Friday, November 09, 2018

Thank You Regents, for Tying My Hands and Hurting My Kids

The geniuses in Albany have their think tanks. One of the big ideas they've been brandishing has been that the only reason we teach standalone English is to prep students for so-called core classes. I guess they are social studies, math, and science, or ELA, you know, but not English language. That's why, in Regents world, we just take newcomers and make them read To Kill a Mockingbird. Because who has time for beginner stuff anyway?

In case that's not clear enough for you, imagine stepping off a plane in China and being told you were going to read The Great Chinese Novel. You know, that's The Great American Novel, but the Chinese version. That's challenging, because it won't be To Kill a Mockingbird. And here's the thing--even if it were, how the hell would you read it in Chinese? And even if you read it in English, how would you discuss it in class? How would you even know what the teacher was talking about?

In NY State, high school newcomers get one year of 40-minute classes in English. After that, they don't have to get anything. They just plop them in chairs, sit an ESL teacher in the back, and newcomers study math, biology, history, and whatever else the school sees fit to give them. Maybe the ESL teacher will sit in the back for one of those, and that's good enough for the geniuses in Albany.

Here's what they will tell you--they will tell you the system is a success because more students are passing the NYSESLAT, which supposedly places students by their ability. I didn't really grasp the absurdity of that assertion until this year. For most of the last ten years I've taught beginners. I noticed last year that the beginners seemed consistently lower, and that there were fewer of them. This year there were so few of them that we have only one class, so I'm also teaching an advanced class.

I'm teaching a novel in my advanced class. That's what I used to do when I taught advanced classes in the past. Things are different now. It's become clear to me that I have students who can't handle it, and some of them have tested fit for native-level English. Not only that, but I'm reading college entrance letters from them and they are abysmal. These students, who have tested out of ESL, do not know fundamental English grammar or usage. They cannot use simple present or past tense properly. They don't know how to link verbs. They most certainly don't know how to identify or tell an interesting story, but I can't get near that until I get them to write comprehensibly.

That's fine and dandy with the Regents, who sit around their offices and dream up rules for everyone else to follow. The really good thing about it is that even if they fail abysmally, all they need to do is change a cut score here or there and they're geniuses. They've managed to make everyone test out of ESL even if they barely know any English at all! No one's ever been able to do that before!

As for us, the lowly teachers on the ground, we have to give the tests we're given, and if we don't like it, too bad for us. Now here's the thing--though we may appear as geniuses for making them advance on the largely meaningless NYSESLAT exam, we still have to get them to pass the Regents ELA exam. If we have enough of them taking that exam, it's mandatory we be rated on that.

I haven't actually examined the English Regents exam in ten years. I've had my hands full teaching beginners. It's funny, because what the kids in my advanced classes desperately need is what I teach in my beginning classes. I'm not at all sure I'll have the time, though, because I'll be busy teaching them how to pass the ELA Regents exam.

Now anyone who's studied language acquisition will tell you that newcomers have language needs that are totally distinct from those of native speakers. We would tell you that newcomers ought to be taught differently, and eased into academics. We would tell you that comprehensible input is key to all progress or lack thereof. Fortunately, the Regents don't know jack squat about language acquisition, so they're unencumbered by any such quaint notions.

Me. I'll be prepping these kids to pass a test. I could be teaching them English instead. In the long run, that would be much more meaningful to me, and much more valuable to them, It's what I love to do, and it's what I do best. But hey, they can't graduate if they don't pass this test, and my junk science rating will plummet if they don't do well on this test.

As for those college essays, I'll help clean them up as best I can. My priority, though, will have to be getting them ready for that Regents exam. College can wait, and it probably will. My kids will need to take remedial courses, courses I could teach them for free, and it will cost them thousands of dollars to take them for no credit in community colleges.

What utter nonsense.
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