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Learning English with enthusiastic pen pals

Students and pen pals look on as ELL student Osmar Valente Bailon happily receives his certificate of completion from ELL teacher Staci Tuck on June 16 at Snohomish High School. This was Tuck’s first year to teach ELL at Snohomish and there were nine students.

SNOHOMISH — The nine Snohomish High School students met at the beginning of the school year, from different places and backgrounds, yet had the same goal in learning English for school testing and improved communications.
Helping with that was ELL teacher Staci Tuck and 11 community volunteers, who were the students’ assigned ‘pen pals’ during the school year. A few weeks ago, they all got to meet – and talk – face to face.
“I love these students with all my heart and they have such amazing potential,” Tuck said at the June 16 event. “And I am so grateful to the pen pals for volunteering. These volunteers have emailed consistently every week this entire school year and it really helps boost the confidence of the students.”
ELL is English as a Learning Language. Snohomish and Glacier Peak high schools launched their ELL programs years ago. This past school year, longtime ELL teacher Staci Tuck was brought on board, after she had run a successful program in Marysville. That program garnered over 75 students and 90 pen pal volunteers by the time Tuck left.
In Snohomish, the high school ELL programs continue to thrive with the number of non-English speaking students enrolling at school. Learning another language isn’t easy, but, the students said with a teacher like Tuck and the interactive pen pals, it made the learning process more fun.
“Participating in this makes me realize what wonderful teachers Snohomish has – to engage the students in the community and I can’t imagine a better way to learn a second language,” said pen pal volunteer and Snohomish City Councilwoman Lynn Schilaty.
Of the nine students this past school year, one student was from Germany, while the remaining eight were from Spanish-speaking countries.
“Es mi favorita clase,” said Mónica Zamarippa-Garcia, before switching to English. “It’s my favorite class, because of la maestra (the teacher) and sometimes the other classes are hard. I will miss her and my friends.”
Tuck called out each student with exuberance, her English slow and descriptive, as she handed out class completion certificates. Tuck thanked each student for their kindness, respectfulness and classroom work ethic.
The German student, Chiarra Sheppard, said while she had been living in Snohomish for a year and a half, the ELL class helped her gain confidence in her English speaking and writing.
“It’s been a great class,” Sheppard said. “Mrs. Tuck helped me a lot and I feel much better when I write and speak. I’m kind of shy.”
Sheppard was seen laughing and talking with the other ELL students and pen pals at the event. Her shyness dissipated with the comfort of the colorful classroom and talkative classmates.
“Instead of reading books, I’ve taught them how to do email correspondence, so that they can learn proper online etiquette and safety, and coordinated with the pen pals to send weekly emails to them,” Tuck explained.“When I taught in Marysville, I saw that students were a little disenfranchised because they didn’t see themselves as part of the community. So finding pen pal volunteers within the community to be role models and connect the students better is what really helped.”
Pen pal volunteers included: Ginger Clay Bernauer, Juan and Inés Daza, Aly Gidewell, Donna Hawks, Don and Heidi Jensen, Lynn Schilaty, Brandon Simeon, Dr. Stan Sessions, and Aaron Tuck.
To get to know their pen pals better, the students and pen pals exchanged physical pictoral collages to show their hobbies, activities and favorite things.
Pen pal volunteer and Snohomish School District teacher Donna Hawks said writing to her student each week while keeping an eye on the collage helped spark conversations.
Other pen pal volunteers know what it’s like to try to learn English.
“When I came here (to Snohomish), I was three years old and I had to learn English and I want you all to know you can do it,” pen pal volunteer Ginger Clay Bernauer told the students.
Pen pal volunteer Inés Daza, who is from Mexico, said her husband Juan, also a pen pal volunteer, convinced her to become a pen pal and she was assigned to the student Sheppard, to force them both to communicate in English.
“He told me, ‘you can do it, just write!’ and I’m very grateful that I did,” Daza said. “And that is what’s great about Staci (Tuck), that she assigned me to the student who doesn’t speak Spanish!”
Tuck said she already had volunteers wanting to sign up for next year’s program and that will only benefit the students, since all nine of the student this past school year saw improved test scores, reading levels and communication skills.
“The ELL Pen Pal experience provided the students opportunities to grow in all four of the language domains, and helped them learn how to look for, and value, shared experiences with others,” Tuck said post-event. “As a result of our efforts, STAR assessment scores have gone up, ELPA 21 writing scores show gains and new and lasting friendships with community mentors have been made. These kids are walking with a little more spunk in their step and they know they have this community, and a voice.”


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