Not Really Teaching English

The last time I wrote about my ELL class, I had six students: two from Mexico (Marshall and Kit from the story), two from China (Julian and Sebastian), one from Africa (Charlotte), one from India (Amit).

For the first ten weeks of school, my little gang fell into a routine. Monday, they worked in their Newcomers book, a “consumable” (new word for disposable) book that really added some structure to learning vocabulary–the chapters have interesting pictures wrapped around a particular content idea (going to the doctors office, colors, office furniture, math, etc). Tuesday was the online reading program. Wednesday was conversation day–I’d pick a topic and we’d go back and forth. Thursday, I’d find some short reading passages with questions, so I could test their understanding. Friday, maybe more of the same or a movie.

The Newcomers books were in the ELL classroom I used. Someone told me to use the Edge series, but the kids just weren’t ready. The room had tons of material–books, dictionaries, workbooks–but much of it was just at the wrong level, or too arcane, or simply uninteresting.

Charlotte is fairly fluent, but has a special ed diagnosis that will pretty much doom her to full English immersion for as long as she stays in high school, despite her teachers’ protests. (We did manage to get her sped support, at least.)  Sebastian has made no progress.  Amit has decent verbal fluency but his reading level is very weak, his written skills even worse. Marshall and Kit were my bright spots; they’ve been acquiring vocabulary and fluency at an exponential rate.

A week or two later after my last post on the class, in early October, Julian left for another school in the district, one with a higher Asian population than ours. Juanita, from Mexico, showed up at about the same time. Juanita is utterly uninterested in learning English or coming to school.

So had you asked me how I liked teaching ELL in early November, I would have talked about Marshall and Kit’s progress and how cheering it was, or my concerns about Juanita. I would have vented about Charlotte’s limited options, given state law. I’d have talked about Sebastian and Amit’s failure to progress and why. Amit was alert for every opportunity to gain approval. Sebastian was determined to get the right answer. They did not, alas, connect approval or the right answer to the goal of learning English. (How does Sebastian get right answers without learning any English? I asked the senior ELL teacher the same question. “He’s Chinese. It’s in the genes,” she said. But that’s okay. She’s Chinese, too.) I’d have bragged about the group cohesion–they have a Facebook page, and talk via Messenger.

But then things got crazy.

Between early November and Christmas break, six new students showed up. Four from Afghanistan (three siblings and a single), one from Mexico, one from Salvador.

In January, seven more: four from China, one from the Philippines, one from India, one from Vietnam.

My class size tripled. But there are no more Newcomers books. “We don’t use that curriculum any more.”

The ability range has also expanded, on both ends.

So my class now has three distinct levels, except I don’t yet have the expertise to run three classes, the way I did once in my all algebra year.

The first class would be for those who have little to no English. This became my most immediate problem. I couldn’t isolate the four kids who knew very little English, restricting their access to others fluent in their native languages. Elian, who arrived in November with nothing but “please”, “thank you”, and “soccer”, hasn’t progressed anywhere near as quickly as Marshall and Kit did  because Juan, Marshall and Kit are there to translate. He’s working, though, which puts him ahead of Juanita, who missed one to two classes a week for several months, and at this writing hasn’t been in class at all for two weeks. Ali and Monira are able to get translations from their older brother.  They’d progress more quickly in a more focused environment without friendly crutches. Juanita might feel like the course was designed for her needs and show up more.

Just for good measure, I’d put Sebastian and Amit in this class, which would be an enormous blow to their pride and dignity. But I’d remind them regretfully of the many times they’d done the wrong assignment, utterly failing to understand my instructions and being too proud to ask for help.But that’s ok, I’d tell them. They could be the class leaders and maybe, if they work harder, they’ll get moved up.  (Can you tell how attractive I’d find all this?)

Then the middle class of Aarif (Ali and Monira’s brother),  Huma (their fellow Persian-speaker), Marshall, Kit, and Amita (also from India),  the ones who are respectably fluent in English, but still need varying levels of finishing time to read and write in mainstream classes.

The four  from China (Anj, Song, Mary and sister Sara), the Filipino (Nancy), the Salvadoran (Juan), and the Vietnamese (Tran) are a real puzzle. They aren’t just verbally proficient, but can write and read reasonably well, with respectable vocabularies, better than all but the top 20-30% of my history class.  I can’t even begin to conceive why or how they were placed in ELL, much less the lowest level ELL class.  ( No one screwed up. ELL rules are what they are.)

