Monthly Archives: October 2016

A Clarifying Moment

This semester has had several  unmitigated professional plusses: (1) my schedule is now ELL, trig, algebra 2, and pre-calc. (Cue Sesame Street.)  Last year, I briefly (and oh so irrationally) considered resigning because I only had two preps. Four is better. (2) I’m actually helping the school out in a pinch by taking this ELL class. Feels noble and self-sacrificing….(3) well, no, scratch the self-sacrifice, given the  33% pay bump for the fourth semester in a row, with next semester the fifth. You would be shocked to learn how much I make extra a month. Score. (5) I’m getting a new professional experience with no risk.

On the other hand, I’ve set a new benchmark for exhaustion. Work rarely tires me out. But for the first time in memory I’m mentally zonked by my schedule. Enjoying it, yes. But not only am I finding myself thinking longingly of Saturday and sleep,  but I’m often teaching my fourth block from a chair. I’ve been puzzling over the cause, because nothing about four preps should in and of itself be so draining (for me). As I wrote this,  I suddenly realized that club adviser should be added to the list. Then I’m an induction  mentor. And oh, yeah, an administrator voluntold me to co-lead a science/engineering after-school program, which is getting kind of ridiculous. I don’t do science.

The after-school program gave me some insight into my state of mind. I’d been MIA for the first few meetings, for good reasons. I’d done the several hours of weekend training, met with my co-lead (also my mentee), but had just not gotten dialed into the weekly sessions.  I’d been mentally shying away from even thinking about that two afternoon commitment, on top of everything else. But once my first meeting started, I was hooked and charged, working with the kids.

I suddenly realized that this is how I’m facing every single class, every obligation (save the induction meetings, which take place at a local liquor store with a great beer bar): mentally shying away from each instance until I’m in the moment, when it’s an electric shock of fun and joy. Which, for me, is a sign of incipient burnout. I have cancelled one road trip entirely over Thanksgiving, and am rethinking the best way to achieve two others. I may even fork out plane fare, which is a big concession. Semester two will be better, just two preps.



Yesterday, Friday afternoon, just minutes from beer and sushi, I was waiting for some pre-calc students to finish a test when in walked

“Hui! My lord, I haven’t seen you since…” and I stopped there, just jumping up to shake hands, because the last time I’d seen Hui, nearly three years ago, he’d been choking back tears as he told me his SAT scores.

Hui had been a junior in my first pre-calc class, where he struggled. (Based on my results with him and other similar stories, I slowed down instruction dramatically in subsequent precalc courses.)  He wasn’t a student I was particularly close to, but the next year, he stopped by and asked if I could give him advice about the SAT.  I wasn’t sanguine. He tested terribly in math, and he spoke, read, and wrote English at perhaps a fifth grade level. A top state university was his goal. Asians with impeccable scores and transcripts face routine discrimination by college admissions staff; the notion of an underprivileged Chinese lad whose abilities weren’t best captured by standardized tests simply does not compute in that world. I tried as gently as possible to prepare him for this likelihood, but didn’t push the issue, and twice a week, he came to my classroom after school for half an hour or more,  steadfastly working through test sections and trying to make sense of the questions.

After his test date, Hui asked me if I’d look at his personal statement. I gave him several tutorials in self-promotion.  Hui’s weak English suddenly became a remarkable achievement  when considered in the context of five years in America and two parents with limited education and less English. He was reclassified quickly (probably too quickly), which allowed him to take a normal schedule and qualify for admission to a state campus. Play up that achievement, I told him, and put your scores in context.  Hui had started a new draft when he came to my room one day, devastated: he’d received his SAT scores and they were as low as I’d feared.

His despair has remained a memory I flinch from–although at least in this case the recoil wasn’t for my poor handling of things. I didn’t try to console him, didn’t point out the local community college was very good (it is).  Hui accepted my heartfelt sympathy as best he could, nodding tightly, eyes filled with tears. He left my room, and I don’t remember another conversation, although I’m sure we ran into each other in the hallways.

“So how’s college?”

“Good. I want to get a degree in economics. I’m planning a transfer, getting everything in order, and…” Hui paused.

“Oh, hey. You didn’t just come by to say hi!”

