Campaigning for a School Board Seat Helps Improve Language Skills

a diverse group of students having a discussion

Language skills can benefit us in many ways and in a variety of personal, professional, and academic settings. When language training is implemented, and skills are improved on a community level—especially when used to empower an underserved community with a voice—the impact can be astounding.

In a recent episode of LTI’s “Language Is Your Superpower” podcast, special guest Johanna López shared how her campaign for a seat on her county’s School Board engaged her local Hispanic community, and how both Spanish- and English-speaking campaign volunteers improved their language skills throughout the process.

Johanna López is a member of the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Board in Florida and the first Latina to attain such a prestigious role via landslide vote in 2018. It was the culmination of a strategic campaign fully managed by her former students coupled with an impeccable career as an educator and advocate for marginalized youth. Ms. López is fully aware that she has been tasked by the community she has served for over two decades to be the eyes, ears, and voice of students, parents, and educators—especially those who look like her and who experience the most disparities. She takes this responsibility very seriously in her continued work championing minority student empowerment with a special focus on English as a Second Language (ESOL), supporting undocumented students, and advocating for the provision of better treatment for teachers and non-instructional staff.

Ms. López planted the seeds of improving individual language skills in the minds of her students long before she became a School Board Member. As a teacher in the Orange County Public Schools system, “when I saw that we have a PTA, a Parent Teacher Association, that doesn’t have any Hispanic persons and they don’t speak Spanish, I started a group called Familias Presentes, Estudiantes Excelentes,” which means, “Involved Parents, Excellent Students.” After Hurricane María impacted the island of Puerto Rico, many Puerto Rican families moved to Florida, and the group grew to “almost 900 parents and students together in the cafeteria. So, I think that was the time that we started empowering the students with their native language, because once they feel more secure and more empowered with their native language, because they feel more comfortable, then, I’m going to say, okay, now you have to learn how important it is to be engaged in the community. And forget about the accent and forget about grammatical mistakes. Try to think in English if you could. If not, try to translate. But it’s going to be harder because you’re going to need more time to express yourself.”

Putting words into action, Ms. López “started practicing in the classroom. I put students in pairs; somebody who is more fluent in English with somebody that is not fluent. So, they started learning from each other with basic conversations.”

A few years later, Ms. López became the first Latina in Orange County to win Teacher of The Year and later decided to campaign for a seat on the County’s School Board. Many of her former students, who had taken part in those classroom conversations, came back to volunteer for her campaign.

Having collectively knocked on over 35,000 doors throughout the campaign, Ms. López’s students knew her talking points in English and Spanish by memory by the time the debates began. While Ms. López had once been the person critiquing her students’ language, she noted that the tables had turned, when “at the end of every debate, we had meetings and [the students would] identify, ‘okay, Lopez. You used the word y (and in Spanish) 40 times. López this is not a plural.’ So, we were growing together through the campaign in improving the English language.”

–> Watch as Johanna recounts a story of a student who overcame her language barrier to advocate for her school

To her surprise, Ms. López also recalls how “the English-speakers that were in my campaign, they wanted to speak Spanish. So, now we have an Anglo person, an English speaker, wanting to know more Spanish and motivated to take Spanish in the school. But we also have the English Language Learners, our ESOL students, wanting to know and improve the English language.”

In closing, Ms. López shared a story of a time at a school board meeting, after she had already won the seat, when the community was fighting to rename one of the schools, and she was shocked to see “one of my former students, who helped me knocking on doors, be one of the speakers in front of the school board … It made me cry,” she said. “And it sounded so perfect. She did not read anything … speaking from the heart, you know? I said, ‘Wow! We are achieving what we wanted to achieve. Having the Hispanic community here in front of the school board members, speaking on behalf of a change … and we did it.’”

Is there a better way to show the power of language skills in a community than when you see the next generation having the tools, the opportunities, and the confidence to make their voices heard?

Tune into the podcast with Johanna López to learn more about her experience.

Championing Equitable Education within Your Community

language teacher talking to her students in a classroom The article, “Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States,”  delineates how the history of linguistic diversity in the U.S. has ebbed and flowed throughout time. Long before English settlers arrived, there were many distinct languages spoken in Native American communities in North America. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were an estimated 10 million people (approximately 10% of the population) who spoke a language other than English, which was influenced by immigration and slavery. With cultural assimilation and resistance to speaking any language other than English, the U.S. was virtually rendered monolingually English in the 1970s. Fast forward about 50 years, and the linguistic tides have turned again with a reported 60 million non-English speakers living and working in the U.S., of which 37 million are Spanish speakers. What does that mean for the education industry and championing equitable pathways to promote a linguistically diverse learning environment?

