English Language Learners and the School Library

As of July 1, 2016, all Massachusetts educators will need 15 PDPs in teaching English Language Learners (and 15 PDPs in teaching students with disabilities and diverse learning styles) in order to renew a license or advance to another level of certification.  These new requirements have caused confusion and consternation throughout the Commonwealth, but for librarians, it’s pretty simple. Because we are not considered “core academic teachers,” we do not need the 45-hour SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) endorsement course required for our colleagues who teach core subjects and who have English Language Learners (ELLs) in their classes. All we will need for renewing or advancing a license after July 1, 2016, is the 15 PDPs in teaching ELLs. For new teachers getting a core academic license for the first time, the SEI endorsement is required, and will be offered through approved teacher training programs.

The new program for educating English Language Learners is called RETELL: Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners. As of 2012, RETELL has changed the way the way teachers are trained and students are taught, and is the result of a ruling by the U.S. Department of Justice against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For students, RETELL means they will have access to ESL instruction by a certified ESL teacher, as well as sheltered content instruction in their regular classes. For teachers, RETELL requires training related to English Language Learners in demographics, socio-cultural issues, second language acquisition, teaching academic language, and literacy development.

The school library is an important place for students learning English as a Second Language (ESL), and it can play a significant role in ensuring their academic success. The obvious reason for its relevance in educating ELLs is the wealth of library resources that support the process of learning a new language: books, multi-media, databases, technology–the tools for learning. Developing a strong resource collection that reflects the multilingual, multicultural backgrounds of students is the first step librarians can take in sending a message of acceptance and inclusion to ELLs. Beyond physical resources, library programming can offer students and their families support in navigating a new language and culture. School libraries are finding innovative ways to include ELLs in library activities throughout the school day, and some libraries are providing after-school ESL classes and other outreach to families and the wider community.

In a workshop at the 2014 MSLA spring conference, members shared personal experiences about their work with English Language Learners in the school library. They offered suggestions for running successful programs that benefit both students and families, as well as strategies for assisting faculty members in their respective schools. These ideas, as well as helpful websites for ESL materials, games, and general information, are included in an MSLA ELL Resource List that can be shared with teachers and administrators in members’ districts.

Understanding the linguistic and emotional needs of the ELL population, and learning ways to adapt library lessons for English Language Learners, are important skills for school librarians to develop– even though librarians are not considered “core academic” teachers. To build these skills, librarians need access to professional development that addresses the role of the library and the librarian in educating ELLs and assisting faculty.

Over the past year, MSLA has studied the issue of professional development for librarians with regard to ELLs, and has identified some key areas that should be covered in any training for library staff. In addition to a basic understanding of RETELL and its implications for teachers and students, librarians must also understand the role of the Common Core State Standards and the CCSS expectations for English Language Learners. In order to make the necessary adjustments to teaching practice required by both RETELL and the CCSS, librarians will need access to appropriate training. MSLA is working to support this effort by helping to plan both online and classroom-based courses that will fulfill the new PDP requirements for license renewal or advancement.  The first 15-hour class for school librarians will run in March-April at the EDCO Collaborative facility in Bedford, MA.

Whether a school has just a handful of ELLs or a significant ELL population, the library can play a critical role in smoothing the transition for these students. Because of its physical resources, its human resources (the awesome school librarian!), and its status as a “third place,” the school library is in a unique position to support the academic, social, and emotional development of ELLs in schools. When we consider the unique needs of ELLs in our program planning, curriculum development, and teaching, school librarians and school libraries can make a powerful difference!

Karen Sekiguchi is the K-5 librarian for the Danvers Public Schools. She has an M.A. in teaching English as a Second Language, and has taught ESL in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. She will be teaching the EDCO class, “English Language Learners and the School Library,” in March of 2015.