Tag Archives: English Language Learners

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.

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.


The Things I Teach

“OK, today in focus we’re going to read  Grandfather’s Journey together. We will find new words on each page, talk about vocabulary and meaning.”


“Me! I know!” Marshall waved his hands. “It is….the father of your father.”

“Also the father of your mother, right?” Charlotte asked.

“Abuelo?” Kit looked to Marshall.

“Yes, abuelo,” I nodded. “But what about journey?”


“I think it means hat,” offered Julian.

“Sombrero?” Kit was surprised.

“No,” I shook my head. “Journey means ‘trip’. It means…to travel. To go somewhere else.” Blank looks. I grabbed a white board and drew–badly–what I call in my history classes the Great American Porkchop with an airplane, also rendered poorly.


“Ahhh!!” Comprehension. They didn’t laugh. So don’t you mock my artwork.

Charlotte said, “So I took a….journey from the Congo?”

“I took a journey to India?” asked Amit.

“No. From.”

I pointed to “Here” on my sketch. “In a journey, your beginning point is from. Your end point is to.”

“So I came from China to America?” asked John.

“Use journey.”

“OK. I took a journey from China to here.”


“I…journey from Mexico to America.”

took a journey,” said Charlotte.

“Either. I journeyed from Mexico to America is good, or I took, or I made, a journey” is good. Kit?”

“I….took journey from Mexico to America.”

“Good! Sebastian.”

Long pause.

“Sebastian, put the phone away or you’ll lose it.”

“I journey from China to…here.”

Fun, clear learning, but five minutes had gotten me through two words.

“My grandfather was a young man when he left his home in Japan and went to see the world. He wore European clothes for the first time and began his journey on a steamship.”

“Look at the difference between Grandfather in the first picture and then on the steamship.”

“He is not wearing…same clothes.” from Amit.

“Oh! He is dressed like he is from Japan!” said Julian, “and now he is dressed like an American. Why is that European?”

“So does everyone see what Julian means? He is dressed in what we call traditional clothes. This story is about the past, yes? About a long ago time?” Nods. “Well, in this long ago time, Europe was more well-known than America. Today, Julian thinks of America before Europe. Today, probably the best word to use for this sort of difference is ‘Western’. Why would he want to dress in different clothes, Kit?”

Kit is quiet, particularly compared to Marshall, whose American aunt is really helping him develop skills. He paused. “He…belong?”

“He won’t be strange,” offered Charlotte.

“Yes, he wants to fit in, or assimilate. Good! Back to the book. The Pacific Ocean surrounded him.

“Océano Pacífico!” Marshall beamed. “That’s here.”

“Yes, and now we know the first part of his journey,” I walk over to the large wall map. “He left from Japan” (points) “and traveled across the Pacific Ocean. Where will he end up?”

“AMERICA!” chorused from all six.

“What does surround mean? Sebastian?” Sebastian tried to check with Julian in Chinese, but I stopped him. “He is on a boat, yes? In the Pacific Ocean? What would he see?”


“Amit, would he see land?” Amit was puzzled. I went back to the map, showing the trip. “He would be here. Would he see land?’

“No. Only water.”

“Yes. Surround means that everywhere you look, you see only one thing. It could be water. It could be people.”

“So what does ‘surround’ mean, Kit?”


“All around.” Sebastian.

For three weeks he did not see land. When land finally appeared, it was the New World.


“Kit, we just talked about days of the week. How many days in the week?”

“Seven,” jumped in Amit.

“Is that right, Kit?” Kit nodded. “So if the grandfather traveled for three weeks, and each week is seven days–and this is only for Kit–how many days did he travel?”

Kit clearly knew the answer, but needed time to put it in English. I held back everyone else with my hand, giving him time. “Vienti…no. Twenty. Twenty one.”

“Twenty one days on a boat?” Charlotte was skeptical.

“It was a steamship, which would be faster than sailing.” I googled up an image on my cell phone and held it up and walked around to give kids a look.

“Oh, so he didn’t fly on a plane,” Julian. “Twenty one days is a long time.”

“Yes. We can travel more quickly these days. That changes everything. Think about how different you would feel if you had to travel for twenty one days.”

“Please–I would travel more, yes?”

“Longer, not more. Yes, it is a longer journey from India.”

