Tag Archives: English immersion

Great Moments in Teaching: From Dead Animals to Disney

ESL this year hasn’t been particularly enjoyable, unlike last year, which troubled me ideologically but was a joy to teach. I am primarily challenged by a hard truth: my students simply aren’t interested in learning English. In fairness, they’ve had a tough year, the details of which I won’t share. When I arrived, they weren’t grateful, but rather annoyed that they had a teacher who expected them to speak English rather than watch movies.

Most are eager to learn, having been out of regular school for a year or more. They’re just not  eager to learn English, and they particularly don’t want to speak English. I’ve been having trouble getting any conversation going; my questions are met with either utter silence or a request, in Spanish, that someone give them a one word answer to get me off their backs.

I can focus on any content, anything that sparks their interest while reading or at least hearing English.  I taught them ratios and fractions. We constructed some robots. They enjoy grammar, primarily because they just like completing worksheets instead of talking.  I showed them Zootopia, a clever little movie, and tied it into “prey” and “predators”, which then expanded into “producers”, “consumers”, and “decomposers”, then into “herbivores”, “carnivores” and “omnivores”. This went over pretty well, so I found an ESL science book and reinforced all that with pictures and text.

I’m a teacher tailor-made for covering a wide range of topics, and I’ve improved their compliance and cooperation. But they are still a sullen lot, with no cohesion and they aren’t that crazy about me, which is a hard ego hit for someone who’s quite used to being “favorite teacher”.

So I needed a day like last Friday.

Notably, Reyes was absent. “Behavior problems” and “ESL students” don’t see a lot of overlap; unhappy ESL students act out by passive inaction, in my experience. But Reyes, a junior from Mexico, became a huge behavior problem once the others started showing even minimal compliance and improvement.  He chases girls around the room. He pulls his hood over his head when he’s trying to ignore me. He constantly speaks Spanish, interrupting me and making crude comments  that cause the other Spanish speakers to giggle.  He refuses to speak English, even simply to ask to go to the bathroom. He’s not a bad kid, really, but nonetheless a disruptive force in the room was gone, and that mattered a lot.

We’d left the day before on “food web” and “food chain” and I brought the image of a spider web up again, intent on explaining in some way  that the original meaning of “web” has transformed, to start to get across the notion of metaphor. Then  I googled “web” without spider and bring up one of the results.

You get this sound, in ESL classes–at least you do in mine. It’s a genuine “Aha” of comprehension and connection. It’s a great sound.

“See? We use ‘web’ to describe the connection because it’s many connections to many other connections. It’s not one way up or down. Now look at ‘chain’” and I googled the word and tabbed to images.

Again with the “aha”.

“See the difference? In a chain, every link is directly connected to only two. See this one? In English, we often use the word ‘chain’ to mean one up and one….”

“Down!” they chorused.

“So when we talk about food web, we are talking about many to many.  See the many connections? All these animals exist in a web, with different relationships. Now look at a food chain. See the clear cycle, or circle?”

So far, so good. Then I lost them: “First, we’re going to focus on food chain, which is a basic way of seeing who is eating, and who is being eaten.”

I was quite surprised to hear a big groan from Allie. “I HATE English!!!”

Taio agreed. “Both eating! Why eaten sometimes, sometimes eat?”

Ah. “So when is it eat? When is it being eaten?”

Allie threw up her hands. “They are both the same thing!”

“No, they’re just the same verb root. But…. Huh. Let me think.”

“See? English is stupid!”

“No, no, I get that! And you’re right. English can be insane. But I’m not teaching you verbs right now. I just want to figure out how to make you see the difference. Oh, wait.”

And I quickly googled up “rabbit eating carrot“.

“The rabbit is eating the carrot. The carrot is being eaten by the rabbit.”

Pause, but I could see they were thinking. So I googled up “fox eating rabbit”.

“The fox is eating the rabbit. The rabbit is being eaten by the fox. So if you are eating, you are the one getting food.”

“If you are eaten, you are the food?”

“Exactly!”

Elian stood up and came to the front by the projector. “Who eats fox?”

