September 28, 2016

Teachers Talk Back: Jen Su

Jen Su is in her third year with LAUSD and currently teaches special education at Wilshire Park Elementary School. In this conversation with E4E-Los Angeles Outreach Director Jen Baca, Jen shares her experience embracing diversity in her classroom, her inspiration for serving unique student populations and her thoughts about technology in the classroom.

Jen Baca (JB): Your school has a large percentage of English Learners (ELs). How does your school embrace diversity and continue to be an inclusive community?

Jen Su (JS): Our English Language Coordinator has gone around to all classrooms ensuring that teachers understood that learning another language is a positive thing and will benefit the students in the future.

We also embrace diversity with a “Family of the Week” event. Parents come in and share their culture and background and talk about the country they’re from. It sparks interest in students by allowing them to connect with each other and learn from other cultures. Each classroom does it every Friday. A student volunteers one of their family members to come in and present for 15-20 minutes.

One of my students came and shared about their Oaxacan culture, and they even brought a Oaxacan dish that looked like a pizza. My student was excited to share that part of his life with us and it created a deeper relationship with other students. Due to these classroom events, you’re not just a teacher, but you’re now a teacher who knows about your students’ cultures and where they come from.

We also produce different cultural lessons during times of the year, like Spanish Heritage Month and Chinese New Year. During these, we think expansively beyond the typical American holidays, and we host schoolwide celebrations. For example, during Chinese New Year, a lot of the English Language Development classes will do projects like making Chinese lanterns and dragon puppets. During that month’s Student of the Month assembly, we will learn a song in Chinese, and some of the students will come in as dragon dancers.

JB: What does this look like in your classroom?

JS: I print pictures from different nationalities so I can expose my students to different cultures. For holidays, I teach a lesson about the holiday and ask the students if they want to share about their own celebrations. Students are generally excited to share what they do because they feel like it’s their moment to shine and feel good. They can hear how their friends celebrate differently, and they’re able to form a deeper relationship with each other when understanding other cultures.

I help my students realize that there are different cultures, and know that not all Asians come from the same place, showing them on the map where each student comes from. Whenever I travel, I show them pictures of where I traveled and the foods I ate on my travels. They’re always very interested to see and hear about different cultures and other countries. I always talk about my trip, bring in pictures or videos and I ask them to do the same.

JB: What is your favorite lesson plan or activity that teaches your students how to embrace cultures other than their own?

JS: I brought in different colored eggs and asked them if the eggs looked the same or different. First, they said different. Then, I cracked the eggs open and asked them again. Now they said they looked the same. So I made the point: we may have different skin tones, eye colors, hair styles on the outside, but we’re all the same on the inside.

They all let out an “Ohhh, yeaaa!” It was one of those memorable moments where two to three weeks later, somebody made a comment, “Yes, Ms. Su, it’s like that lesson you did with eggs. We’re all the same.”

JB: Why is it important to teach about different cultures at the second and third grade level?

JS: We live in Los Angeles, and there are so many different types of people in this city. It’s a good thing that we’re exposed to diversity, and we need to teach students at a young age that we all come from different cultures. We’re not all the same, but that’s what makes our community, city and country special. I especially embrace it as someone who was an English Learner growing up.

My parents made me go to an international school because I was a difficult child. I didn’t like how work was thrown at me, and it was never explained why we were doing certain things. In fourth grade, my parents switched me to an American school. It saved my life because it was a different style of education; we were allowed to ask questions and think outside the box. I was often given different options to present an assignment. That experience is what inspired me to become a special education teacher. I want my students to know that learning isn’t easy, and that I understand why it’s challenging.

JB: E4E-LA teachers just published a paper making recommendations on how the Common Core State Standards can have a bigger impact on our unique student populations such as English Learners and students with disabilities. In particular, one of the recommendations was about increasing access to technology that aids our unique student populations. How do you see this solution helping your students?

JS: Students need to be exposed to technology, and it definitely needs to be a part of their learning. It also makes lessons and assignments more creative and engaging. They are no longer expressing themselves through pen and paper, but now through commercials, songs and e-books to show different skills they learn. I think we just need to continue to listen and watch our kids to see what works for them. At the end of the day, if technology is their mode of learning, then that is what we need to use to teach effectively. If they’re more interested in listening to a song to learn vowels, it’s better to play a song than having me stand up at the front of room making them repeat along with me.

JB: Speaking of classroom technology, are there any technology resources you would recommend to other teachers?

JS: I’m a huge GoNoodle fan. For my students, sitting down for long periods of time is hard. There are a lot of brain-break videos from yoga to pop song dances to racing outside. It’s a great way to motivate them and get their bodies moving before we start another lesson or assignment.

Also, Reading A-Z is an online reading program where students are assigned to different leveled books just for them. They can log on at home or anywhere they have internet. It’s an easy way for teachers to track which books they read and for how long. I tell parents it’s like picking a pair of shoes: we all have different sizes, so it’s important to find different books that fit them and their reading level.

JB: What inspired you to become an E4E member?

JS: A colleague at my school, who is also a role model for me, introduced me to E4E. When I heard her talk about E4E and what the organization does, it really sparked my interest to go and check it out. Since becoming a member, I always feel refreshed hearing E4E updates, and walk out of E4E events excited to go back to my school to share my knowledge. It is rejuvenating to see and hear from other teachers who are passionate about their kids and education. This was especially helpful for me during a time when I was feeling burned out as a teacher. It helped to hear from other educators who were just as frustrated, but still really passionate about their work and students.

JB: Why is it important that teachers lead the charge in creating solutions for their students?

JS: If we don’t do it, who is going to? We are the ones who are working with our students every day. We sometimes see them more than their parents do. We have to make the change and be willing to put in the time and be patient for results. Our students count on us to be their advocates and help them so they can grow and be informed citizens. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to challenge our students while at the same time letting them know that we will be there for them when they need it.

JB: E4E-Los Angeles is currently polling teachers to identify the topic of our next Teacher Policy Team. Out of the five remaining topics, which one are you most interested in and why?

JS: I am most interested in the topic that deals with improving teacher preparation programs. As a new teacher with just three years in the district, I understand the district has mentors for new teachers. However, because our district is so large, our mentors often don’t come around until two months into the school year. Teacher preparation should be more robust before the school happens, not halfway through the start of the school year. We need to ensure that teachers feel comfortable starting off their first year without feeling nervous or anxious.

I was very fortunate to have helpful colleagues who took care of me and made sure I had everything I needed in my first year. They made sure that everything was going well and asked me how I was doing — inside and outside of the classroom — and pushed me to go home before 6 p.m. They told me I had to have a life, and to not just spend all my time in the classroom. Besides those colleagues, I felt like I didn’t have enough support from the district.

Special education credentialing is more about policy and law and kids with special needs, but I didn’t get training on how to present the instruction. In general education courses, they learn a lot on how to deliver instruction but only take one course on special needs students. There needs to be more of a mix of the two. There are so many special needs students in all schools, but there is a lack of the hybrid of both programs or space to prepare all teachers for all sets of students. I think the Teacher Policy Team should develop recommendations on fixing these issues.