Sebastian was puzzling over the second sentence. “What is New World?”

“America,” Marshall offered.

“Yes, all America. North and South. Mexico is part of the New World. So is Canada.” Back to the map. “All of this.”


He explored North America by train and riverboat and often walked for days on end. So a riverboat is a boat that travels on a river, yes? Who can tell me what a river is? Kit?”


“Yes. Like the Mississippi, here on the map. It’s a…long.. you know? It’s long, but much skinnier than an ocean. Also, ocean is salt water. Rivers are in countries and are not salty.”

“Rio Grande!” from Marshall.

Amit looked confused. I googled “Punjab rivers” and then brought up an image of the Chenab to show him.”

“Oh! Yes. Rivers. Big. Punjab has many rivers. Five.”

“Charlotte is from Africa, which has the Nile,” said Julian.

Charlotte snorted. “The Nile is in Egypt. We have the Congo River.”


“What does explore mean?”

“Aagh!” Marshall smacked his head. “No sé cómo decirlo en Inglés (at least, that’s what Google says he said.) Uh, he looks at. No. Looks…deep.”

“Explore means to learn about…to study. No…is that it?” said Charlotte.

“Yes, Marshall and Charlotte have it right. Explore means to learn about a new place, a new idea–or maybe something you already know a little bit about. Marshall says ‘deep’, to go deep into a subject. Good work! Now, think about that with journey.”

Julian said, “So you go on a journey to explore.”

“Outstanding. Let’s put it in the story terms. We are reading a story about the author’s grandfather, who has crossed the….”

“Pacific Ocean” they chorused.


“explore America!”

“Good! Deserts with rocks like enormous sculptures amazed him.”


“What is ‘amazed’?” asked Charlotte.


“I don’t know. What is a sculpture?”

“it’s art formed out of a hard material–rock, or metal.” I googled “rock formations America” and held up the results one by one. To a kid, they all gasped in…

“Yes. You see that feeling? That is amazed. See how you are all thinking oh, how beautiful. How you didn’t know about such beauty. It’s when you see something good…or bad..or just different. But something you didn’t expect. So when you came to America, what amazed you?”

“The food,” offered Charlotte instantly. “I was..amazed at how much food. How much you could eat..how much you could have. It is wonderful.”

“I was amazed that you can take cellphones to class. But mostly that you can ride bikes on the road, with cars,” from Julian.

I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s a quick way to die in China, huh?”

“Here the cars have to stop!”

“See Julian’s behavior, guys? He is acting amazed. Sebastian, what amazed you about America?” Sebastian clearly understood the question, but said something in Chinese to Julian.

“Oh, that’s true,” Julian turned to me. “He said..oxygen. You can’t see it here.”

“The air! Yes, the air in America is so much cleaner, so much clearer, is that it?” Sebastian nodded. “So can you put that in a sentence?”

“I was amazed at the clean air in America.”

“Good! Back to the book. The endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he crossed. Endless? Kit?”

“No stop?”

“Keeps on going.” said Marshall. “But what is field?”

“A field is an open space, a big one. A farm field is an open space used to grow food.” I googled corn fields and wheat fields .  We determined that the grandfather was seeing wheat fields in this picture.

“So the author is making a comparison. Just as he traveled across the Pacific for twenty-one days, surrounded on all sides by water, so too did these fields seem to go on forever.”

“Like an ocean,” said Max.

“Yes. See how the author drew the fields to look like an ocean, surrounding the grandfather? Huge cities of factories and tall buildings bewildered and excited him.


“Who can tell me what bewildered means?”

Amit, galvanized, pulled out his phone, looked at me for permission. I nodded, and he handed me the results.

“Oh, perfect!”

“Ah!” the class chorused. They all got it at once.

“So bewilder means to confuse you, to see or experience something that fills you with questions. Nice job, Amit.”

“I…feel bewildered a lot.” Amit replied, and everyone nodded.

“Welcome to America!” laughed Chancelle.

He marveled at the towering mountains and rivers as clear as the sky.


“But ‘tower’ is like a building,” puzzled John.

“Maybe the mountains are big, like tower,” offered Max.

“Yes, that’s it. Like a tower. He’s comparing the mountains to a tower, like this.” and I googled some towering buildings. “See? What does marveled mean?

Kit muttered something.

“What? Could you say it again?”