The other teachers didn’t see anything odd about the wide range of abilities, but then the primary teacher, the ELL expert, has what I consider absurdly high standards. By her estimate, none of the kids were fluent. While I saw an enormous gulf between Elian and Tran, she saw two kids who couldn’t write an essay to her standards. I was relieved my responsibility to the class would be ending in late January, when the semester ended, and all this linguistic diversity would be Someone Else’s Problem and I wouldn’t need to try and argue about the various ability levels.

Then, just a week before the semester ended, I learned the replacement had turned down the job. The English department was about to be short yet another teacher, as a new one walked off the job with no notice four weeks into the second semester. Her classes have a long-term sub. The only plan B was me.  (Let me observe one more time how at odds the public conventional wisdom is with, you know, reality. Firing bad teachers is a trivial itch compared to the gaping maw of We Need More Teachers Now.)

Keeping my EL class required an enormous reconfiguration of the schedule, as my dance card for the second semester was already full (no prep).  My first block Trig course needed a teacher, and no other math teachers had a first block prep. Per my request, they reconfigured the schedule so that my closest colleague, who I’ve mentored since he arrived, got the class.

And so the linguistic diversity was now officially My Problem.

By early February, two of the Chinese students left–Song to the same school Julian absconded for, Sara to another city. I asked Mary why she wasn’t going with her sister?  Mary said Sara wasn’t her sister. Why would I think Sara was her sister? I reminded her they’d been introduced as sisters, had described themselves as sisters when they first arrived, and that I had referred to them as sisters several times to their acknowledgement. She looked vaguely panicked, tried to backtrack, and I told her to stop lying and drop it. Did I mention that Sebastian is supposed to be eighteen, but hasn’t hit puberty?  There’s a whole lot of birth certificate fraud going on in these Chinese visas. But I digress.

First problem: no more Newcomer books. I reached out to the language specialist: Any books like this? Hey, she remembered seeing  a bunch of books in a spare room. Would I be interested? Next day I had boxes and boxes of what  I considered two different publications–Read 180 and System 44–that are, apparently, the same program. I have no idea how this works, and that’s not because I didn’t take time and energy to look through them. Any connection must be found in the expensive training they want you to pay for. In any case, Read 180 was very writing-focused, with longer passages. Probably good for my middle group now; I may look at it again. But I was desperate for beginning texts and System 44 was a decent substitute for Newcomers.

So by late February, I had cobbled together an approach ensuring that my motivated beginners had the resources to improve their English. Fatima, in particular, made tremendous progress. Even Elian was at least showing more signs of comprehension, if he wasn’t speaking English at all.  Ali is moving much more slowly, but at least not backwards.

Marshall, Kit, and the rest of the middle group are continuing to benefit from the materials I have, plus our many class-wide discussions. I am constantly reassured by Kit and Marshall, my benchmark duo, showing constant improvement.

But the last group, I couldn’t figure out how to adequately challenge. Anything I came up with to do in the mixed class was too easy, but anything more difficult would require more support and attentiveness than I was giving.

One Monday in late March, I was driving to work bucking myself up about the coming week, thinking it was just a couple weeks until break, not to worry, don’t have such a bad attitude….and I stopped myself, because why the hell was I bucking myself up? I love my job. Really. I’m not a teacher who counts the days to spring break, normally.

So I went through all my classes: Trig, going great, really exciting work. For the first time, I was working with a like-minded colleague to build curriculum, common tests, a day by day approach. Wonderful stuff.  Mentoring an inductee, fun. Staff work, really promising. The upper math teachers were making real progress in settling our religious wars about coverage and depth by creating a federalist structure. My history class is a joy.  I was the adviser for a prominent after-school math-science program that succeeded beyond all expectations. Yes, I was busy, but I wasn’t particularly tired. I’d recognized the burnout signs last November and had successfully staved off an attack by taking it easy, resting more, traveling less. So why the motivation problem? My ELL class flashed into my mind and I felt an instant sense of….tension, dislike. Not quite revulsion, but definitely distasteful.

Until that minute, I hadn’t understood how much my ELL classs was pulling on my psyche, affecting more than just my feelings about that class. For the first time, I acknowledged that I was avoiding any sort of planning or development. Nothing felt enough, so I just avoided thinking about it outside class. I’d do whatever came into my head that morning. Head down, plowing through to the finish.

That very day, I walked into first block, and changed things up, created a wider range of activities, started coming up with more ideas, stopped just hoping it would be over when the year ended.