“Great question. I don’t know? Who would kill and eat foxes?”

“Birds?” Allie again.

“Hey, that’s an idea.” I google “eagles eating foxes“.

“So then someone eats eagles?” Taio asked.

“Maybe. But some predators aren’t eaten. Like humans. We kill other predators, though, because of competition. So we kill foxes because foxes will eat our chickens and rabbits. Or we kill eagles because we like their feathers.” Elian nodded, and leaned against a desk, still up front.

“Let’s try another chain.” I google “mouse eating“.

“Elian, is the mouse eating or being eaten?”

“Eating!”

“Yes! So Taio, what is happening to the blackberry?”

“The blackberry is…eaten?”

“Allie?”

“The blackberry is eaten by the mouse?”

“You got it! So who eats mice?”

“SNAKES!” I had all seven kids playing along as I google snake eating mouse.

“The snake…” I prompted.

“the snake is eating the mouse!” even my non-English speakers, like Chao, was moving his lips, at least.

“THE MOUSE IS EATEN THE SNAKE!” announced Hooriyah, my lone Afghan student.

“No. Eaten BY,” from Elian.

“Yes. The BY is very important. Otherwise, in English, it sounds like you are saying ‘eating’.”

“That’s why I don’t like English. Eaten and eating sound the same!” Allie nodded.

“So remember the ‘by’. That will help.”

“Do snakes eat deer?” Taio asked.

I can’t begin to explain how pumped I was. We’d now kept steady conversation for close to ten minutes, where everyone was chiming in without prompting. So I googled “snake eating” and we paged down looking.

“THERE!” Taoi pointed.

“I have a question,” Allie announced. “What do you call that word that snakes do to….” she paused. Kept pausing and then shrugged. “I don’t know the word.”

“Crushed? Constricted? Squeezed?”

Allie had come up to join Elian, standing by the Promethean, looking at the images for one specific thing. “No. The other way. Before.”

“Poison? Some snakes bite their prey and the poison kills or at least paralyzes–makes the animal not able to move.”

“No, not that. It’s….” and here Allie gave up  in frustration, looking at me, trying to “think” the word at me.

Up to now, I’ve been doing a good job, but it was all ad hoc teaching, taking what comes.  But I don’t think all teachers grasp the essential moments of their job. This was an essential moment and I made it a great one.1

Nothing is more important to me in that minute than identifying Allie’s word. Writing this a week later,  I have a vivid memory of standing next to the projector, looking intently at Allie, oblivious to everything else, trying to grab the word out of her brain. And best of all, I could see that she knew this. She knew I was absolutely intent on figuring out her word, that I wanted this, that I wanted to be useful because hell, she’s stuck in this class learning a language she hates, can’t the teacher give her information she actually wants? For once?

My second great moment arrived, but I’m not sure it’s a pedagogical moment or just that of a very good and quick thinker. Because instead of trying to prompt more information from her, I started thinking about snakes. What are the ur-Snake things? I’d gotten constriction, gotten poison, what other snake categories are there?

Cobra?” Allie stared intently at the google results, but shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused again, giving up.

“What do you call that?” Elian pointed.

“That’s a hood. Cobras have a really distinctive look. That’s why I thought maybe Allie was thinking of them.”

More ur-Snake. What else? I stare at the cobra images, and suddenly, miraculously, I think of Indian snake charmers.

“HYPNOTIZE!” I practically shouted.

“YES! WITH THE EYES!” Allie was overjoyed. “It makes the animals….something.”

“Obedient. Calm.”

“What’s hypnotize?” Hooriyah.

Third great moment, back to teaching. How to show kids what Allie is thinking of, and the meaning of “hypnotize”? I switch over to youtube.

“This is a famous Disney movie. Has anyone seen it?”

“Yes!” Allie was over the moon with excitement. “This is what I was thinking of!”

So as the scene progressed, I showed the students the broadly caricatured meaning of hypnotize.

When this was over, Allie rested content, sitting back down.

“How do snakes hypnotize?” Taio asked, saving me the trouble of raising the issue.

“I don’t think snakes actually do. I think people just think it is true.”

