Using language to help

Published 10:02 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2017

High school teacher finds purpose teaching ESL students

Adjusting to the English language in an academic setting is a task more than 50 English language learning students face at Albert Lea High School.

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Longtime social studies teacher Jerry Bizjak now helps those students as they pursue graduation while he learns aspects of cultures and life stories.

Bizjak, who began teaching social studies in Albert Lea in 1997, started teaching English language learners during the 2016-17 school year after earning a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language about two years ago.

“It was a total change,” he said.

Bizjak attributes part of the reason why he started teaching English learner classes to his desire to challenge himself and traveling he has done in the last 10 years.

“The ESL kids that I taught in the past in my history class or social studies classes, they always had a really interesting story, and I always liked their stories because they were always different,” he said. “It was probably the one time in my life that I’ve had a true epiphany.”

Bizjak contacted Minnesota State University-Mankato and took a couple of graduate classes, resulting in his decision to continue to pursue his goal.

“Three years later, I had it done, and here I am,” he said.

Bizjak teaches an English as a second learner social studies class.

“We teach the same standards and basically the same content, but just in a different way that makes more sense to those kids,” he said. In addition to English language learner classes, Bizjak teaches advanced placement economics.

“So, I get a good variety,” he said.

In English language learner courses, Bizjak focuses on academic language. The first couple weeks of this school year, students focused on the word “persistence,” so they could fully grasp the word.

“The big thing is to focus on academic language that they would encounter in any other class — math, science, social studies, whatever — and they would be able to understand and use that word in concepts as well as a person who is proficient in English,” he said. “ So, that’s the big thing.”

The aspect of Bizjak’s job he enjoys the most is hearing the stories of students who speak Spanish, Karen and Nuer languages, specifically the personal and family accounts students share. He remembers discussing the Syrian refugee crisis with other refugees last year, and he recognizes the challenges English language learner students face while learning the English language and trying to graduate high school simultaneously.

“ELS have to climb a lot more mountains to graduate from this high school than other kids do, and I like to try to help them get up those mountains,” he said. To Bizjak, by being bilingual, English learner students have an advantage over other students and adults at the high school who are monolingual.

Bizjak led a student and parent trip to Italy, France and Spain last spring and a trip to Greece and Italy two years prior to that.

He recalled a student who invited him to a soccer game earlier this week because there are English language learners who play the sport, and Bizjak said the smaller classes he now has allows him to connect well with students.

“For me, having smaller classes, I can get to know the kids a little bit better,” he said.

Last summer, Bizjak visited the homes of about a dozen English language learner students to inform them that they were able to leave the program because of successful test scores.

“Seeing just the smiling face, that kind of sense of accomplishment that … ‘I did it,’ was cool,” he said. “I never had that experience before, because teaching social studies, it wasn’t — we don’t have that big, high-stakes test like these kids do. Being able to — something very concrete that those kids were able to do, and through their hard work, was just great to be a part of.”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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