Grin and a ducked head. “I’m want to apply to the same school as….. as last time. Could you look at my personal statements? They are short answer questions, so it won’t be one big essay.”

“Sure! You’ve got a good shot at transferring. I’m glad you’re trying again. You want to mail the responses?”

“They’re on my Google Drive. Do you have time?”

I sighed. “I do, but only until these last three are done with their tests, because then I have beer awaiting.”

I flipped through the short passages. “Hey, your writing has improved tremendously.” That wasn’t empty praise; his writing was still obvious an product of an English Language Learner, but the deficiencies now were….well, not infrequent, but not constant, either. Far fewer grammar errors, allowing me to focus on style issues.

Passage one needed a complete rewrite; Hui focused entirely on describing courses in his desired major. I told him to branch out. Passages two and three were nicely done, with only a few grammar and style edits. Passage four….

Passage four, in response to “what significant obstacle have you faced and how has it affected your academic progress” or something like that, was a lovely little explanation of the struggle he faced as a child who came to America at the age of ten, with two parents who still, to this day, speak no English.  Not just vague assertions, either, but entertaining, brief comparisons of verb tenses and articles that presented tremendous challenges to Chinese speakers, and finishing up with his constant efforts to remedy his gaps with books and films.

I looked over at Hui, who was watching me closely, and don’t tell anyone, but I was choked up. “You kept my notes from last time.”

“I didn’t need to. I remembered them. They really helped to think of my English as…something I’d achieved, rather than just something I do really bad at.”

“You should finish with a sentence to that effect.”


He left after wangling my phone number out of me, but promised to try email first. A student finishing up his test said “So can I come back to you for college admissions help after I graduate?”

“You better.”

I tell this story for two reasons. First: I write quite a bit about Asian immigrants , the corruption that China is introducing into US college admissions, the continual obsession with grades   and resumes with little interest in underlying knowledge, the pressure the parents put on the kids, and the  my concerns that they’re not here to become Americans, but to take advantage of a system not set up to defend against them. Inevitably, someone takes offense and argues that “they aren’t all like that”. Yes.  Even the ones who are like that….aren’t. I know that better than most.

But I tell this story in large part because I didn’t instantly think to write it up. I was just sitting around last night thinking of the three posts I have in the hopper, and trying to get the energy to finish one of them, when the events of the day popped into my mind and I thought it might make a good story. Then I realized it made a great story. Then–in the moment of this essay’s title–I realized the reason it didn’t instantly present itself as a great story is because this happens to me all the time.

A month ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks when I noticed the kid sitting next to me was a trig student from last year, now attending a graphics arts program. We were chatting when his pals showed up, all past students, and they sat down for half an hour and told me about their lives, exchanging funny stories about my classes. Two ex-students came back just this month asking for some help in their college math course. Every year, a few students make coffee dates, just to chat. Still others just stop by my classroom and say hi.

What a tremendous, amazing job I have. Teaching feeds my love of drama, my ability to think on the fly, and my love of intellectual challenges–and gives me tremendous independence. Then, it turns out, I live in my students’ memories.  I am Chips, not Browning.

In Clan Teacher, pay is substituted in part with ego gratification–and don’t think it’s not a fair trade. I’m a cranky introvert–you don’t think it matters to me that I send kids out into the world with Memories of Me? Good memories, of course–and yes, like all teachers, I worry about the damage, the memories I might cause through a careless word or ill-considered retort. But  I don’t demand perfection from my own performance. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

So I’m not telling this story because it revived my flagging spirits, reversed my burnout. I’m telling you about Hui because it’s a glorious part of business as usual.

Which means I have to rest up, take this mild burnout seriously. Maybe take next summer off. (Yes. Laugh.) Get home earlier, particularly when I feel too tired to get up from my desk.

Because I never want to lose the sense of joy I get when remembering they actually pay me for this gig.







ELL isn’t Language Instruction

I’ve only taught English once in a public school (a humanities class), but I’ve been teaching private instruction English for a decade. Language instruction it’s not. I took French for a few years, and vaguely remember having to study verbs, and verb forms. Something about subjunctives. Unlike my father, I’m terrible at all new languages that don’t tell computers what to do.

I thought teaching English as a language was more structured.  Start with common verbs, the “persons”–I eat, you eat, he/she eats, they eat. Then common nouns. Then put things together? Isn’t that how it works? In other languages?

But then, French teachers speak English. Or Russian. Or whatever their students’ native language is–and a French teacher’s students only have one native language. You don’t see French teachers in American classrooms playing to a class of Punjab, Chinese, Spanish, and English students. Nor is the French teacher expected to be utterly ignorant of Punjabi, Mandarin, Spanish and English–yet still teach the students French.

Yet here I am with six students, only two of whom have even minimal conversational English, with four native languages. I’m not supposed to teach them English like a French teacher teaches French. Nor am I supposed to teach them English or anything else in Spanish, Punjabi, Chinese, or French as it’s spoken in the Congo.

American schools have never taught the English language.  Many education reform folk–and most non-experts–glorify immersion, our original method of handling language learners. Dump kids in, let them learn the language. That worked, right? Well, maybe not. Lots didn’t learn.  They just dropped out. As Ravitch the historian (not the advocate) observed, America’s past success educating immigrants has been dramatically overrated. (The immigrants’ children did well, but why we can’t expect that today is a tad Voldemortean for this essay.)

Giving additional services to non-English speaking students  became a public education mandate with Lau vs. Nichols.  But after the Chinese Lau, the case history shows that all major bilingual court cases involved Hispanics.

First, the Aspira case built on Lau, as  New York City signed a consent degree to provide bilingual education to limited English Puerto Rican students until they could function in regular classes. This led to a de facto mandate for nationwise bilingual education, and created the infrastructure of support. Not the curriculum, of course. (Ha, ha! Heaven forfend!)

One of those court cases was also one of the heads of the hydra known as US vs. Texas , which has a long, controversial history much of it not involving bilingual education. But at one point presiding judge  observed that the “experts” were appalled that Hispanic ELL students had only to reach the 23rd percentile in order to be reclassified as fluent.  The kids would only be doing better than 1 in 4 kids, wrote the judge, which simply wasn’t enough to perform adequately in mainstream classrooms. The judge never considered that black students aren’t given all this additional support, despite similar or worse test scores. We still don’t.

Anyway, as a result of that court case,  many if not all of states require ELL students to be proficient on achievement tests before they can be reclassified.  Proficient.  Often above average. Not basic. Different states have different procedures, different standards, but “proficient” is usually mentioned. And remember that ELL is only nominally concerned with teaching non-English speakers, since ELL students are primarily citizens.   Kids are asked  if  English is the only language spoken at home. Those who say “no” get tested, and if they don’t test proficient, they get tagged ELL and stay ELL until they do.  Schools don’t care–arent’ allowed to care–if the student came to America yesterday, a decade ago, or through a womb.

As I’ve written before, in math as it is in English, elementary school “proficiency” is much easier to acquire than the skill required for high school. It is thus much easier to test out of  ELL elementary school, regardless of original language, than high school. Most elementary ELL students test out after two or three years. Those who don’t make it out are categorized “long-term ELL”, meaning they’ve been ELL for over five years and never made proficient. Left unsaid is that kids need a certain cognitive ability to hit those test scores.

Thus by high school, over half the long-term ELL students are US citizens, split evenly among second and 3rd generation Americans who consider English their native language but have  lower than average cognitive ability or some specifically verbal processing issues. These are the kids who weren’t able to meet the relatively low elementary school proficiency standards. The other 44% are foreign born kids who couldn’t test out in the first five years.  It’s unlikely that either group is going to escape ELL in high school.

Consider: the primary reason for sheltering ELL learners once they’ve achieved functional fluency is to avoid kids being stuck in long term ELL. But there’s no solution to the “problem” of long-term ELLS, save accepting it as an artifact of an entirely different attribute.

If you’re following my dispirited trail of musings, you might be wondering if the elementary school proficiency levels are so low, then shouldn’t some of the kids who escape ELL status early run into trouble in high school?”   And to quote Tommy Lee Jones: Oh wow. Gee whiz. Looky here! Many Reclassified ELLs Still Need English-Language Support, Study Finds and points out that this finding is consistent with past research.

If you aren’t following my dispirited traill of musings, you’re thinking this has nothing to do with my assigned task of teaching English to one African, two Chinese, two Mexican, and one Punjabi student.

Sorry, I’m just explaining why I don’t teach English language instruction in an English class of kids who don’t speak English.

ESL and bilingual education from its earliest days was never intended to instruct students in the English language. It was actually a means of directing funding to close the Hispanic achievement gap for English speaking Hispanics which–it was believed–was due to inadequate academic instruction in English.   ELL’s purported objective is to provide support to non-English speaking students until they are proficient. Its actual  purpose is, first, to define a category that reports the academic achievement of  primarily Hispanic US citizens of lower than average cognitive ability–the better to beat our schools up with. Second, the classes gives the kids something to do until immersion gives them enough English to be mainstreamed, or at least into a higher ELL class.

So just as before, ELL teachers don’t provide English language instruction. Kids don’t come to America with a six word vocabulary and take English 1, followed by English 2, then English 3, and then AP English because hey, now they’re fluent.

When I express the concern   that I’m not teaching the kids English, I’m just giving them vocabulary and grammar enrichment in a sheltered English class, other ELL teachers and the admins nod their heads approvingly and say “You’re doing a great job!” Because ELL is not about teaching the English language.

Then I look at these six kids–and really, they’re terrific. In an ideal world, I’d never question my assignment. They’re a joy to teach and I’ll do my best for them. But only one of them is a citizen. Collectively, they are consuming one third of three English teachers’ schedule–that is, one full-time position at our school is dedicated to giving language enrichment to five non-citizens. All across America you’ll find thousands of these sheltered classes, for kids who just got here and instantly given free and guaranteed access to small classrooms and support in lessons that may or may not teach them the language, but gives them something to do in school until their English gets good enough for academic instruction. Which will–again–happen outside these classes, because lord knows, we’re not involved in language instruction.

I think of the millions of citizen kids. Of the bright high schoolers who could use challenging enrichment, maybe digging in deep to a Milton sonnet because they have the ability to do something more than fake their way through interpretation in carefully modeled  Schaffer chunks.  Of the many citizen students from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who didn’t check the “another language spoken at home” box and thus are not given additional time and money….not to get higher test scores, but just spend time with a teacher reading them a story and talking about vocabulary and context at a level they can enjoy. Every day. Of the many citizens from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who are told for their entire k-12 education that their native language isn’t, in fact, their native language.

Of course, whether or not we should be spending this kind of money on non-citizens never comes up. All we ever debate is whether we should use immersion or follow Krashen’s dictates and instruct every 1 in 20 kids in their native language. See, dedicating one full English position to six kids is the cheap version, the one favored by conservatives and most taxpayers. Bilingual advocates want native language instruction, which would further reduce class size from six to one or two, in every language we run into in our public schools.  Of course, we don’t have enough qualified teachers in each language, but since we can’t have perfection, at least  it’s a great way to boost employment in immigrant communities. So not only do we spend more resources on the kids, but the schools often provide more employment to the communities. As for citizens, well, you know, being bilingual is important. You should have studied more.

The entire debate about bilingual education vs. immersion is a canard. Of all the many education debates that aren’t as they seem, none wastes as much time,  money, and resources as that of the ludicrously named English Language Learner.

No one is asking whether we should be doing this at all. Well. I am. But then, I’m no one.

Someone, somewhere, will furiously argue that I’m “pitting brown students against each other”.  No. That’s what ELL does. And not just to kids of color, either.

Cynical? Scratch the surface of any ELL program and see how far off I am. Don’t listen to what they say. Go look at what they do.

Not sure if this piece has a point.  In math, I don’t have to think of this too often.

At the end of the day, I remind myself that I like the job, the boss folks like what I’m doing, and regardless of what you call it, this is a hell of a lesson.


Twitter: A Choice, Not a Publication

Jim Ruttenberg is upset because Twitter isn’t policing itself like radio and TV did. Hatred spewed by “venomous” pseudonymous accounts–the new “white hoods”–is simply not rooted out and purged as it  should be. (Disclosure: Education Realist is not, in fact, my name.)

I’ve been around the online world, although not as Ed, for close to twenty years, which is a middling time. Usenet is forty years old, older than the the Web itself, older than the domain naming system, and the Great Renaming that created the notion of “alt” is thirty.  And for nearly that long, we’ve all known that  the news groups and every other online communication form invented has been used to promote racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and all the other bad isms. I don’t think Rutenberg wants us to believe that any of these opinions are new, although he doesn’t say so in that many words.

I wonder if Rutenberg has discussed this with Chris Cillizza, who has written two  different articles celebrating the death of blog comments, explaining that comments aren’t nearly as good as the superior, “self-policing” nature of Twitter.

I think it was Alex Russo who observed that Twitter has done a lot to kill comments sections. For the commenters, Twitter offers a much  bigger audience, freeing them from the blog’s limited readership. For the media organizations who abandon comments, the single biggest reason isn’t the aggravation from blowhards, but the cost. Comment curating is expensive, and leaves them open to free speech and consistency complaints.  Advertisers don’t value comments pages, or their views. So comments cost a lot in employees and bandwidth and don’t offer much.Twitter’s larger audience drives views and saturation –and it doesn’t cost the publishers a cent.

Journalists and other figures came to Twitter long before the their corporate owners did. They  willingly cast off the protections offered them by a media website without realizing the tradeoff. They can refuse to read their email. They can refuse to engage with the comments section. They can ignore all the the angry blog posts linking to their work.  Twitter doesn’t give them that option, and their publishers can’t protect them.

But they want Twitter. They want to compare follower stats and watch their popularity grow. They want the “viral” attention of a popular article.They want the increased visibility.  They want the rapid communication with their colleagues and experts. They even want the feedback of the many intelligent and committed readers. They want it all for free, the audiences that can rapidly join up and participate without the overhead of websites, domain names, and curation. They want to show their real selves to their loyal fans whilst still pretending to be unbiased in their “real” journalism.

They also want to look in on the little people to produce some of that “real” journalism or to further reinforce their professional status. Hey, I’ll just grab some “regular people” tweets for my article. Let’s see what the hashtag for the newest terrorist attack has in the way of color commentary. Or hey, look at this racist tweet–I’ll just tweet it out to my followers for shaming. Here’s a moron I can mock. Maybe it will go viral and I’ll look influential.  Or look, here’s a bathos-drenched Twitter conversation amongst rape victims that I can rewrite with little effort for lots of clicks, and I don’t need their consent.

Journalists and other elites routinely cull Twitter for content, whether to keep their followers happy, to fuel their causes, or to do something they think of as reporting or analysis.  Yeah, they want Twitter.

They just want Twitter without any risk of being called out,  mocked, and abused, because   calling out, mocking, and abusing people has been the media’s job for generations. It’s not supposed to go the other way.

When journalists left the confines of the media domain protection and set out onto the open range, they became the news, just like the little people. Because on Twitter, no one is little, or everyone is. Blue check or no.

Rutenberg calls Twitter a “new media development”. But Twitter is a communications medium, not a publishing empire. It’s the connective fiber, not the content. Twitter “publishers” don’t exist in a centralized form. Or, as one academic puts it, Twitter enables ambient journalism, in which the public doesn’t just receive the news and analysis selected by the gatekeepers, but participates in  “digitally networked” information generation in which news generation goes in multiple directions.

The problem isn’t Twitter. There aren’t any sentiments on Twitter that haven’t lived online since online existed, and before that  lived in print. But in a networked digital world, the journalists can’t filter.  Journalists aren’t wilting flowers. They’re used to criticism. But just as Twitter makes reporting on “the people” easier, so too does it make the people’s response a lot easier to deliver.

Jim Rutenberg calls for a “robust discussion” about Twitter’s danger to national discourse, even though he’s clearly aware that the platform has been around for a decade. He’s been a member for half that time.  Little late, Jim.

I am not excusing the Pepes, the gas chambers, the tweeted threats. Nor am I drawing any equivalencies between media mockery of their chosen targets and the *isms we can’t filter out now. My advice to journalists and other opinion folks: stop calling for purges. Stop castigating anonymity, as if ordinary people have nothing to fear from your prying eyes. Stop pretending that rudeness and nastiness actually dangerous. Stop demonstrating, once again, that you think you’re more important than the rest of us.

Stop feeling sorry for yourselves. Stay safe within the confines of your publisher’s website if you don’t want the abuse, and pay the price of a lower profile and a smaller audience. Twitter is your choice. But it’s not your property.



(Hey. Less than 1000. Sorry for breaking up my ELL series. But this has been on  my mind for a while.)