Wednesday, September 02, 2015

ESL--Twice the Work in Half the Time

I'm quite upset about what's happening with my ESL students. They're getting substantially less support and being held to increasingly inappropriate expectations. In fact, I approached UFT leadership about in June and was encouraged that they might do something to help.

We had scheduled a meeting for tomorrow, they sent me several reminders, and I worked my summer plans around it. Yesterday I got an email that it was canceled, with no explanation whatsoever. I had to call the people who'd agreed to come with me and tell them not to bother. (They did not thank me for having invited them.)

(UPDATE--UFT is rescheduling this meeting.) 

So instead of sitting on a beach somewhere, I'm here playing stick with my dog. (That's not so bad. I love my dog.)

A recent piece in Hechinger Report suggests that Common Core, which UFT leadership passionately supports,  is creating double the work for ESL teachers, even as NY State issues draconian cuts in time for kids to learn English. As reported previously in this space, the geniuses who run education in this space have taken one period of English instruction away from high-school level ELLs, to replace it with a content area course taught by either a dual-certified content area teacher or a content teacher working in concert with an ESL teacher.

I don't know whether the teacher interviewed or writer of this piece are familiar with the new regulations. But for us, in fact, the new rules amount to a demand that we somehow make kids acquire language more quickly via wishful thinking. Rather than spend time acclimating teenagers, who naturally acquire language more slowly than their younger counterparts, we're placing them in a content course they'd have taken anyway, and hoping they learn English at the same time. We're essentially demanding that they acquire academic English instantly, via magic for all I know, and offering even less support for a process known to take 5-7 years on this astral plane.

There are several additional flaws in this approach. One is, while it won't hurt to have someone qualified deal with these children, content area courses frequently culminate in the same assessment regardless of whether or not the kids know English. I suspect many principals, freaked out over test scores, will place kids in these classes so they can pass Regents exams. If they don't, of course, it will be some defect in the teachers, rather than the simple and indisputable fact that the kids don't know English.

Of course, the geniuses who administer NYC education think ESL only exists so that kids can do better in content area courses. Things like, you know, living their lives, communicating with others, vastly enriching their educational and vocational opportunities, ordering lunch, or meeting friends, lovers, husbands or wives are of no relevance whatsoever. The priority is getting a 65 on that Global Regents.

And yet the current plan won't much help even with that very low standard. It's interesting to read the story about Port Chester, where it appears all of their ESL students speak Spanish. You can do things with a monolingual population you can't do with a population hailing from all parts of the world. I'm not exactly sure what they are because, over decades of teaching newcomers, the most I've ever had an ESL class that spoke only one language has been never.

Yet there are some good ideas here. A bilingual class (which the article does not much differentiate from an ESL class) would be a much better place to teach content area. Alas, bilingual classes I've seen have frequently been taught largely in foreign languages, neglecting  English quite a bit. This is not what bilingual classes are supposed to be, but even in those cases it would be easier to teach science, social studies, or indeed anything. It would also be easier to assess reading and writing skills or lack thereof. While I teach newcomers reading and writing, I do so gradually. Handing them a two-inch thick textbook and demanding a 5 page paper day one would be nothing less than insane.

While the bilingual teacher in the article adores the standards, I'm afraid I do not, and parents across the state agree with me. That's why 20% of NY States students opted out of the tests, a 300% increase from last year. Parents are weary of having their children discouraged, with hours of incomprehensible homework and developmentally inappropriate assignments. I agree with some of what she says:

“But, if the test is assessing their ability to read and respond to literature, make inferences and think critically — how can they prove proficiency if they are in the beginning stages of English? How do we capture what they know, and what they’re capable of and how far they’ve come?”

We can't, and that would apply whether or not we had Common Core. One thing kids need, regardless, is to learn English. And for that, no matter what our goals, the new state rules are absolutely nuts. The notion that kids need less time to learn a language in addition to all the Common Core stuff we're thrusting upon them has no basic in research, logic or common sense. You don't need to study language acquisition to know that it takes time to learn one. If you don't believe me, go find a writing test in a language you don't understand and try to get through it.

Better yet, why don't we send MaryEllen Elia on a fact-finding trip to Shanghai. She can sit with the students as they take their tests, try to pass them, and we'll judge her just as we do our students. If she doesn't pass with flying colors, we'll conclude that the Shanghai schools and teachers are failing.

Because absurd as that sounds, those are precisely the expectations she has for my kids.
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