Watch Your Language

By Simone Solondz / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

While teachers and students head back to school this fall, Kathleen Mellor, who teaches English as a second language (ESL) in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, will be spending this academic year away from the classroom for the first time in twenty years. Last spring, Mellor was named National Teacher of the Year and was honored in April by George W. and Laura Bush in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Newly famous, Mellor will devote herself this year to speaking to the educators in 150 scheduled engagements.

“It’s a full-time job,” says Mellor, who will be addressing the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and this year’s Presidential Scholars, among many others. “Because of my specialty as an ESL teacher,” she adds, “I’ll be speaking to various groups that deal with second language acquisition and bilingual education versus ESL.”

In the speech he delivered at the ceremony, President Bush praised Mellor’s creative teaching methods and quoted testimonials from the parents who described dramatic improvement in their children’s English after only a year in Mellor’s program. “Kathy redesigned her district’s ESL program to better integrate students with their English-speaking classmates,” he said. “And the educational benefits of her innovation have been clear.”

Among the tools Mellor had adopted in her teaching is the dialogue journal, a notebook in which she and the students essentially write letters to each other. “It models the way oral language development occurs,” she explains, “where a mom or a dad dealing with a youngster who might say something incorrectly will model it correctly. You do that in the writing, and you use structures and vocabulary that you’ve taught to reinforce them.” She also incorporates art and music into her lesson plans, in the belief that they cross language barriers.

In Mellor’s school district there is little disagreement about teaching ESL rather that bilingual classes because students in the program bring with them so many different languages. “Most of them speak Spanish,” Mellor explains, “but it’s not a majority. At any given time we have as many as twenty-six different languages represented.”

Speaking to others about her teaching methods has helped Mellor assess where she’s been as an educator and where she’s going. “In some ways I’ve grown, and in other ways I might need to bring back some things I used to do that I no longer do,” she says. “As a teacher, you’re constantly evolving, but this is really putting me back in the learner’s seat. And that’s made me more aware of where the kids are.”

She’s also developing her public speaking skills. “The largest group I’ve spoken to so far is about 9,000 and change,” she says. “I’m learning a lot, but I know I will be ready to go back to the classroom once this year is over.”
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September / October 2004