For a parent, student, or active community member, it can be challenging to know where to start in determining how to serve and make a meaningful difference due to the complexities of navigating the education system. Imagine trying to navigate this system when your native language is not English, and your previous knowledge about learning environments and educational systems may differ from the way children are educated in the U.S. This was the experience of Johanna López, the first Latina elected as a member of the Orange County Public School (OCPS) Board in Florida in 2018, and a recent guest on our podcast series, “Language is Your Superpower.”

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Johanna was a schoolteacher on the island, where she taught in Spanish. When she relocated to Orlando, Florida, her English proficiency was limited, but that did not dissuade her from going after her goal of getting back into the classroom. Her language acquisition journey has been a 20-year learning experience that has required her to also figure out how to navigate the U.S. educational system and how to advocate for equitable pathways for students that are learning English as a second language.

There are 3 ways you can become an education champion like School Board Member Johanna López:

1.     Research the U.S. Department of Education website. Learn about the mission, goals, and objectives of the department as well as the structure, which includes School Boards, state contacts, and budgets as well as resources for parents, teachers, educators, and community members. Additionally, the website has language assistance in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, and Russian.

2.     Advocate for education policy changes that support language diversity. In the 2019 report, “Making Languages Our Business” by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), they recommend that world languages be treated as a discipline much like others such as science, technology, math, etc.: “A command in multiple languages is a valuable asset for U.S. students and employees—not only in boosting their marketability in the workplace, but in helping them thrive in a global economy.” (p. 3) The research findings in the 2019 report indicate a “significant implication for education policy.” Therefore, U.S. policy makers should be encouraged to prioritize language education due to the growing demand and competitive advantage it provides.

3.     Utilize Your Language Superpower. If you are proficient in one or more languages, consider being a liaison for your local School Board, public school, or other educational institution. As a bilingual or multilingual person, you can certify your language skills with ACTFL assessments through LTI. This will not only provide a boost to your credibility to serve as an intermediary, but it will also help you be viewed as a valuable resource to your community.

As the U.S. becomes more diverse, the need for linguistically diverse learning environments is critical in education for future generations. By doing some research, reaching out to local leaders, and actively serving your community, you can utilize your language superpower and become a champion for equitable education.

For more information on how you can become certified for your language proficiency, visit Language Testing International.

Tune in to the podcast with Johanna López here.


ESOL Teacher Carried to Victory by Hopeful Students

young teacher holding a Success sign How the hope of representation inspired ESOL students to overcome language barriers and carry their teacher to victory

At Language Testing International, we see the powers of language learning manifest in all different forms, and a person’s decision to improve their language skills can be in response to a multitude of reasons—especially when there is a sense of urgency to do so. Even more powerful than an individual motivated by urgency is the collective power of a group of individuals who are all motivated by the same urgency and work together towards a common goal.

We heard an incredible example of this when we were joined by special guest Johanna López in a recent episode of LTI’s “Language Is Your Superpower” podcast.

After being named Teacher of the Year in 2017 by Florida’s Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), Johanna López became a member of the county’s School Board. She was the first Latina to attain such a prestigious role via landslide vote in 2018. It was the culmination of a strategic campaign fully managed by her former students coupled with an impeccable career as an educator and advocate for marginalized youth.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Ms. López moved to Orlando, FL to escape her difficult situation and seek better opportunities for herself. As a disenfranchised Latina woman, Ms. López is fully aware that she has been tasked by the community she has served for over two decades to be the eyes, ears, and voice of students, parents, and educators—especially those who look like her and who experience the most disparities. To many, including Ms. López, the announcement of her campaign to become a School Board member meant something far bigger than just a position on the board. It meant the voices of an underserved and underrepresented population could finally have one of their own get a seat at the table.

Ms. López points out the uphill battle that she and her students had to face throughout the campaign, because of their noticeable accent when speaking in English. “So, it was a project because with my accent, I had to set an example to them, so they’d feel comfortable enough to knock on those doors and try their best to speak English to the community that speaks English, because we also have a big community that speaks Spanish as well, but the majority were English speakers,” said López.

Fortunately, Ms. López’s students were up to the challenge and, in many cases, were surprised by the response from neighborhood residents. A few of the students “even have stories of senior citizens crying at their door when they’d see that the [students] were trying to speak English and saying, ‘You have to vote for my teacher. My teacher is going to advocate for me, and for your grandchildren,’ you know, ‘and for the community.’ So, it was very emotional to everybody,” explained López.

The effort put forth by Ms. López’s students inspired English- and non-English-speaking residents alike to rally around her campaign. “You know, this is about working hard, not only for English language learners, but also, for all the people who believe in inclusion and diversity,” said López. “So, for the first time, that seat won by 40,000 votes. That seat usually won by 9,000, 12,000. But, with the mobilization of English-language learners … even the signs were designed by students. Everything was based on my students’ intelligences, skills, and ideas.”

