, many pages that I could use for shared reading with the students.  These excerpts were an excellent way to draw my newcomers into US and World Geography as well as key events leading up to, during and after WWI.

If you know me, you know that I created a Kahoot about all this. With the help of this high interest (compelling) text, they know more than the love story.  The Kahoot covers the Zimmerman telegram from Germany that prompted the US to enter the war, the number of US troops sent overseas to fight, the Treaty of Versailles and more.  Feel free to play it here:


No, I am not their history teacher.  But I certainly use content to teach language.   And I hope our content teachers are seeing the payoff when they do the opposite.

(ie: Use language to teach their content.)




I will likely update this post with pictures of Paul’s visit. I will certainly share the pictures on twitter (@MsSalvaC).  They should be very special.  Many of my students are bringing their lunch in order to spend just a little more time with this author!

Thanks for reading and for your interest in ELs!


Helping ELLs Feel the Love

We wish it were not so, but many of our ELLs are feeling negativity right now.  More than ever, we need to share ideas to help our students feel welcomed, safe and loved.  They need to see examples of the people that are on their side.  Today’s post is my example.  It is a simple lesson but an effective one.

Content Objective: I will determine the theme of a text by summarizing the central message into one sentence.

Language Objective: I will write using newly acquired vocabulary.


So today we made Valentines.  (This could be done as a Random Acts of Kindness lesson any time of year.) We first went over a few more paragraphs in Michelle Obama’s Farewell speech for theme.

Thanks to Ms. McHale, awesome Eng III teacher, we had the text version of this so we could adapt her lesson for my newcomers.  We are just chorally reading the speach and discussing meaning/theme of each paragraph.  More on her speech & where I got the above photo here:

For paragraph 2 & 3, we decided that Ms. Obama wanted us to know that diversity is what makes our country great and that we all have a place here.

Then we reviewed a bit about Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had some great quotes about love so we made some connections to current events and history.  These are the ones we used:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness.  Only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”  

“I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”  

We then looked for examples of love and kindness around us.  1) The school newspaper did a very positive article on our class.   2) Parent Teacher Student Assn just named Ms. Salva their nominee for the School Bell award because “she makes our ESL program so welcoming.”  We all felt like that was very kind. 3) We also have volunteers coming a lot now.  Everyone agreed that they make us feel loved.

So we made a huge valentine for our school & community.

I was amazed at how the students worked on these and other valentines to deliver to people.  They used the English phrases we practiced.  Many used the MLK quotes.  But most importantly, they smiled and laughed and they felt good.

I love this comment on my Facebook page I just saw from one of the students.

“Today is a great day.”   Yes. Yes it is.

Thank you for reading through to the end.  And thank you for sharing love for ELLs and with ELLs.