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Fairfax Teachers ‘Stage’ Learning for ESL Students

Annandale High has one of the most diverse student populations in Fairfax County schools. With students from Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the school must meet the needs of many students who are juggling academics with settling into a new language, a new home, a new school and an unfamiliar culture.

To offer her students a creative outlet for learning, Fairfax Education Association member Leslie Chekin, an ESL teacher, created “Theatre Without Borders.” Its purpose? To allow students to study classical theater, literature and, most importantly, English. Since participating in the program, almost all of her 40 students have significantly improved test scores on the state’s English language proficiency (ELP) tests.

The program started small nine years ago, with no budget for a stage and most sets and costumes paid for out-of-pocket. “We had applied for a county grant, but there was no money,” Chekin says. Then last fall, Chekin and her teaching partner and fellow FEA member, Michelle Picard, received a $5,000 Student Achievement Grant from the NEA Foundation. With it, Chekin and her colleagues in the performing arts department transformed the existing program into what she describes as a “total theater concept,” exposing students to all aspects of play production, from design and stage management to lights and sound.

Change came gradually, with students facing an immediate obstacle of conquering stage fright. Every student had to audition, even for non-speaking roles. They learn about acting, directing, public speaking and organizing publicity campaigns, as well as each play’s themes, characters and plot.

“During my first year in the program, everything about theater was challenging,” says student Fabiola Alba. “I couldn’t even pronounce my lines.” She persevered, and has now performed in and even directed a handful of Shakespeare’s plays. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, but by the year’s end, her language skills had dramatically improved.

“After you perform his plays, Shakespeare is always going to be something important in your life,” says Carlos Portillo, another student.

To prepare for their foray into the literary titan’s works, students attended performances at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C. They even performed their own mini-production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” for visiting representatives of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

With each production came its own internal drama, according to Chekin. Many of her students struggle with the displacement of moving, learning a new language, and difficult home lives. But in overcoming challenges together, they gain important life skills. “They see themselves as a company,” she says. “That feeling of pride and identity? They pass that on to each other.”

The program may be the only exposure to theater and the performing arts these students have ever received, but it also serves a larger purpose.

“The real hurdles to graduation, in particular for students coming from other countries, are math and English,” Chekin says. Last year, the class completed the state’s ELP test, and “all the kids, except for two or three, moved up an entire level, if not higher.” One student later became a certified lights technician. Another became a student ambassador to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and returned after graduating to lead an interactive workshop on “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“There used to be a barrier between performing arts and ESL students,” Chekin says. Now, the theater crew has earned a small following in the community. “They have a reputation for being hysterically funny and unpredictable,” Chekin said. Last year’s performances of “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Macbeth” drew audiences of 200-300 people.

This year, the show goes on, as a new company of students creates their own interpretation of the classics.


Turning the Tide

For too long, educators have had to listen to some who label our public schools as “failing.” In the book Crucial Conversations About America’s Schools, co-author John Draper offers these four fundamentals for letting the public know about the success of our schools:

 Times are hard but we are doing the most important work of our nation.

• NEVER CRITICIZE ANOTHER EDUCATOR IN PUBLIC. This will only provide false credibility to those who would undermine our schools.

• SHARE ONE POSITIVE STORY EACH WEEK. Miracles happen every day in public schools. Stories convince without confrontation.

• HONESTY EVALUATE YOURSELF EACH WEEK. If necessary, re-commit to sharing one positive story weekly. Together we can change negative perceptions of schools in our communities.

Over 150 TED Talks Available Online

From how to learn from mistakes, to hands-on science, to the importance of the arts, even to school lunches, there are more than 150 TED talks online that deal with education. TED is a nonprofit organization that holds regular conferences devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” The talks, which started out in 1984 focused on technology, entertainment and design, now cover a wide range of issues.

TED believes that ideas have the power to change not just individuals, but the world, so the organization brings in speakers, some of which are household names and some not, to briefly share their ideas.

To learn more and to listen to TED talks, visit

Helping Students Be Good Net ‘Citizens’

Identity, privacy, authorship and ownership, credibility and participation are the five core themes of Our Space, a digital ethics curriculum created by researchers at Harvard, MIT and the University of Southern California.  The materials help high school students think about how they are ethically participating in the new media environments that so many of them spend so much time in.

Students are asked to reflect on their behavior and that of others on media including computers, cell phones and handheld devices, where they may be involved in social networks, playing games, watching videos or blogging.

Materials are free and can be found at


A Student Top 10

Adeline Bee, a high school English teacher in Massachusetts, recently asked her writing class, which was made up of sophomores through seniors, what skills and attitudes were most important in a teacher if the students were going to learn as effectively as possible. After long discussions, these are their Top 10 responses:

• Has respect for students (the number 1 opinion)
• Has extensive knowledge and passion for the subject
• Controls the class
• Friendly, laughs and is personable
• Differentiates instruction, has unique teaching strategies and uses a variety of teaching methods
• Isn’t a cookie-cutter teacher – tries being slightly eccentric or zany, thinks outside of the comfort zone and jokes around
• Is interactive, asks and answers questions and allows students to act out scenes
• Is approachable, encourages students to ask questions or share opinions and listens to their opinions
• Is challenging and pushes students but still helps them; is motivational
• Is creative and makes learning fun

Here are some other characteristics the students identified as important, in no particular order: technology-literate; understanding when something happens in a student’s life; organized and focused; connects the topic to daily life and relates to it personally; doesn’t cross the line between friend and teacher; does not engage in favoritism or judging; keeps his or her word; and is not easily frustrated.


You’re Their Best Hope

Bullied students need to know that they have an ally they can count on—an adult in the school community they can go to for help, someone they know will listen to them and act on their behalf.

NEA’s Bully-Free: It Starts With Me Campaign identifies caring adults in our schools and communities who are willing to stand up as someone pledged to help bullied students. These caring adults agree to listen carefully to the bullied student who comes to them. They also agree to take action to stop the bullying. NEA, in turn, provides these caring educators with the resources they need to provide solace and support to the bullied student, and to take the appropriate actions needed to stop the bullying.

The campaign connects bullied students with caring adults—one on one. It is our profoundest hope that the caring adults who have volunteered for Bully-Free: It Starts With Me will also become part of a larger effort to bully-proof our schools. We encourage all caring adults to speak up for bullied students and advocate for measures that will stop bullying in our school communities.

There is a wealth of research-based information available about bullying on NEA’s Bully-Free website. And as one of the world’s foremost anti-bullying experts, psychology professor Dan Olweus, notes: “It now all boils down to a matter of will and involvement on the part of adults in deciding how much bullying will take place in our schools.”

 To learn more, and to get on board, visit



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