Monday, October 31, 2016

The Chancellor and Me at UFT

Last Saturday I got up early and took some trains to 52 Broadway, where they were having a pretty big ESL event. I got to speak to Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, who told me that Part 154 was very successful in Buffalo, though she did not share why or how.

Alas, it isn't remotely successful here, in the largest district in the country with 150,000 ELLs. There are fewer than 5,000 in Buffalo. I don't know what secret sauce they've found but I hope they share it with us. There are 500 in my school alone, we have issues, and sending our kids to magical Buffalo just isn't a workable solution for us.

Dr. Rosa suggested we needed to deal with it locally, but the state regulation is the fundamental issue. The most recent revision of Part 154 has cut direct English instruction for NY State ELLs by a factor of 33-100%. Maybe that doesn't matter in Buffalo, but it seems to be a factor everywhere else I know anyone. I had hoped Rosa would attend our advocacy panel, where I spoke to it. Unfortunately she did not. I didn't say exactly what I wrote, but I wrote exactly what I wrote, and I'm sharing that with you here.

I've been teaching ESL (which the state now calls ENL), since 1984. A few years later I actually studied it and became licensed. Part 154 is the very worst thing I've ever seen done to it.

We know that the people who revised Part 154 had good intentions, and we certainly share the desire to see ELLs succeed academically. We are worried, however, that this particular plan will not accomplish that. That’s why the United Federation of Teachers takes the position that ELLs need more, rather than less, direct instruction in English.

It is certainly a good idea to give ELLs language support when they are taking academic classes. Political and scientific concepts are complex and often difficult even for native speakers. While Part 154 offers that support, it does so at the expense of not only direct English instruction, but also the academic instruction it appears to value. For example, in a 40-minute class, an American student may be expected to learn about a Civil War battle. In that same class, an ELL will be expected to learn not only about that battle, but also the vocabulary and language concepts inherent in the lesson. Furthermore, this comes at the expense of an English class the student would previously have been assigned.

I’d argue it would have been a better idea to give the ELL a double period in the academic subject without cutting direct language instruction. This is particularly relevant in high schools. Any cursory study of language acquisition will show that ability begins to decline precipitously around puberty, and that explains why young children seem to acquire it instantly while parents have a much rougher road.

As a high school teacher, I can tell you it can be challenging to get older students to pursue fluency. Sometimes I get students who’ve been dragged here almost kicking and screaming. All they want to do is go back home. Often I get students whose classroom culture entails sitting down with 50 other kids and listening to a teacher speak. I don’t know how effective that is in other subjects, but it’s impossible to learn language that way. It’s vitally important that they find a welcoming place in which they can feel comfortable speaking a new and strange language. They need to touch it, use it, love it, and it needs to become part of them. That’s what my class is all about. And once we get them to that place, they will much more readily embrace whatever else school has to offer.

There’s also what Part 154 does to ESL teachers. I know teachers in small schools who are expected to run around and do almost everything. Pop into this class, pop into that class, pop into all classes and make the ELLs keep up with the native speakers. Expectations are high, time is short, and every minute the ESL teacher helps the kids is a minute lost from the academic teacher, who continues to instruct the rest of the class.

I’m in the largest school in Queens and it’s difficult for us to keep up. We couple ESL instruction with English instruction.  As of now, we’re getting a lot of walk-in students, and many ESL levels are full. We often can’t open ESL classes unless we can find an English teacher to coordinate. Our students would benefit from an ESL teacher and ESL instruction. Under part 154 have to hire English teachers as well, unless we find someone dual-certified. It’s very hard for us to serve our students properly. Smaller schools have worse problems.

My colleagues are very frustrated. One in particular, who observed me as a student, is contemplating other employment. He envisioned being an ESL teacher, but now he’s in English classes, supposedly supporting the ELLs in that class. One problem is ELLs have very distinct language needs from students born here. It’s not necessarily in the best interests of students to have them read To Kill a Mockingbird before they’ve mastered oral English.

We are trained as language teachers, and we teach language. I just read that NY State is considering reinstitution of language Regents exams. It’s very hard for me to understand why other languages merit direct instruction but English does not. I tell my students that my class is the most important one they take. I’m not sure, for example, what I’m supposed to do with my extensive studies of triangles from geometry, but I use what I teach students every day, almost every moment of my life. I’m using it right now.

Please support our efforts to really prepare our ELLs for not only tests, but also life. These are wonderful and fascinating children. It’s my joy and privilege to teach them. We ask that you help us help them.
blog comments powered by Disqus