Back to Not Teaching English

I taught ELL all last year, which isn’t really teaching English, which we don’t really know how to do, as it is drenching the students with as much language exposure as you can and hoping they’ll pick it up with their peers.

From January through June I had 18 kids, six of whom had better language skills than than the bottom 10-15% of my US history class of mostly Americans, two others who had no desire to learn English, and three or four who I couldn’t give much attention because their English was too weak and the middle six, the kids who genuinely benefited from my class, were too quick on the uptake by this point.

I was also just genuinely bothered by the reality of ELL. With so many American kids at risk, not getting specialized attention, why are we giving the equivalent of one full-time English teacher to non-citizens who’d just arrived? For free? I’ve always been able to shrug off the policy implications of my job, though.   Ideological concerns disappear once the bell rings.  By far the most nagging concern was my feeling I wasn’t helping the kids.

Like the legal requirement for ELL language support, which trumps all other concerns.  A month into last year, I’d realized that Charlotte wasn’t so much ELL as special ed. Her English was as good as it was going to get. She couldn’t read, couldn’t process complex thoughts, and couldn’t write. Her spoken language was pretty fluent. The other two teachers agreed, so we asked that she be put into the special day class–a request that had been made the previous year (2015-16) and had gone nowhere. We pushed for months, and finally towards the end of the year, Charlotte was given two blocks of special ed. She will get a certificate this June , and rumor has it she will be marrying a 32 year old. I would be unsurprised if a payment to her father was involved. After all, the man has two wives over here to support.

Then there’s the placement itself, which is absurdly slow and demanding. I spent the last three months going through all the procedures to place out Anj, Tran, Juan, and Mary and put them in regular classes, and Marshall and Kit down to one class of ELL instead of three.The students actively cooperated, eager to get out of ELL hell–can you imagine being stuck in three long English classes a day, with very little control over your choices in the last class? They went to their counselors, were denied choices, came back to me, I’d call and clarify and the counselors would reluctantly agree.   I rarely take on this sort of activist role, but I’d been assured that teacher recommendation would trump procedural requirements, so I kept plugging away.

It was all for nothing. All the students were forced into two English classes a day the following year, only because funding for the third class dried up for ELL 2s. Nothing I’d done.

See, this is why I don’t do activism, not being a fan of aggravation and disappointment.  I apologized to the six kids, but they thanked me. “I’m happy we tried,” said Ang, and the others nodded.

The work did eventually pay off, although it took a year. All but one of my students from last year have been promoted at least one grade. Marshall and Kit are down to one class.  Ang and Juan are in regular English and Bob, one of the other two teachers from last year, is now agitating to get those two in his AP English course, which may give you a sense of how idiotic it was for them to be in ELL to begin with. Most of these advancements would not have happened without my efforts and recommendations.

ELL wasn’t terrible, mind you. I loved the kids. I enjoyed spending 90 minutes a day on language.  I loved picking random discussion topics (food was a regular, also movies. Not beer, alas.)

The fourth day of school (fall 2016), my first with them, I wrote the words to the Pledge of Allegiance on the whiteboard. Our school recites the pledge daily; you’ll see kids stand at attention facing the direction of the school flag, whether they can see it or not.  (I’ve been really annoyed at the Pledge fuss this year because kids never groused about standing until now.)

ellpledge

I didn’t have that many white boards, so you can see where I’d use the board for other quick notes over the year. But the pledge words stayed up the whole year; we ceremoniously erased them on the last day.

As I mentioned in the essay above, I started to feel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with the curriculum (or lack thereof). The texts I’d purchased for sustained silent reading while teaching freshman humanities came in handy, in addition to some of the discontinued texts I found laying about the room. What wasn’t useful at all was the assigned texts, which were far too difficult.

I’d also make up activities like this one, called “Welcome to English”

ELLactivity

This is the completed activity. I’d just write these up with blanks on the spur of the moment, helping them discover and categorize the  absurd range of spellings and pronunciations. Here’s a students’ response to a different day’s sentences:

ELLStudentWork

You’d think there’d be a curriculum with sentences like these already designed with different sound groups. Alas.

One utterly delightful day, I gave them the lyrics to “Song Sung Blue” to read and discuss. We went through the notion of “blue” being a sense of sad, of down.  We constructed an understanding of what they thought was a poem, how the act of singing when you’re sad will make you feel better. We talked about weeping versus crying, why the willow weeps (with pictures), what “subject to” meant, and after an hour, by god, most of the kids truly thought they understood the poem. Then they learned it was a song, and their delight is one of my great memories of that year. On our last day, as we cleaned up the classroom, we played and sang it out again. I saw Marshall the other day. “Song Sung Blue! He’s sick!”

Delightful though it was, the aforementioned concerns had me in no hurry to return to ELL. But spring 2018 seemed a near lock for an empty 90 minutes.  As I mentioned in Twitter, I’ve taught three years of four classes, no prep. Three times, I’ve had a prep period scheduled and then an administrator appears in my classroom a couple days before school or the new semester begins, and asks me if I mind taking an extra class, and the 33% salary boost that comes with the additional load.

The new semester  was drawing nearer and no rescue on the horizon. I’d originally been scheduled for a history class, when a senior teacher announced last fall she’d be retiring mid-year, rather than at the end of the year. That meant hiring a new history teacher meaning (sob) no extra blocks. So I was resigned to taking a pay cut, and consoling myself with plans to investigate robotics. Bart and I want to start a program, maybe.

Sure enough, though, in walks an AVP the Friday before the semester ends. Prep period to disappear in a big bundle of cash. Well. It’s teaching, so “big bundle” is relative.

I’ve got six kids: two from Guatemala, one from El Salvador, one from Mexico, one from China, and one Brazilian who grew up in Germany. They were shocked to learn I spoke no Spanish, but otherwise they approve of me considerably over the predecessor.  Elian is my only repeater and,  as I suspected, without other more fluent English speakers to translate into Spanish, he’s improving rapidly. Gia, who went to a local middle school last year, is the strongest.

This year I’m teaching the conversation section, which is nice. I don’t have to pretend to teach reading, but can still focus heavily on reading, writing, and discussion. I’ve started them off on this book, which has nothing to do with ELL but has all sorts of neat reading activities. Today, we went through the recipe for smoothies and pizza.

So back to not really teaching English. Keep your fingers crossed the group doesn’t grow on me, and I have a chance to develop them all at the same pace.

Pre-calc, trigonometry, and algebra 2 fill out my schedule.

 

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