So, what was it that Ms. López told her students to help them face their fears of communicating with complete strangers in English, their second language? She explains that “during my campaign, I also told my students, ‘You know what? My accent is an asset. And that is the way you have to see it. You know, when you speak and you have an accent, everybody is going to know that you speak another language. So, you are bilingual. So, you have to feel proud about your roots and you have to be proud about your accent, because it’s not the accent what is important. It’s not being a perfectionist. It’s about having the commitment and it’s about passion. It’s about the community, it’s about the engagement, it’s about being transparent. People know when you are committed and transparent with them. They know when you’re honest, and when you try your best, and they value that.’ And they forget about the accent… And if they say something, it’s something that is going to help us to be better and empower us to achieve the goal that we are looking for.”

–> Watch a short video in which Johanna tells a story of how her run for the school board inspired students to overcome their language barriers.

WOW! What an inspiring message … and one that clearly resonated with her students as they carried her to a landslide victory. Ms. López’s story goes to show that language is not just a tool, it is an asset, especially when the person wielding the language is using it with positive intent. The community Ms. López serves as a member of the School Board recognized that positive intent within the students advocating for her campaign. And now, for the first time, the Spanish-speaking minority in Orange County, Florida has a voice and a seat at the table; not despite their accent, but because of it!

To learn more about Johanna López’s inspiring story, tune in to our podcast here.

Tips for Encouraging Test Stamina during AAPPL Testing

teenager reading on a laptop, focusing

I get so excited watching my students focusing so hard as they take the AAPPL. However, immediately after the test, the students seemed stunned, mentally spent, and slightly overwhelmed. I worried at first that this was caused by the test being too difficult for them, but then realized that it’s the result of the stamina required in completing any rigorous test. Here are some things I learned that can help students effectively tackle the AAPPL without test fatigue impacting their performance.


I decided to administer the AAPPL during regular scheduled Spanish 4 class periods with the modes divided over separate days: one day for reading, one day for listening, etc. This type of spread out testing schedule is possible because, although the AAPPL is one complete test of all four skills and the three communicative modes, it consists of four separate test components that are easy to administer one at a time over the course of a week of class periods. This is helpful so that a student’s confidence and focus on one mode doesn’t affect the others.

Originally, I allotted one week of class time to AAPPL testing. We went through all four modes in one week. I found this to be a little bit exhausting for the students. By the end of the week, several students admitted to just giving up or not really doing their best because they were mentally tired. Last year I spread out the testing schedule a little bit more to alleviate that. Rather than focus on doing all four modes in one week, students took one mode per week. We began with the Presentational Writing mode, and students had two days (or two class periods) to complete that. Then, for the rest of the week we did fun review games or lighter activities to try and lower the intensity. The following week we did the Interpersonal Listening and Speaking mode and again allotted two class periods for that. The following week we did the Interpretive Reading mode one day and the Interpretive Listening mode a few days later, with fun review activities in between. The upsides of this were that the students felt more comfortable and capable of approaching each mode to the best of their ability. The downside, for an instructor, is that the testing occupied some of our class time for almost a month. If the focus is to address student anxiety and eliminate test fatigue, this schedule is very beneficial and worth the tradeoff.

This year, I was considering spreading it out even more and testing different modes at different times of the year. My Spanish 4 classes are always comfortable with the interpretive tests of listening and reading. Last year, the students remarked that they would be able to confidently take those tests during September and October instead of March and April when we usually did the testing. I believe it’s worth investigating the benefits of testing individual modes throughout the year versus testing all modes in one period of time.

Take a Break

It’s worth highlighting again that the AAPPL contains four separate test modes that are independent of each other and can be taken separately. If you must administer the test in one day, encourage students to take a break in between the different sections to walk around, breathe, play a game, etc. This is a healthy way to fight fatigue. During the quarantine shutdown of 2020, my students took the AAPPL with Parent/Guardian Proctoring. I advised parents to make sure that the students took breaks and at least walked around in between tests so they didn’t plow through all of them at once. I had one student that semester who did attempt to do all four tests at one time and the results were influenced by how exhausted he was with the testing process in general.

Teach Self-Awareness

When I first began to understand how mentally consuming testing could be, I began to educate my students about feeling overwhelmed. Throughout the year, I had them practice self-awareness strategies that helped them recognize when they were getting to a moment of mental fatigue. And then we practiced strategies to refocus. During testing, students relied on these strategies and thus became more aware of when their focus was being affected. This past semester while testing, I frequently saw students push their chairs back, close their eyes for a few seconds and just detach from the test. They gave themselves a thirty second break when they felt the intensity get too high and returned to the test ready to proceed.

We spend a lot of time as language educators preparing our students to demonstrate their language skills, but it’s also important to set aside a little bit of time to address these other socio-emotional factors that contribute to test performance. Helping your students address mental fatigue gives them the best opportunity for success.