Monday, March 09, 2015

We're from NYSED, and We're Here to Help

I've been teaching ESL for most of my career as a teacher. Though I'm primarily a high school teacher, I've also taught college, including almost 20 years at the English Language Institute at Queens College. One thing I've noticed is that grammar is not something you can study once and simply remember. You not only have to review it multiple times, but you also have to use it regularly. For example, my second language is Spanish, but since I almost never write in Spanish, I'd have to brush up on accent marks and such for a few minutes before I'd even attempt it.

In English, a whole lot of language learners decide the "s" we add to third person is simply an annoyance, so they drop it altogether. Hence, at every level, you read sentences like, "She go to school every day." Writing like this, among other things, can mark you as a non-native speaker of English. But a lot of learners figure there's so little conjugation done in our language that they dispense with it altogether.

For the last few years I've tended to teach beginners, as I'm the only person in my department who actually requests this position. But odd things are happening in how they're tested. For example, they're no longer called beginners. They're called "emerging" or some other inane and overly complicated thing. Also, I'm told the grammar and usage they need, which unlike native speakers is not intrinsic for them, is no longer tested when they show up.

This became very clear to me in January, when our intermediate classes were full and someone who tested intermediate (whatever they call that now) got dumped into my class. This boy was more verbal than a lot of my kids. But when I gave a test that most of my students passed easily, he scored 44%. This was a very eager kid, always shouting, "I'm finished," before most others did. Yet his work was full of fundamental errors. I can't say how important English convention is to close reading and whatever other crap Common Core has in store for us. I can say, though, that anyone who can't handle basic usage is unlikely to write anything anyone will be jumping up and down to read. (Of course, there is that fundamental David Coleman Common Core theory, that no one gives a crap what you think anyway.)

A new innovative approach to ESL comes from NYSED. From now on, we will spend less time actually teaching English. A good portion of what could have been devoted to immersion will now be devoted to subject knowledge. Because what's more important than passing tests and improving the four-year graduation rate?

Sadly, the answer to that, for my kids, is fairly simple. More important than test scores, than passing classes, than just about anything, is getting a handle on the language. If the folks running the state had even the most rudimentary notion of what language acquisition meant, they'd know that it takes time to learn a new language, to acclimate one's self to a new culture. What would be so awful if we devoted an extra year or two to giving them English? Why on earth should we penalize schools and teachers for meeting the needs of our children?

The answer, of course, is that NY State, embodied by Andrew Cuomo, doesn't give a damn what kids need. They care only what Eva Moskowitz needs, because she and her BFFs have bought Andrew Cuomo lock, stock and barrel. Too bad, because my job, like that of all my brother and sister teachers, is actually helping children.

Any responsible administration would devote itself to helping us do that.
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