Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Lost Boys (and Girls)

For some reason, not many of my colleagues ask to teach beginners, ever. It used to be different. People used to think, it seemed, it was easy to teach beginning English Language Learners. Maybe people thought, because the level was low, that the material was easy. That's true, for me at least. Basic English is not a large challenge for me. I've been using it since I was a baby, and I understand it pretty well. (Of course, you can't brag about that the way you could if you were discussing advanced physics or something. On the other hand, there's a lot more need for basic English than advanced physics.) I love to teach beginners not because the materials are easy, but because I love seeing the amazing progress they make.

There are challenges, though, that most people wouldn't anticipate. Who's in beginner classes? Well, beginners are there, of course, unless they ace one or more of the idiotic state tests that supposedly measure language levels. You never know what those tests are going to do. My tests are different. My first is to ask what your name is, where you're from, and how long you've been here. Responses to those questions can say a lot. Sometimes I have students write about whatever they want to see what they can do. Of course the geniuses in Albany know better than I do, so they don't bother with things like that.

Sometimes you'll get students classified as SIFE, which means they're missing formal education somehow. This seems to be a frequent occurrence in El Salvador, where there's a whole lot of uncertainty. The first time I encountered a student like this his Spanish teacher knew exactly what to ask. The student said he hadn't been in school since fourth grade. I called his father, who told me you had to bring the kid in by a certain date or he wouldn't get admitted to school. I found that hard to believe. I mean, if I made a mistake like that once, I wouldn't make it twice. According to Dad, he made it six times in a row. I'm sure there was more of a story there, but I was never going to hear it.

Some students don't want to learn English. It's odd, especially in teenagers. Social life was a prime directive for me as a teenager, and it seems important to most I know. This really drives langauge learning. But some kids really didn't want to leave their country. They don't like it here, and they don't want to learn English. Usually they get over it. Sometimes they don't. When they don't, they tend not to pass English. Sometimes they stay at the beginner level. Sometimes they advance because people think it won't do any good to leave them in the same class. Sometimes they get sent back to the same class anyway.

There are special education students from other countries. Sometimes they weren't identified as special education in their home countries. Sometimes they were. Either way, it's a long process getting them services here. You have to get translators, there's some incredibly complicated process, and it doesn't get resolved for months. Meanwhile these kids sit in your classes. If parents don't wish their kids to be tested, they don't get tested. I've seen kids like these fail all, or almost all of their classes. I've also seen kids like these take out their frustrations in ways that are highly undesirable.

A new thing is ICT classes. These are blended classes of two-thirds general ed and one third special ed, with two teachers. It's driven by IEPs. These IEPs tend to place students in ICT classes for English, social studies, science and math, contending that they need these services. Frequently, though, they don't need them for subjects in which the school doesn't offer ICT classes. For example, I know language teachers who have quite a few of these students. While you can only have up to 12 students with IEPs in an ICT class, you can have 34 of them in a Spanish class. The evident logic is that the student needs extra help in her native language, but none whatsoever to learn a new one. That makes sense, right?

ELLs now need an ELA component. I can teach it because I'm certified in English. I teach two classes this year, one ELA and one ESL. So a student requiring ICT classes might be in my ESL section, with rank beginners, but also in an English class full of native speakers with a special education teacher. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that kid absolutely does not belong in a class with native English speakers. Nonetheless, there he is. In fairness, because of Part 154, there may be an ESL teacher hanging around that classroom now and then. The geniuses in Albany, you see, think that this newcomer can read To Kill a Mockingbird as long as an ESL teacher sits in that room twice a week.

In any case, all these students are floating around my building. I get new students every week, and will do so for the entire school year. By the end of the year, likely as not, every one of the students above will be in my classes. The standing advice is to differentiate instruction. Honestly, though, it's tough to see how anyone can meet the varying needs of all these kids in one classroom.

Maybe that's why so few people ask for this level these days.
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