Allie nodded. “My neighbor has a snake. He says they don’t hypnotize.”

So I googled again, and we found a few highly verbal sites that seemed to deny it, but I didn’t dwell on this much.

Final pretty great moment in teaching: I brought it back to food chains!!

“So. Remember where this all started? Eating and…..”

“Being Eaten!”

“Let’s go through some food chains that you might see in a farm.” I wrote on the board.

corn->mouse->owl

“Owl?” asked Hooriyah, and I googled “owl eating mouse”.

“So now we know three bird predators: owl, hawk, eagle.”

Another food chain: wheat->caterpillar->black bird

“What’s wheat?” Taio again. “I don’t know wheat.”

“Every country has a primary grain. In South America, the big grain is corn. Maize.” Elian nodded. “In China, in most of Asia, it’s rice. In Europe and in America, also the Middle East, wheat is big.”

Allie, who has Brazilian parents but was born in Germany, nodded. “Yes. Bread is made from wheat.”

“And the Germans do amazing bread.”

“Bread!” Suddenly Taio is galvanized. “We have bao bread!”

I know a lot of Chinese food, but this one was new, so I googled.

“Oh, like in pork buns! I didn’t know that.”

“Dumplings. I hate dumplings,” Maria, Salvadoran, my best English speaker, had been missing from most of the class and had just arrived.

“No, this isn’t dumplings.” I corrected her. “Dumplings are like shu mei. It’s food wrapped in a pastry.” Chao sat up and chattered excitedly to Taio, who answered in English.

“Yes, that’s dumpling.”

I grinned at Elian, my only repeating student. “This feels like last year,” and he smiled in recognition. Last year, we’d talked about food in class all the time, going around the room talking about various foods just for fun–what they eat in Afghanistan for breakfast, what they eat in Vietnam for dessert, why Westerners make the best desserts (that was my claim, anyway, although my students roundly disputed this assertion).

We finished up with explanations of caterpillars and cocoons, and discussing the difference between blackbirds and crows–“One is just a black bird, the other is a blackbird.”

The bell rang off for once on an animated conversation.

I started this article a week ago, and was originally going to finish it with the hope that my class had turned the corner. My perpetual lagtime in writing allows me to say that it is better. Last week was a distinct improvement on every day that came before the great moments. More conversation, less lag time, and a much improved sense of camaraderie, even Reyes is speaking with a bit less prompting.

Before last Friday, I’d been telling myself regularly that tough classes are good for me. They keep me humble, keep me looking for answers, for methods, for strategies to help my students want to learn.

Besides, I’d tell myself grimly, tough classes make the triumphs all the sweeter.

I love being right.

*********************************************************************************

1Again, the great moment is mine. I’m standing there going oh, my god, this is a great moment in teaching, in my life. For me! The kids, hey, if they liked it, that’s good.

 

 

 


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.

 


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.

 


Education Proposal #5: End English Language Learner Mandates

In the 1973 decision Lau vs Nichols, the Supreme Court, ever vigilant to prove the truth of primer rule #5, ruled that schools had to provide “basic English support”:

lauquote

Congress has been enforcing this decision for the past 40 years through various versions of the Bilingual Education Act. The law’s a joke, since states and districts have wildly varying tests and classification standards for ELLs, making metrics impossible but by golly, the schools collect the data and get judged anyway.

The 2016 Presidential candidates should call to end federal classification and monitoring of English Language Learners.

I mulled for weeks about this last of my highly desired but virtually unspeakable presidential education policy proposals—not because I couldn’t find one, but because the obvious fifth choice was so…old hat. I remember my swim coach bitching about bilingual education in the 70s. I’d lived overseas until then and when he explained this weird concept my teammates had to assure me he wasn’t kidding. The only thing that’s changed since then is the name.

And so I’ve been flinching away from finishing up this series because really? that’s the last one? After you called for restricting public education to citizens only, it’s the weak tea of English Language Learning?

Besides, someone will snark, if public education is citizen-only, then there’s no need to discuss ELL policy, is there?

Ah. There. That’s why this is #5.

Because the answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is: quite the contrary. Immigrants aren’t even half of the ELL population.


