Friday, January 26, 2018

NY State Takes a Double-Bladed Knife to ELLs

There's some regulation, somewhere, that calls for an extra parent-teacher conference for ELLs. I teach them, so I go. Last night we had the conference in the library. It was not well-attended. Right now I'm sitting in the ESL office with a colleague and neither of us saw any parents. (I did get a lot of reading done, though. I'm very fond of an app called BookBub that offers all the eBooks on sale, and my laptop and phone are now full of trashy novels for when things slow down.)

Our AP bought us all falafel, which was pretty cool. The school bought wraps for the parents. Evidently it's OK to spend DOE money on parents but not teachers. Who would've thunk it? Our conference ran from 5:30 to 8. Around 7:30 it became evident that the parents were not going to eat the wraps so we all chipped in and saved them from the trash.

It's actually a great idea to have additional communication with parents, though it didn't work out that way for my colleague or me. If parents came, I'd have told them how their kids were doing. I'd rather have told them that the state is cheating their kids. I just placed a piece about it in El Diario, but if you'd rather see an English version, you can read it here.

For reasons I cannot fathom, New York State has taken a machete and cut ELLs in two ways. First, they've pretty much gutted direct instruction in English. A rank newcomer may have as few as one period a day of ESL, whereas two years ago she'd have gotten three. Once she reaches a higher level, she could have nothing, literally, in the way of direct English instruction. To my mind, nothing is less than sufficient instruction in something as fundamental as language.

One rationale I've heard for this is that learning the language is not, in itself, learning a subject. That is, of course, ridiculous. If Spanish is a subject, how on earth could English not be? And if you don't learn the language, all the time spent learning the difference between enzymes and hormones, or pretty much any subject matter, is wasted utterly. Now NY State suggests that either a dual-certified teacher or a subject teacher and ESL teacher can teach both English and the subject matter at the same time.

That's absurd. If it takes an English speaker forty minutes to learn about those enzymes, the ELL, already at a tremendous disadvantage, now has to learn the material plus English, by magic, at the same time. I've got decades of experience and many tricks up my sleeve, but that's a feat I could not pull off. Imagine the 25-year-old science teacher who've taken the magical 12 credits to get dual certification trying to pull it off. Even if you enlisted David Copperfield and his magic, he's in trouble this week and couldn't do it either.

I've been writing and talking this for about two years now, and Aixa Rodriguez and I were even on TV talking about it. It's hard, though, to get traction for this. A big problem is that parents of newcomers are often fearful to step up. In these times of Trump and his inane wall, and unconscionable deportations, even fewer of them than usual will speak. I'm very proud to advocate for ELLs and their families, and I live in hope of a legislature and President that are Not Insane.

On Wednesday night, Evelyn de Jesus called a meeting with our ELL committee, NYSUT, and several of the Regents, including Betty Rosa. They seemed open to our suggestions. Hopefully they'll give back our ELLs at least some of what they desperately need. To hook kids on English, it's all about comprehensible input. Once they learn they can learn, they're happy. It's my job to meet beginners and show them that. It's a little easier on me because I'm already dually certified, and my students can get ELA credits for my class.

Still, thousands of my colleagues are sitting around English classroom trying to figure how the hell to make newcomers understand To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't envy them. My best advice to teachers trying to do the impossible would be ask the kids to read it in their first languages. While that certainly won't teach them English, it might give them a tip here and there as to what on earth was going on in their classes.

I once took a class in Spanish at Queens College, and the teacher had us read La Muerte de Artemio Cruz. It was way beyond us, and the teacher should have known. I read it in English, barely understood it, but was able to discuss it in Spanish during the class. Only two other students did that, and we all got As. Alas, many of my high school kids are not yet that crafty, and some have deficiencies in their first languages. I'll support them any way I can.

Meanwhile, I'll keep writing and speaking, and hoping someone in power to change things is listening.
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