California Educator

February/March 2020

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n estled up against vast f iel d s of grapevines, Tovar has created a sup- portive learning community where h e t ea ch e s hi s stu d ent s cr iti c al 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." Telling stories 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 New- comer 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 edu- cation. 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. e achieve- ment 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 suc- ceed. 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 Every Newcomer has a story. And if you know their story, it gives you a glimpse of who they are." Tovar's Selma classroom looks like something straight out of Silicon Valley. Tovar's Newcomer students also take his computer science class. 23 F E B R U A R Y / M A R C H 2 0 2 0

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