As the school year wraps up, most U.S. elementary teachers find themselves stripping student work from their classroom walls to clear their rooms for the summer. Not so with Anne Marie Foerster Luu, who, at the close of the last school year, was still putting up work: She had her ESOL elementary school students busy composing poetry that summarized what they had learned during the year, adding it to the menagerie of student work on the walls. Indeed, Anne Marie’s classroom is like a living organism, vibrant with color and shapes and words, pictures and plants and creatures.
Anne Marie is the recipient of the 2013 TESOL Teacher of the Year Award, presented by National Geographic Learning. She was chosen by a panel of experienced educators from among an international pool of applicants. Among other prizes, she will receive US$1,000; free registration and travel for the 2013 TESOL annual convention, where she’ll give a presentation; and free TESOL books. Anne Marie has been a pre-K–12 teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Maryland, for 13 years, and she worked in higher education administration before that.
When we meet for her interview, she is quiet at first, shy and apparently nervous. On this cold winter afternoon, she wears a heavy red cardigan buttoned over a black turtleneck: Like her personality, her attire is conservative but colorful, unassuming but bright. She starts to come out of her shell as soon as she begins to talk about her students.
Top: Anne Marie Foerster Luu; Clockwise from left: Alex, Ada,
Felipe, Riko, Caleb, Tenzin, Brian, Rina
“The part of the job I really enjoy is thinking about each child in the classroom, and I enjoy having the opportunity to do that with colleagues when my students are in their classrooms, too.” Collaboration, it turns out, is a huge part of what Anne Marie does. Her school, Luxmanor Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland, nestled in a quiet community just north of Washington, DC, has about 450 students enrolled, 18% of whom are ESOL students. Luxmanor is adjusting to a new curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which requires teachers to work together more than ever before.
We’re really working toward more collaborative planning and teaching. In this school, we’re really breaking ground on that. Montgomery County has a new curriculum, and so we’re all sort of in the same boat, trying to figure out how we’re going to teach kids with these new expectations, and what materials are we going to use, and how we’re going to differentiate it.
Like many teachers, Anne Marie uses her hands when she speaks, and, in her nervousness, they flutter like birds in front of her, her fingers moving continually, like wings rounding out her words and giving shape to her phrases. Her hands move purposefully toward her Promethean board (an interactive whiteboard) as she shifts the conversation toward technology. Anne Marie uses technology to support all learners and incorporates it into her classroom whenever she can by showing videos, or using it to showcase projects or help students organize their work. It’s important, she says, to just “help them feel like technology is fun and that it’s a part of learning.”
Anne Marie’s hands become especially expressive when she delves into explanations, such as how to help content-area teachers work with ESOL students:
I think it’s very hard to know exactly what the roadblocks are for the students, so it takes more than just a 5-minute sit-down with a teacher to resolve an issue. It’s important to help teachers see commonalities but then see individual students at the same time, so that they can broaden their experiences with ESOL students… no single handout is going to work; no single conversation is going to work…ESOL teachers really need to keep their doors open, and to see themselves as someone who is advocating for their students.
Anne Marie’s door is certainly open—to everyone, and for many reasons. She is the only full-time ESOL teacher at her elementary school, a Master Teacher with the state of Maryland (which means she helps train school-based teacher leaders on the new CCSS-based curriculum for the Maryland Department of Education), member of her school’s Leadership Team and Academic Support Team, and team leader for her school’s ESOL Team. In her various roles, Anne Marie has picked up quite a few tenets to live and teach by. Most important, and a foundational part of her educational philosophy, is that “what the kids are doing has to feel good to them and has to have a purpose. It has to matter.”
Anne Marie demonstrates windmill structure to Alex.
And this, in large part, is what sets Anne Marie apart from other teachers: her incredible ability to get at the heart of student interest and to use that interest to create fun lessons that spur student learning. It seems there is a story behind nearly every project adorning the walls of her classroom and how it stemmed from a student’s experience. She does not overlook any learning opportunity, and her resourcefulness is evidenced in the diversity of her students’ projects. The work proudly displayed on the walls, scrawled in the careful and imperfect script of elementary school students, covers so much more than just language; it spans topics such as water displacement, windmills, social research, and insect life.
When one student was having interpersonal relationship issues, the students wrote a story together based on the classroom fish, which reside in a small tank nestled between a file cabinet topped with framed photos and a slightly overgrown potted plant; the story they wrote was about how the fish interacted with one another as friends. When several students found a cricket in the stairwell, the class captured it, read about crickets, and wrote a story. And when, several years ago, one student came to class after having been bullied, Anne Marie structured a class research project around bullying. She had students write a survey, obtain responses, and crunch the numbers themselves—to answer the question “Do we have a problem with bullies in our school?” The research project was so successful that it was picked up by the county and incorporated into the county curriculum. Some students who participated in the project, now in college, keep in touch with her and tell her that they still talk about it. According to fellow MCPS teacher Dustine Price, this project was just one of many in which Anne Marie “teaches students to be proactive and engaged in making their community great.”
Her students’ interest in the subject matter she chooses is evident during class. Anne Marie’s classes vary from two to twelve students, and today’s class has eight, with students whose native languages comprise Japanese, Korean, a Tibetan dialect, and two forms of Spanish. When the students arrive, there’s a minor hullabaloo to feed the fish, and then Anne Marie truly shines.
Once seated, the students are polite and organized, never speaking out of turn, but most quick to raise a hand and get in on the discussion—which, today, is about windmills. Anne Marie’s colleague and coteacher, Wendy Root, brought in a STEM-related book about a man in Malawi who built a windmill to save his community from hunger (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer). Wendy and Anne Marie work together to plan dynamic, integrated lessons around this piece of literary nonfiction.
Anne Marie explains, “It’s got figurative language, it’s a true story, and it’s a very interesting text. We’ve added informational text to it, and we’re going to be building our own windmills.”
During class, she moves between students and to the board adeptly, using drawings to explain concepts, and showing the students a camera tripod that she brought into class to help them visualize how to stabilize the base of the windmill they’ll be building.
Anne Marie makes every effort to draw out responses from the shyer students, asking questions and allowing everyone to participate. She challenges her students when they haven’t thought through a response, and she incorporates myriad topics and concepts, including math, science, and language. This, apparently, is standard operating procedure. Her colleague Susan Zacks says that Anne Marie consistently strives “to not just meet [her students’] needs, but to inspire her students to grow, develop, and learn each and every day.”
When asked to provide a piece of advice to new English language teachers, Anne Marie has plenty to say, and it centers on the students themselves and on collaboration:
You have to have your antennae up all the time and really listen to what kids are saying. They might not be able to use their words to tell you what’s going on, but they send you clues. Those first-year students are really struggling, really struggling. I have some now that are accustomed to being very successful in their own language and they come here and are just devastated because they can’t show what they know in the way that we ask them to. Be patient, have your antennae up, and really think about those kids, and your role in working with the whole staff: You are the opportunity to help the whole staff figure out how to reach these kids. If you make yourself available, it becomes a whole system surrounding those kids and helping those kids. Without that, someone will get lost in the fray.
Tomiko Breland received her BA in English from Stanford University, her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University, and her certificate in TESOL from Anaheim University. She is editor & publications project manager at TESOL International Association.