“Ah, yes, like…” Max, like me, uses his hands to fill in blank spaces.

“Would you say marvelous is like amazed?”

“Yes!” Charlotte beamed. “They mean the same thing!”

“Close to it. So notice, let’s page back. The author said his grandfather is amazed, excited, and that he marveled. All of these words have similar meanings. So the author is creating…making a mental image for you.”

“The grandfather is seeing many things that surprise him but…they are good things,” Julian nodded.

“Please–the words mean the same?”

“Not every word, Amit–but amazed…do you see, go back? Amazed and now to the cities page. Excited and now the mountains page…marveled. Everyone see those words? They all have very similar…very close meanings.”

“But not ‘bewildered’.”

“Good! Bewildered is something different. That’s why the author writes yet .See that small word? Yet means that he was confused but still feeling…”

“He is confused but happy he is seeing all this.”

“Exactly! Going on: He met many people along the way. He shook hands with white men and black men, with yellow men and red men. In Japan, would he have seen only other Japanese people. Julian, Sebastian, did you see people who weren’t Chinese before you came to America?”

“No,” Sebastian shook his head. “Only…movies.”

“Only in movies. Charlotte, Congo is mostly black people, but there are some white people there, too, right?”

“Yes, also Chinese. Not…many. But some Chinese.”

“Chinese people in Africa?” John couldn’t believe it.

“Yes, Chinese people are starting to build businesses in Africa.  Asia and Africa are less diverse–they are mostly one race. Well, not North Africa.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte nodded emphatically. “Egypt, Libya, they… have more types. More races. More…mix.”

“Mexico, too,” said Max, and Kit nodded.

“Yes. North and South America have had more than one race for many years–because we’re the New World. Many people from different places came here. Mostly white in North America at first, but still blacks and Hispanics, and even some Asians. But Asia, particularly East Asia, doesn’t see many differences.”

“India has many types,” said Amit.

And the bell rang. Nine pages.

Debrief and other thoughts soon.

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”:


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.


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.

Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics

Every election year, someone bemoans the fact that education is never a major factor in presidential politics. This year might be an exception, because of Common Core. But the reality is, presidential aspirants never talk about the issues that really interest the public at large.

Instead, politicians read from the same Big Book Of Education Shibboleths that pundits do.

To wit: Our public schools are a national disgrace with abysmal international rankings. Our test scores that haven’t budged in 40 years. Unions prevent bad teachers from being fired. Teachers are essential to academic outcomes but they are academically weak and unimpressive, the bottom feeders of college graduates. Administrators are crippled because they can’t fire bad teachers. We know what works in education. Choice will save our country by improving student outcomes. Charters have proven all kids can learn and poverty doesn’t matter. And so on.

All the conventional wisdom I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph is false, or at least complicated by reality. Any education reformer with more than two years experience would certainly agree that the public is mostly unmoved by rhetoric about teacher quality, tenure, curriculum changes, and choice—in fact, when “education reform” is a voting issue, the voters are often going against reform.

Education reformers are very much like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: All this time I thought he didn’t want to get married. But, the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me.  

Yeah, sorry. Your ideas, reformers, they just don’t do it for the public.

So I put together some policies that a lot of the public would agree with and many would consider important enough to make a voting issue. In each case, the necessary legislation could be introduced at the state or federal level.

There’s a catch, of course. These proposals are nowhere on the horizon. But any serious understanding of these proposals will lead to an understanding of just how very far the acceptable debate is from the reality on the ground.

To understand these proposals, a Reality Primer:

1) Some children cannot learn to the desired standard in an acceptable timeframe or, in the case of high school, in any timeframe.
2) The more rigorous the standard, the greater number of students who will be incapable of learning to that standard.
3) As a result of the first two immutable facts, schools can’t require an unbendable promotion standard.
4) By high school, the range of student understanding in any one classroom is beyond what most outsiders can possibly conceive of.

and somewhat unrelated to the previous four:

5) Education case history suggests that courts care neither about reality or costs.

The primer is important. Read it. Embrace it. In fact, if you read the primer and really get on board, you’ll be able to come up with the proposals all by yourself.

Some additional reading to remind readers of where I’m coming from:

I originally had all the proposals as one huge post, but I’ve been really short on posts lately. Here’s the list as I build it:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates