Early in her career as an educator, Lisa Friscia found the large number of English language learners in her classes at PS 192 in Borough Park, Brooklyn, challenging and a little overwhelming.
“I said, ‘I have to figure out strategies to help these students,’ ” said Friscia, who was pursuing a master’s degree in literacy and did her thesis on shared reading strategies for English language learners.
While she was on child care leave to raise her two sons, she earned a second master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).
“I figured I would need these skills when I got back to the classroom because the population of ENL students was growing in every school,” said Friscia, now the lead ENL teacher and coordinator at PS 39 in the Arrochar section of Staten Island.
In the six years since she returned, Friscia has helped build a strong and vibrant ENL instructional practice at PS 39 that engages and empowers English language learners.
For Friscia, it is important to build relationships with students, find books for them based on their interests and “make them feel seen.”
“They bring so much to the table,” she said, “and we can learn from them if we look at their assets and what they can do, not what they can’t do.”
The 13-year teaching veteran received the 2022 Elementary TESOL Teacher of the Year award at the annual conference of the New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages on Nov. 4. She is one of two Staten Island educators chosen for the 2022 Patrick Daly Memorial Award for excellence — named for a principal who was murdered.
At PS 39, roughly one-fifth of the 500 students speak a language other than English at home. There are students from all over the world, including newcomers who speak Hungarian, Arabic, Russian and other languages.
Friscia works with eight classes, co-teaching or pulling students out for stand-alone ENL instruction. In a team-teaching lesson with kindergarten teacher Gina Gonnella, for example, Gonnella focuses on reading and comprehension while Friscia’s focus is vocabulary and language.
Friscia also attends all grade-level meetings and is familiar with colleagues’ lesson plans so she can tailor her teaching and support. She gives teachers “toolkits” with links to Google documents, websites and other information to help with English language learners.
“We work together as a team to plan lessons to meet the students’ needs,” Friscia said. “The teachers need support with the newcomers because they also have a whole other class of children to work with.”
Friscia said an important and gratifying part of her work is celebrating diversity and learning about other cultures through students. When she recently read Alexandra Penfold’s book “All Are Welcome” to Gonnella’s kindergarten class, she encouraged students to point out children who looked like them and to repeat with her the book’s refrain “all are welcome” throughout the story.
The lesson Friscia created and shared with her colleagues includes activities such as asking children how to say “welcome” in their native language and to describe something special about their culture.
“I like to use many culturally diverse texts with the children so they see themselves in the story and then they connect themselves to the book,” Friscia said.
Gonnella said Friscia does a great job engaging ENL students. Her students loved a recent activity with Friscia in which they chose a can with one of the 26 letters of the alphabet on it, picked out a card inside it with a picture of something that began with that letter, and spoke the word.
“She always brings something fun to the table,” said Gonnella, whose class is half English language learners. “The kids are learning and they don’t even know it.”
PS 39 Chapter Leader Beth Murphy, a physical education teacher who used to teach ENL with Friscia, said the school has so many English language learners that they are spread among classes with native English speakers. Teachers always need strategies to work with newcomers, and Friscia supports them with ideas and supplies.
Friscia has led professional development for teachers, training for the staff who run the school’s afterschool programs for English language learners, and workshops for immigrant parents to show them how to best support their children’s education.
Beyond her school, she is a member of the advocacy group for New York State TESOL, which presents workshops for educators on topics such as advocating for ENL students and families. She is part of the UFT’s ELL Focus Group, and she mentors teaching candidates from Touro University.
Friscia also continues her own professional development to strengthen her practice. “You always have to keep learning in this job,” she said.