Tahlequah Daily Press

March 18, 2014

World traveler brings multiculturalism to Tahlequah Public Schools

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Travel with her parents while she was growing up gives artist and English Language Learners teacher Ellie Vega life experiences to pass on to her students.

Her father, Gerald Peterson, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, and he and his wife, Molly, raised daughters Polly and Ellie in French- and Spanish-speaking countries.

“I come from a foreign service family, and we moved every two or three years. Our parents insisted that we learn the language and culture of wherever we were,” said Vega.

She graduated from The American High School in Mexico City, and then her family was stationed in the Dominican Republic. She attended the Altos de Chavon School of Design in the Dominican Republic and graduated with a degree in Fine Arts and Illustration. From there, she went to New York and studied at Parsons School of Design. She also graduated from Empire State College with Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts in Culture, and spent about seven years in New York, designing visual displays for stores and working at the United Nations Office of Foreign Missions as a program officer.

She’s been married to Martin Vega for 10 years, and they have two children who go to school at Heritage Elementary. Molly is almost 7 and Dominic is almost 9.

Since 2010, Vega has been a teacher, and she’s currently assigned to teach ELL at Heritage and Cherokee elementaries. She also is an ELL tutor and art teacher for Boys & Girls Club at Heritage.

Before teaching in public schools, Vega taught ESL at the Language Company at Northeastern State University, helping foreign students learn English and prepare to attend American universities. There were students from Saudi Arabia, Panama, China, Vietnam, Ivory Coast, Korea and Japan.

“I made lifelong friends that year and enjoy news that many of our former students are continuing their education at colleges all over the U.S.,” said Vega.

The next year, she taught art and humanities at Muskogee High School and discovered the joy of helping unearth the artist in all students. Her favorites were often those who claimed to have no artistic talent and then discovered they did.

This is her second year of teaching ELL in Tahlequah. English Language Learners are children who speak or have been exposed to more than one language in their homes.

“Our students come from diverse backgrounds. Some learn English for the first time when they come to school; some come from bilingual or even trilingual homes. As ELL teachers, our job is to help newcomers adapt and learn English and help bilingual children learn Academic Vocabulary through different means,” Vega said.

A method called “Total Physical Response” and plenty of visuals are used in her classroom.  

“I enjoy teaching ELL because I understand what it’s like to be an ELL kid. When our family returned from Morocco when I was in the first grade, we were speaking half-French and half-English,” she said. “I remember feeling isolated and not understanding anything. I remember starting to draw and connecting with my classmates through pictures.”

In the third grade, she finally learned to read, with the help of a computer program.

“By then, we were off to a different country with a whole new language to learn,” she said. “It is doubly exciting for me to see struggling ELL students excel in art. It builds confidence and is a form of expression that can translate into words.”  

ELL teachers work with students to guide them through the six stages of language acquisition. The first is often called “the silent period,” when students are absorbing language, situations and social cues like a sponge. This period can last for as few as six weeks to six months. After that, the student may start to speak in short phrases. There will be many errors and students will rely heavily on context clues and images.

Oral vocabulary should continue to expand, with fewer errors. Fluency will increase and students will start to widen their vocabularies. Students will then struggle to express themselves in more complex areas and will need to consult peers or word-to-word dictionaries to fill in gaps.

Intermediate Fluency in the second language is fluent especially in social situations. The students will be able to relate well to English-speaking peers and do well in many academic situations.

Students are able to demonstrate higher learning skills in English but still don’t understand every expression. An Advanced Fluency student will communicate effectively in all contexts although they may still have an accent and use some expressions incorrectly.

It may take students two to three years to develop social language and from five to 10 years to develop academic language skills. These different time frames will vary from student to student, depending on many factors.

“I became an ELL teacher because my own kids happen to be ELL students. We are a bilingual, bicultural household. We speak both Spanish and English and our kids struggle to separate the two,” Vega said.

A beautiful large dragon lounges in the Tahlequah Middle School library. Vega constructed it, with help from several students, out of paper mache. Brenda Madden, librarian at TMS, contacted Vega before Christmas break and asked if she could help make a life-sized dragon for a medieval book fair.

“She has won many awards for awesome book fairs and I immediately said yes,” said Vega. “The fact is, my husband and I had been discussing building a ‘Mojiganga,’ which is a giant 15-foot walking puppet from Mexico is often hired for weddings in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. So building the dragon was an experiment that took on a life of its own.”    

It took several weeks to build the dragon. She received support from teachers at Cherokee Elementary, who collected newspaper for the project. Madden supplied all of the materials and the students worked tirelessly to bring the dragon to life.

“We started with chicken wire, stuffed it, shaped it and used rolls of newspaper to sculpt it,” Vega said.

Family encourages and inspires Vega. Her sister, Polly Winburn, is an ELL teacher at Greenwood Elementary and has been a great mentor.

“My mom and dad are a great inspiration to me and always show us the importance of doing what you love,” she said.