Last week I substituted for a friend of mine — an entire week of subbing, in sheltered English Language Learner classes. I have never taught ELL specifically, though I have many years of having ELL students in my own classes. It was an incredible experience to be in the midst of dozens and dozens of immigrant students who are adjusting to a culture and an education system that is so foreign. One issue in the “education reform” conversation that often gets left out is the burgeoning population of immigrant students in our public schools. That, coupled with declining resources and the high stakes testing that includes English Language Learners at the same test standards, make some of the suggestions about ‘reform’ simply laughable.
I had three different kinds of classes last week:
- 2 sections of Sheltered Instruction Global Studies, teaching world geography basics
- 3 sections of English Language Development classes where students straight up study English vocabulary and prepare to take the standardized tests that both exit them from the ELL sheltered classes AND that are required for graduation
- 1 section of Language Lab – lower level English speakers simply practice speaking in various forms.
One of the great challenges for teachers is to find ways to really connect with their students. At least for me, it was never going to work for me to try to just open brains up and pour stuff in. Engaging with the students, getting to know who they are and let them know me allows for a deeper level of conversation and offers a safe space for critical thinking and questioning. Connecting with students in sheltered classrooms has many more layers to it.
In ONE of my Global Studies classes last week, I had over 15 different origin languages spoken in that classroom. What is it like to try to connect with a classroom of students who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, Somali, Karen, Tigrinya, Russian, Krahn, Ukrainian, Chuukese, Yapese, Tagolog, and Nepali? It’s not easy. Some of these students have been in the US only a year, some several years. For many of the students, especially those from East Africa, they came to our schools directly from refugee camps – they had never even held a pencil or sat in a desk, much less tried to pass a standardized test before arriving in the US. Yet, they sit at those desks, and they grasp those pencils and they try.
There ARE ways to connect, you just have to put effort into finding them. For me and my students last week, it was Jackie Chan.
Somehow, no matter if you are a 17 year old who’s lived your life in refugee camps in Eritrea, or a 15 year old who moved from Guatemala but had to leave most of your family behind, or you came from Bhutan (but really, you’re Tibetan and you know you can never go back to your homeland), you LOVE Jackie Chan! You don’t have to speak a certain language to understand his generous spirit, his hilarious humor and his kick-ass moves.
When I told my 10 year old that all the students, no matter where they were from or what language they spoke, loved Jackie Chan. His reply was, “well, he’s AWESOME!” I have to concur.
But how does that translate to what the politicians and the resource providers want: these kids to pass a standardized test at the same level as their American peers who have been in this education system their entire lives?
Obviously, it doesn’t. And it just brings back the hollowness of the discussion around “reform” these days.
In the end, we had a great time together in the Global Studies classes yelling out the names of the continents and oceans, and finding the latitude and longitude of the last country we were in before we lived in the US. In the vocab classes, we suffered through learning complex sentences, but THEN we watched clips from the first Presidential debate and reviewed it USING complex sentences! In Language Lab, we did 1 minute speeches about random topics and had fun learning about each other’s countries and customs.
There are teachers all around the country today who are giving everything they have to reach students who barely understand them, but who need them desperately in order to learn how to navigate this new world they live in. Proper tribute and respect is not given to ELL teachers, and after spending a week in an ELL teacher’s shoes, I have so much more reverence for those who brave this thankless corner of education. I think I’m a better teacher after last week’s challenge, and I KNOW that those students are better for being able to enjoy those sheltered classrooms with their ELL teachers. Withdrawing funding and forcing testing on these kids simply makes no sense.