It worked.  I had more ideas for class-wide activities, more thoughts on how to differentiate. I could see the stronger kids were more engaged, learning idioms, thinking through grammar.  I’ll try to write more about these little activities in subsequent posts.

I’m not at all sure the kids notice any difference. I know the administrators and language specialist don’t–they already thought I was doing a good job.

I still don’t feel as if this is really teaching English. But I’m teaching better. I’m continuing to develop, rather than feeling stalled out. And that feels better.

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13 responses to “Not Really Teaching English

  • Michael Pershan

    I love this post. Great stuff.

  • katemul

    I can appreciate your challenges. I enjoyed reading about them.

    The last class that I taught (4th grade at a church) had a similar range in abilities, even without a language issue. When my supervisors were more concerned about 1 boy keeping his hat on, rather than the range of abilities that I had to deal with, I quit. I don’t like quitting, but that was the best solution for me.

    (I’m a chemist by training, but went through a number of classes to help me teach religion better )

    • educationrealist

      Hahaha. The hat thing is hysterical. A lot of admins hate it. One of my favorite admins knocked on my door and gesticulated once. I didn’t have my glasses on, so had to walk all the way to the door and open it. “Nathan has his hat on. Make him take it off.”

      Oh. OK.

      Were you teaching religion? That’d be fraught with all those diversities!

      • katemul

        It was in a church connected class, but I got most of my training when I was a Baptist and taught Baptist beliefs. My favorite class was when some little boys were drawing a swastika, and I changed my plans to talk about that and what the symbol meant.

  • 57dimensions

    “The four from China (Anj, Song, Mary and sister Sara), the Filipino (Nancy), the Salvadoran (Juan), and the Vietnamese (Tran) are a real puzzle. They aren’t just verbally proficient, but can write and read reasonably well, with respectable vocabularies, better than all but the top 20-30% of my history class. I can’t even begin to conceive why or how they were placed in ELL, much less the lowest level ELL class. ( No one screwed up. ELL rules are what they are.)”

    What exactly are the ELL rules that mean these kids get placed in an ELL class when they are as verbally proficient as other non ELL students at the school? I mean it doesn’t seem like schools are generally providing kids with *more* help than they actually need, so why is that the case with ELL?

    I actually witnessed this first hand while volunteering in a 2nd grade class at a local elementary school. One girl in the class was in ELL, yet she spoke perfect English–for a second grader at least, and appeared to be one of the most capable students in the class across all subjects. I know that she was definitely born and raised in the US; her parents were from Vietnam, although they speak English and are teachers at the prep school I went to. She actually spoke with less of an accent than her father. At the time I didn’t think about it very much, but this post reminded me, it’s interesting to hear that this is at least a somewhat widespread phenomenon.

    • educationrealist

      I’ve talked about it before–it’s a question. “Is a language other than English spoken in your home?” If the answer is “yes”, they are put in EL until they are tested. And if they are tested and don’t test proficient, they stay there. But it turns out there’s an “unless” that I’ll be writing about later, and lordy, the “unless” involves a TEACHER!

      • 57dimensions

        Oh yes I actually re-read the piece where you talk about it after I commented, sorry to be repetitive! Follow up question, do they use the state tests to evaluate proficiency? Or is there a special ELL test? Because I know in Massachusetts the first state test is in 3rd grade–I’m not sure about other states–so if kids are placed in ELL younger than that, do they just stay until they can take the state tests to test out?

        Really enjoyed the post, for me it’s especially interesting to hear about how you teach and how you think about teaching.

      • educationrealist

        Thanks! Most states set the standard ridiculously high in high school, ridiculously low in ES. So if you come here in high school, you’ve got a real risk of being stuck there. On the other hand, if you come here in ES, the standard is easy and you might end up having trouble in high school. That’s what research shows. However, in general, I think proficiency is linked to cognitive ability, with a few outliers.

  • Anne

    Great article. That’s how it is.

    I ignored the rules and just drilled them with Berlitz English Self-Teachers over two months so they had a strong base–basically one lesson a day except the last ten, which I would give 2-3 days. I keep 10 in my locker and have them share in at-level workteams. Only then would I use the other materials/conversation days/films and they would soon find their own level. If a new student came in mid-year, I would drill on Berlitz separately until they were at speed. Do the same with slow / no readers or math with the ‘Read in 100 days’ and ‘K-6 Blue math books’ from Walgreens + basics tables drill.

    They send you kids for AP calculus who can’t add then wonder why you’re not an ‘effective teacher.’ No.

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