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How ELL Specialists Can Use Stories to Become Stronger Influencers

A few weeks back, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2016 WIDA National Conference in Philadelphia. More than 39 states and educational organizations participate in the WIDA Consortium, so this conference is a really a big deal. For those of you who haven’t been, this is an amazing conference with much to offer. But now, just days later, the key takeaways are already fuzzy!

This isn't uncommon. In a study, researchers found that immediately after a 10-minute presentation, listeners only remembered 50% of what was said. By the next day, that had dropped to 25%, and a week later it was 10%.

However, I do remember 100% of the story told by Rosalva, an ESL specialist who spoke out during the last minute of a session:

“Two ELs, one boy and one girl from Mexico, entered Birmingham City Schools in the second grade. They attended the same schools, even though they had no ties to each other except for being ELs. As the years passed, they attended the same schools and both exited the ESL program at the same time; in seventh grade. They ended up studying at Parker High School, where one could practically count the number of ELs in one hand. They both belonged to one of our generation of students who dropped out by the time they turned 16. Well, last year they graduated! One as valedictorian and the other as the salutatorian!"

The room erupted into applause. Immediately afterwards I thanked Rosalva and asked to hear more. I sat in a chair next to her as the other attendees left to attend the next session.

She gleamed.

"It was remarkable! They both took a few minutes in their speeches to thank their parents in Spanish. Everyone was moved by this,” Rosalva said. “And the faculty, which is almost 100% African-American at a school with a long African- American history, were very supportive of these students. It was a big deal to have two non-native English speakers earn this honor in that school.”


Then Rosalva remembered another detail from that day.

"Before the graduation, the parents of one of them needed to know how to get to the location of the graduation so a colleague and I offered to pick them up." 

Rosalva suddenly stopped talking and looked away. Her eyes welled up with tears, as did mine as I imagined what she was about to say. Images of the slums of Caracas, the city where my parents were born and where many relatives still live, flashed in my mind. Rosalva collected herself and continued.

“I wasn’t prepared for it. Their neighborhood was … very depressed. Seeing the squalor of the houses made me lose it. I thought, most people in a situation like this, would just give up. The obstacles are too great. We can't even imagine. But not only did these kids graduate, they earned full scholarships to college."

Stories like Rosalva's and her students’ stick because they tap into our emotions and have the power to motivate us. We know that educators work tirelessly as agents of change in schools and communities, but sometimes their valiant efforts fall short of having meaningful impact. Research shows that this failure to influence has less to do with the quality of ideas and more to do with speaking to people’s "brains" before grabbing hold of their "hearts.”

Emotions Have the Power to Change Behavior

A significant challenge many ELL specialists face is convincing the content educators on their staff to teach ELLs differently. For example, we know that making language visual by incorporating anchor charts into a civics lesson would be beneficial for English learners. However, this instructional strategy requires a civics teacher to first take a specialist’s advice, and second, to literally change his or her teaching. Researchers believe that what drives a teacher to change is her “inner Elephant.”

In the New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change things when Change is Hard, the authors argue that our emotions outpower our logical thinking in most cases. Imagine a rider atop an elephant, where the rider represents our rational side and the elephant our emotions.


"Emotion is the Elephant’s turf—love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty—that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself—that’s the Elephant." Heath Brothers, Switch Chapter One

Stories are a powerful means to conjuring emotions, as the tears I shared with Rosalva at the WIDA conference prove. Logical thinking is vital--of course!--but ELL specialists hoping to inspire impactful change at their schools might consider tapping into their inner Elephants more often. To better connect with teachers' hearts the way Rosalva did with mine, try the timeless technique of storytelling.  

Three More Stories About Language Learners that Trigger our Emotions

Need more material? In addition to Rosalva’s anecdote, consider sharing these powerful stories to inspire teachers to try strategies that support ELL students.


From Media that Matters

Moises is a 10-year-old who struggles to communicate in his new school. He is facing the state’s standardized test, and in the warm-up prompt gets completely lost because the question posed in class involves reading a question in English. But since he has strong background knowledge in math and is able to follow drawings on the board, Moises finds the solution. However, what happens afterward is heartbreaking.

The Life of An Unaccompanied Minor in L.A.

From the Los Angeles Times 

Gaspar Marcos is 18 years old, Guatemalan, and came to the U.S. when he was just 13. His parents died when he was 5 years old and he raised himself. The hardest part, he says, was coming to this country without family. After a long day at school, he immediately hops on a public bus toward a restaurant where he washes an estimated 5,000 plates every night. At 2 a.m., he finally admits, “I’m tired."

Jin Park

From Define American

Jin Park is a former ELL who moved to New York when was just seven years old from South Korea. He’s articulate, humble and speaks honestly about his appreciation for America. Appreciation may be exactly what your teachers need to hear.


Please feel free to share your favorite story about an English Learner in the comments section below.