Sunday, July 01, 2018

Dear Chancellor Carranza,

 We met at UFT Executive Board last month. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I was very impressed by your quick mind and instant recall.

I understand you no longer have a Deputy Chancellor for English language learners. I have no idea why that is, but I'd like to apply for the job. It is a very tough time for English language learners in New York State, and I'm sure you know that we have a great many of them here in NYC. I've been teaching ELLs here since 1984.

My sole interest in applying for this job is their welfare, and their welfare is at risk due to the latest revision of CR Part 154. I'm sure you know that the state feels the purpose of direct instruction in English is to prepare students for core content courses like math and science. It's hard for me to express the basic ignorance inherent in this assumption. 

The younger people are, the better language learners they are. This means my students are often tasked with helping their parents. They have to go to lawyers and doctors and act as translators. Aside from helping their parents, they need to help themselves. They need to know how to order a pizza, ask for directions, and hopefully make friends. They need to be happy. That's more fundamental than acing that math exam.

Of course, a better command of English will lead to better performance on all exams. In New York State, we've taken away direct English instruction by a factor of 33-100%. Despite this cut, students have received no extra time to compensate. In fact, when we cut direct instruction, we expect core content teachers to teach not only content, but also English.

Imagine that I am a social studies teacher and my goal is to have students understand the Battle of Gettysburg. Imagine that it took me 45 minutes to accomplish that with native English speakers. Under CR Part 154, in those same 45 minutes, I'm expected to teach ELLs not only everything I taught the native speakers, but also all the English that's required to comprehend and appreciate it.

That's an impossible task. It doesn't matter if I'm certified in both social studies and ESL, and it won't help if I have both a social studies and ESL teacher in the room. ELLs need more time to grasp both English language and concepts in core courses. We are giving them less. If our goal is to help them, this makes no sense. 

Another issue I'd address is that of ESL teachers doing impossible tasks, like working with five co-teachers. This may be convenient for some principals but it's impossible for teachers and counter-productive for ELLs. If a principal cannot manage to keep co-teachers down to two, already one too many, the rest of that teacher's day should be devoted to direct instruction.

New York State no longer appears to see the value of comprehensible input in language instruction. I'm not sure why that is.  Evidently, they're in the thrall of some studies that see test scores rather than comprehension as a goal. That was the flaw that sunk Common Core, and we ought to be able to learn from our mistakes.

Our job is to make students love English, not fear or hate it. If a student comes here this morning from El Salvador, or anyplace, it's not smart to hand that student a three inch thick science textbook, dump an ESL teacher into her class, and hope for the best. It's our job to support and encourage these kids. We shouldn't be sitting around in offices fretting over why they don't do well on tests. If you or I were to go to China tomorrow and take tests, we probably wouldn't do well either. We need to help these kids rather than blame them.

Learning a language takes time, and it's an egregious error that we cut direct language time. There are some in the state who see direct English instruction as a non-subject. The fact is that the structure of language is fundamental, and if you don't acquire it as a baby you need chances to learn and practice it. Were the notions behind this revision of Part 154 sound, we'd just teach social studies in Spanish, math in Korean, and science in Arabic, thus producing an entire city of polyglots. Of course that's ridiculous, as is Part 154.

This is a terrible time in our country. The first and best advocates for these children ought to be their parents, yet many of them live in fear. Someone has to stand for them, and that someone needs to be us. I'm prepared to do that, and I'm prepared to do it full time.

I'm available to come in for an interview at your convenience.
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