Coming Home to the Classroom
Well-Travelled Teacher Brings Experience, Passion and BrainPOP ESL to English-Acquisition Instruction
November 4, 2011—Joseph Whinery has certainly led an interesting—some might even say a charmed—life. The Williamson County Public Schools (TN) elementary ESL (English as a Second Language) specialist has traveled the world, experienced other peoples and cultures, and made a living doing what he’s both passionate about and extremely well trained to do—teaching English to non-native speakers. He did all of the above for nearly 13 years in Japan, five and half years in the Philippines and a year in Europe.
“I’ve just had really nice chances or opportunities,” says Whinery of his globetrotting. “Or maybe I’ve looked for them. I’m not sure what.”
After two decades abroad, Whinery repatriated to America with the idea of settling in Tennessee because his sister lives in Memphis. He began to look for a job in K–12. As it was fall and school had already begun, his timing was not auspicious. But, as luck would have it, he found one in spite of that.
The right place at the right time
“Williamson County’s ESL teachers had a heavy burden and needed some relief,” explains Whinery. “It was lucky, the right place, right time kind of a thing.” His first year, he was an “itinerant” specialist, travelling from school to school helping out. The second year, he took up permanent residence at Kenrose Elementary, a K–5 school that needed its own ESL teacher. As it turned out, the school’s largest ESL student population is not Hispanic, which is often the case in the U.S., but—you guessed it—Asian. Thanks to Williamson County’s economic boom—both Nissan’s and Mars Petcare’s North American headquarters are now located there, for instance—Japanese, Korean and a smattering of several other nationalities attend the elementary school.
“The Asian students are a convenient connection for me,” says Whinery, “but really just a coincidence. My first year I worked throughout the district and wasn’t attached to this school. But the coincidence works out well because it helps me communicate with the Japanese parents, for instance. But as far as my instruction goes, it’s typical of any ESL teacher. We work purely in English. We’re not fluent in every language that walks through the door. We’re not translators or bilingual teachers. Plus, it wouldn’t be fair to the other students if you only spoke to them in one native language.”
A constant scramble to find visual support for ESL
Like all ESL teachers, Whinery knows the importance of visual support in reaching and engaging non-native speakers who are learning English, which keeps him on a constant “scramble” to find appropriate visual resources. “Textbooks are an important part of my instruction. It’s critical that students read. But I’m also looking for language presented in a viably visual manner so that I can give something concrete to my students.”
That search for a “viably visual manner” led him three years ago to BrainPOP. BrainPOP offers animated, curriculum-based content easily searchable by subject and designed to engage students, support educators and bolster achievement. Now a staple for many educators across America, BrainPOP was conceived by an immunologist and pediatrician looking for a creative way to explain difficult concepts to his young patients.
Arriving at an epiphany: BrainPOP, BrainPOP Jr. and BrainPOP ESL!
“I discovered BrainPOP’s website years ago and began using their free videos,” says Whinery. “Right out of the box, it’s visual, that’s what it’s all about. They’re movies and they have closed captions. So my ESL students can see the scene progress right along with the English words underneath. Any kind of student can benefit from multiple sources of input, but especially ESL students. Their eyes and ears are watching and listening to the video but their brains are also taking in the written portion of it simultaneously. I never start a lesson with a video. I lecture, present notes on the board, preview vocabulary, start the writing exercise, that kind of thing first. I don’t know if I’m intentionally teasing them or what, because they are always anxious for the video, but I want to be sure that when they finally see the video, they can better understand what they’re seeing, hearing and reading while it plays.”
And if he happens to forget to push the “CC” button, his students are quick to remind him: “The words aren’t up there!”
Science, history and social studies lessons work particularly well with BrainPOP, says Whinery, because visuals bring these subject to life. He cites a unit he’s currently doing on polar animals with some of his more advanced students. Because the imagery of ice floes, polar bears and penguins are so vivid and compelling, the students “learn English through the content” explains Whinery. For the students in the class whose English is not as developed and who cannot grasp the vocabulary used in the video, he works with them on more basic acquisition skills like reading, writing, listening and speaking—which is where BrainPOP ESL excels.
Designed specifically for language learners—but with engaging characters and storylines
“BrainPOP ESL is designed specifically for language learners,” explains Whinery. He uses it to deliver lessons on grammar and vocabulary, mixing in the content of the other BrainPOP products when the situation calls for it.
Yet even with its concentration on the nuts and bolts of English acquisition, BrainPOP ESL still draws students in with familiar characters (like Moby the orange robot) and storylines that thread through the units and levels. “There are friendships and situations that draw students in. My students look forward to the ESL videos just as they do the other BrainPOP subject-area videos. They get to make guesses about what’s going to happen in the video and that spurs both interest and discussion. Just today, part of the storyline was about some mysterious noise in the house. The kids thought it was going to be music from a stereo, but it turns out it in the end that it was Moby in the kitchen banging pots and pans.”
After his initial discovery of BrainPOP a few years ago, Whinery quickly realized he needed a subscription to access its full library of content. “I think I used every free video BrainPOP offered,” he says. He went to his principal with the request and she approved the subscription—for him and the rest of the school.
Technology fits his teaching style
Dr. Marilyn Webb is a great supporter of her teachers, says Whinery, and tries to ensure they have the technology tools they need for success in the classroom. Whinery’s classroom was one of the first in the school to be equipped with computer stations, an interactive whiteboard and a document camera; today, most of the classrooms are similarly outfitted and there is wireless connectivity throughout the building. Technology “fits my teaching style,” says Whinery. “I live and breathe the interactive whiteboard. I try to keep my students’ attention focused on the screen at all times because I can do so much with it. I can instruct an entire class by presenting a lesson in note form on the screen, then showing them pictures or a video on the screen, then pausing it to circle or underline specific words. I can really draw their attention to key things.” Afterward he often uses the additional printed material downloadable from BrainPOP for independent and group work.
BrainPOP and BrainPOP ESL catches on at his school and district
Because of Whinery’s propensity for technology, Dr. Webb “counts on me to look into products that might be good for school-wide adoption.” As a result, Kenrose Elementary to date subscribes to all three BrainPOP products: BrainPOP, BrainPOP Jr. and BrainPOP ESL. Other teachers in the school often come to Whinery for advice on using them. Moreover, his ESL peers at other district schools are interested in adopting BrainPOP’s products and he has done presentations for them to demonstrate the incorporation of these resources into instruction.
Call it what you will—serendipity, a great fit or simply a very capable teacher surrounded by the right balance of challenges, opportunities and support—but Whinery feels right at home as a Williamson County Public Schools ESL teacher. Nine years later, wanderlust hasn’t crept in.
“I enjoy coming to work every day and I enjoy working with the kids,” he says. “As long as I’ve got that feeling, I’m doing great.”
For more information about BrainPOP ESL, BrainPOP or BrainPOP Jr., please contact ENA Consortium Program Manager Kylie McGee at email@example.com.