Ms. Karen Hurley

Fifth Grade English Language Learner Teacher
Bret R. Tarver Elementary School / Cartwright Elementary School District

Walk by Karen Hurley’s fifth grade English Language Learner (ELL) class on any given day and you might hear young voices singing a boisterous rendition of the song, “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” Having her students learn the words to classic musical hits is just one method the Bret R. Tarver Elementary School teacher uses to improve her students’ English and grammar.

“I find that teaching them lyrics to songs improves their reading literacy, and the old songs tell more of a story where the kids can repeat full sentences,” Hurley says. “There’s nothing like seeing a student’s face light up and having the entire class get so excited when they hear the opening notes of ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz,’” she laughs.

Hurley knows first-hand what her students struggle with as English language learners. Her father was one as well. He was of European descent and German was his primary language. He learned English in the classroom rather than at home, similar to her students’ situation. Hurley believes that witnessing his ongoing challenges to understand proper English grammar, as well as a myriad of her German aunts and uncles, was the catalyst that put her on the career path she now follows.

“Even now, my aunts and uncles are in their 80s and 90s, and I’m still teaching them about English,” she says. “For example, the word ‘circle’ has two c’s in it, but they each make different sounds. They wonder why it’s like that. I work with my students in the same way to help them understand and then pronounce the words correctly.”

With 21 years in education under her belt, and the last 12 years as an ELL teacher in the Cartwright School District, Hurley continues her love for, and fascination with her work in helping children learn English. Her fifth graders study the requisite math, social studies and science, but she spends four hours each day on literacy.

“I’m absolutely fascinated by grammar,” she says. “I love the way words work, the way phrases come together; that’s why I like teaching ELL. I really like taking students through the steps to literacy—practicing sounds and then syllables and then words. Ultimately, we put those words into sentences, and the next thing you know, the kids are reading and speaking in English. It’s a great ‘aha’ moment.”

Hurley shares another “aha” moment from this past academic school year in which she had a student who joined her class in September without knowing a single word of English.

“She came in with that deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes, and I could tell she was overwhelmed,” Hurley recalls.

She would see the student writing in a notebook every day, and when she asked the girl what she was writing, she saw that it was a word or two that Hurley had written on the board during class. The student told her she would go home every night; look up the word for its meaning and practice saying the words she was writing down.

“She was really pushing herself to write the words we’re learning in class and putting them into sentences,” Hurley says. “I’m amazed at how much she’s learned over the course of the year, coming in with no English and now reading, speaking and writing it. I’m proud to have played a role in that.”

Hurley is the only fifth grade ELL teacher, also referred to as Structured English Immersion (SEI), at Tarver Elementary. She also is a district ITECS (Instructional Technology Specialist) representative, responsible for training teachers on how to seamlessly integrate technology to support language development in their classrooms. So, it’s no surprise that Hurley must manage her time wisely.

“I have three book bags I pack full and take home every night, and I’ve already broken so many carts because I’ve overloaded them with school ‘homework,’” she laughs.

“But, whenever I get frustrated at my lack of time management, I process what it is I’m working on and realize I just spent an hour making achievement certificates for my students,” she says. “I’m OK with that if that’s what I spent my time on. To me, it’s worth it because I see the proud looks on their faces when they get that recognition. I think that’s what the kids will remember years from now.”

Karen Hurley is a Fifth Grade Teacher at Bret R. Tarver Elementary School in Cartwright & the 2015 Arizona English Language Learner (ELL) Teacher of the Year.