ELLgeneration

Citizens comprise from just over half to eighty percent of the ELL population, depending on who’s giving the numbers, but while the estimates vary, the tone doesn’t: no one writing about English language instruction seems to find this fact shocking.

Twenty percent of elementary school kids and thirty percent of middle and high school ELL students have citizen parents. Their grandparents were immigrants.

Pause a moment. No, really. Let that sink in. I know people who don’t think categorizing US citizens as non-native English speakers is, by definition, insane. I know people who would protest, talk about academic language, the needs of long-term English language learners (almost all of whom are citizens), and offer an explanation in the absurd belief that more information would mitigate the jawdropping sense of wtf-edness that this statistic invokes. But for the rest of us, this bizarre factoid should give pause.

Don’t blame bad parenting and enclaves, the Chinatowns and barrios and other language cocoons where English rarely makes an appearance. English fluency at time of classification is, to the best of our knowledge, unrelated to speed of transition. Those classified in kindergarten are going to transition out of ELL by sixth grade or they’re not going to transition, sez most of the hard data. No reliable studies have been conducted whatsoever on ELL instruction, so take any efficacy studies you learn of with a grain of salt.

Don’t sing me any crap songs about “native language instruction” or “English immersion” because I’ve heard them all and not one of the zealots on either side takes heed of the fact that neither method is going to make a dent in the language skills of a six year old born in this country who doesn’t test as English proficient despite being orally English-fluent.

Read any study on long term ELLs, the bulk of whom are citizens classified LEP since kindergarten, and it’s clear that most are fluent in oral English—that English is, in fact, their preferred language, the one they use at home with friends and family. They just don’t read or write English very well. And then comes the fact, expressed almost as an afterthought in all the research, that long-term ELLs don’t read or write any language very well.

Knowing this, how hard is it to predict that in California, 85% of Mandarin speakers are reclassified by 6th grade, yet half of all ELLs are not? That the gap within ELLs dwarfs the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs? That academic proficiency in the ELL student’s “native” language predicts proficiency in English?

While undergoing an induction review for my clear credential, the auditor told me that I hadn’t given enough support to my English Language learners.

“I didn’t have any issues with students and language,” I told him–the more fool I.

“You had ELLs in your classroom.”

“Sure, but most of them did very well and those who didn’t weren’t suffering from language problems. They just struggled with math, and I supported that struggle.”

“Math struggles are language struggles.”

“Um. What?”

“Yes. If an ELL is struggling in math, you must assume it’s language difficulties.”

“But I paid careful attention to my struggling kids, looking for every possible reason they could be having difficulties. Strugglers with and without ELL classification were indistinguishable. But I reduced the language load considerably for these students. You can see that in my section on differentiation.”

“Your differentiation is just varying curriculum approaches. I need to see ELL support. Let’s meet again in two days. That should give you enough time to re-evaluate your instruction.”

It didn’t take me two days. It barely took me two minutes. All I did was relabel my “Differentiation” section to to “Language Support”, demonstrating the many curricular changes I built to support my struggling students English Language Learners.

So here’s the dirty secret of ELL classification: Students fluent in English who are nonetheless classified as ELL are unlikely to ever reach that goal, because the classification tests are capturing cognitive ability and confusing it with language learning. All the nonsense about “academic vocabulary” and “writing support” is not so much useless as simply indistinguishable from the differentiation teachers use to support low ability students, regardless of language status.

Long-term ELLs in high school, fluent in English but not in writing or reading, are simply of below average intellect. That’s not a crime.

It’s also not worth calling out as a category. Unlike the uncertainty involved in maneuvering Plyler, there’s almost no legal uncertainty in ending federal mandates for bilingual instruction. Whatever the justices who wrote Lau vs. Nichols had in mind, they clearly were addressing the needs of students who spoke and understood no English at all. They were not concerned with language support to citizens orally fluent in English. If nothing else, ending this language support doesn’t count as “discrimination against national origin”, since they were born here.

Ending ELL classification wouldn’t end the support that schools give long-term English Language learners. We’d just…pronounce it differently.