Friday, May 20, 2016

How Part 154 Hurts ESL Students and Teachers

I'm pretty high on having had a hand in composing and passing a UFT resolution that may actually do some good. I don't consider a resolution in itself an achievement, but I'm hoping to build on it. In my DA notes, I wrote that I spoke in support, but didn't actually write what I said.

I go to the DA and furiously take notes. I try to show my readers and members what I saw. But when I'm speaking I can't take notes. Below, I've tried to reconstruct what I said:

Part 154 cuts direct English instruction by a factor of 33-100%, and actually hurts students in two ways. First, of course, they lose time that could be spent learning English. But it’s actually worse. No time is added for these students, not for anything. Instead, they take the same 40 minute American history class as everyone else, but it’s co-taught by an ESL teacher. So in the 40 minutes it takes for an American-born student to learn about the Civil War, the ELL is supposed to learn not only about the Civil War, but also receive instruction in English.

It’s pretty well known that language acquisition ability declines precipitously beginning at puberty. Young children are pretty much designed to learn language, and they soak it up like sponges. But high school students have it a little tougher. Taking time away from them to learn does them a great disservice.

Research shows the way to make students learn language is via high-interest and accessible subject matter. Giving newcomers three-inch thick biology books the day they set foot in the country is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s really better to give them things just a little above their level, and no academic textbook I’ve ever seen matches that criteria.

There are also those ridiculous regulations. I’m in the largest school in Queens, and we have only two classes of beginners. I know because I teach them. The regulations say that students must not be more than one grade level apart. I have no idea why. Thus 9th graders cannot be in the same room with eleventh graders. The smart thing, in a high school, is to group students by language level rather than age. But the geniuses who wrote Part 154 have other ideas. Where they come from is a mystery to me.

This law renders most ESL teachers into co-teachers. These are people who’ve devoted their lives to helping newcomers. I actually have young colleagues who are considering resignation because they want to teach English, not stand around in a classroom where their job entails supporting another teacher making all the decisions about curriculum.

Worst, though, is the assumption that we don’t actually have a subject matter, and that the only way to teach English is via coupling it with academic content. Of course direct English instruction supports academic achievement. But there’s actually more to life than taking tests. We help kids figure out how to buy a pizza, meet a girlfriend, or take their grandmother to the doctor.

Then I asked the Delegate Assembly to support our resolution, and they all did, unanimously. 
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