Changing the Way We Perceive Our English Language Learners

Using Self Advocacy and Activism in the Classroom

By Christine Olsen (SED ’12)

It started with a question: “What comes to mind when you hear the term English Language Learner?” I have been teaching English as a Second Language for three years now and I have never thought to ask this question before.

“Have trouble talking.” “Dumb.” “Kids who struggle.” “Different.”

These are just some of the responses from my 7th and 8th grade English Language Learners. When I posed this question, students openly and honestly shared how being given this label made them feel inferior as well as how it shapes the way others see them: “It doesn’t value the languages and cultures we come from; it only looks at what we don’t know.” By the end of the discussion, it became clear that my students needed to be recognized for their strengths and abilities, not just their deficits. The students generated a list of potential new names and voted to replace “English Language Learner” with the label “Multilingual Student.” They prefer this label because it is more representative of all that the students are capable of and acknowledges them for an often overlooked (but highly valuable) skill: the ability to speak more than one language.

Initially, I only thought of changing this label within my own classroom, but then a student asked “Ms. Olsen, why can’t we change this for the whole school?” This led to a research/persuasive writing project. The students brainstormed reasons the name should be changed and I helped them find relevant articles that supported their position. They created a survey and polled their peers in order to get a better sense of the language and cultural diversity around them. They used this data to prove that the label multilingual student is more inclusive (66% of students surveyed from our school are either currently in English as a Second Language or have been in the past). I taught persuasive writing techniques and then the students applied the lessons by putting together a PowerPoint presentation. In October, my students presented this PowerPoint to the administrators of our school. This presentation led Seven Hills to change the label school-wide. As a result of this process, my students were able to redefine a part of their identity and significantly impact school culture. There has also been an increase in multilingual students’ confidence, self advocacy, and academic achievement.

Once successful, my students did not want to stop there. They discussed how proud they felt to positively impact their school and recognized that there must be other students labeled as English Language Learners around the country who share their feelings on this issue. They don’t want other students to be negatively affected by this label, so the students are currently working to make a change on a larger scale.

We created a petition on  and we need your support. If this petition gets 99,999 signatures by February 27, 2016, the White House will review it and respond! Please help my students make a change that will improve the perceptions of our multilingual students nationwide!

You can view and sign the petition here: