Everyone has a story. Educator Efrain Tovar’s begins as a Spanish-speaking child living in the Central Valley, at a time when supporting diverse language learners meant sitting non-English-speaking students in a small room with headphones to listen to conversational English on tape. Tovar’s experiences seem so far away yet highly relevant as he leads a discussion with his 14 Newcomer students, with subtitles of his words in seven languages streaming behind him on a screen as he talks.
“Those experiences I encountered as an English language learner made me the teacher I am today,” Tovar says, noting that the insight reminds him to listen to his students. “Every Newcomer has a story. And if you know their story, it gives you a glimpse of who they are.”
Tovar teaches the Newcomers program at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in the rural farming community of Selma, once known as the “Raisin Capital of the World.” Students who are called Newcomers have moved to the United States within the last three years, often as refugees from difficult situations and nearly always without a strong grasp of English. In this school, nestled up against vast fields of grapevines, Tovar has created a supportive learning community where he teaches his students critical thinking skills and how to be proud of their unique voices at the same time as the basics of a subject and predicate.
“Yes, we have data on every student, but we need to know their story. How do we become sensitive to their stories?” asks Tovar, a member of Selma Unified Teachers Association. “How do you connect with them to get them to feel, ‘Wow, I’m OK where I am’? It’s about connecting with students.”
While Tovar’s personal journey to Selma and his inspiring commitment to students newly arrived in this country are noteworthy enough, there’s another unique facet to his story that traces back to the first time he played Oregon Trail on an Apple computer as a sixth grader. Efrain Tovar is an education technology innovator (likely the only Google-certified Newcomer educator in the state!), utilizing technology to help his Newcomer students achieve far more than just learning English.
In 2016, he was one of two educators worldwide to participate in the Google Innovator Program, which challenged 1,600 bright minds to come up with an idea that would radically change education. Tovar’s project: How to use technology to help students acquire a secondary or even tertiary language. With as many as seven languages in his classroom — from Spanish and Punjabi to Arabic and Zapotec, an indigenous language of Mexico — Tovar had to figure out how to best help his students when he couldn’t speak their native tongue. A big part of it is creating a safe environment where his students feel valued and comfortable — a place where failure is embraced.
“We applaud failure because we need to learn it’s a process — that we make mistakes and that’s how we learn anything,” he says. “How can we leverage technology to help our English learners to be critical learners, and how can we leverage their primary language to promote multiple literacy?”
One way is to teach them a third language while they learn English, but not in the traditional sense. All of Tovar’s students are also in his computer science class, where he’s teaching them the basics of programming. Since his students are already learning foundational acquisition skills for English, Tovar says, their minds are primed to learn how to write code and develop their own creations in this new language. Last year, one of his students developed a successful math study app shortly after arriving from war-torn Yemen and while she awaited members of her family to join her safely in the United States. The achievement is a testament to Tovar’s philosophy.
“Under the right circumstances and with the right support, students can learn anything,” Tovar says.
Part of that support is training and professional development for educators, so they have the best tools to help students succeed. Tovar trains fellow educators on the use of technology with English language learners, as a presenter at CTA’s Good Teaching Conference and in his role as a Lead Learner with CUE (Computer-Using Educators), the well-known organization that supports and connects innovative, tech-savvy educators. Seeing a need for more networking and fluid information sharing among his peers in English language development (ELD), Tovar founded California ELL Chat on Twitter (@CaELLChat), which has blossomed into a digital community that connects ELD educators to share tips, inspire one another, and develop skills to best serve diverse language learners.
“How are we innovating ourselves as educators?” Tovar asks. “And how are we innovating our approaches to teaching?”
The language of caring
This applies to everything from how technology is being utilized in the classroom to the way the learning environment flows. Tovar’s classroom feels like a Silicon Valley idea farm, with stools at rectangular high tables, no discernible front to the room, and walls and surfaces that are all dry-erase writable. His students work in teams, with each assigned a role like Chief Operations Officer or Chief Technology Officer, learning together about each other’s stories as they continue writing their own.
“As an educator, have your classroom be a reflection of what is coming and what is already here,” Tovar says. “Your classroom will transform the way you teach.”
Being deliberate is a big part of Tovar’s recipe for success. Showing his students that they have a great deal to teach him and others is one of those deliberate lessons on display in an annual event celebrating the promotion of Tovar’s Newcomer students. In front of hundreds of assembled family, school and community members, Tovar introduces each student in their primary tongue — an act that means so much more than learning some phrases in another language.
“I’ll speak in Arabic, Punjabi, in Zapotec,” he says. “It means so much to the students and their families — to elevate their language as an equal to English.”
Tovar is eager to share lessons and best practices from his work with Newcomers in Selma Unified. Since recruiting him to teach the program in 2013, the school district has been completely supportive of his work and desire to help other educators as well, he says. Tovar led a session with elementary teachers in San Gabriel Valley last summer on how to leverage technology in an ELD/Newcomer classroom, and he’s currently working on an e-book outlining best practices. And as much as he likes to share his own story, he always wants to hear the stories of others.
“All teachers should share their stories!” he says. “Tell your story and create your own hashtag so others can see the great things you are doing every day!”
Join the Conversation
Follow Efrain Tovar on Twitter at @efraintovarjr and California ELL Chat at @CaELLChat.