Saturday, January 04, 2020

Albany to High Schools: Buena Suerte, Vaya Con Dios, and Drop Dead

My Christmas break, sad to say, was not all glamor and world travel. Alas, there were various things that kept me here. That in itself was not so bad, and I suppose most of my students were around too. One thing I had that they did not was homework.

Someone at UFT gave me two books about a month ago, One was Cultivating Knowledge, Building Learners, which I understand is behind a lot of the atrocious notions the geniuses in Albany have perpetrated against English Language Learners (ELLs or ELs). As I've been serving these kids the last few decades, I take that personally. I commented on that book, directly and indirectly, here and here.

This book, I understand, is the basis behind the state's push to look at ELLs differently, including the half-assed redo of CR Part 154 that resulted in a huge drop in direct English instruction for ELLs, ranging 33-100% in the high schools. 

My other reading assignment was Teaching Academic Literacy Skills, which I went deep on just a few days ago. This book, I'm told, is behind the state's big push for curriculum and the city's insistence on Instructional Leadership Teams. Mulgrew has publicly criticized them for being a small part of what the state is calling for. I'd go even further, and say the entire notion is flawed.

One thing these books had in common was writer Nonie K. Lesaux, who must be rolling in dough from their sales. Another commonality is that, while both books acknowledged ELLs and paid them valuable lip service, neither bothered examining students at high school level. Cultivating Knowledge dealt strictly with elementary students, while, Academic Literacy Skills dealt with K-8 students. To me, at least, this not only explained but also exacerbated quite a few shortcomings.

Here, for example, is something Teaching Academic Literacy Skills puts forth as an "outdated guiding assumption and principle."

The strengths and needs of ELs and their classmates are distinct and necessarily demand different approaches.

Instead, they say this:

In many classrooms, the literacy strengths and needs of ELs and their English-only peers are more similar than different. Learning academic English, oral and written, should be an instructional priority for all. 

Here's one thing we know. At a high school level, many of our students have already acquired academic language, along with reading and writing skills in their first languages. It's a question of transference, which those of us who've studied language acquisition know to occur. Not to put too fine a point on it, but our students don't know English yet, and anyone who doesn't see that as a distinct need that demands a different approach has a geranium in her cranium.

My department was presented with this at a PD, and I'm proud to say that every single high school ESL teacher objected strenuously to this nonsense. Perhaps this concept may be more viable in regard to elementary students who haven't yet acquired skills  but still, they don't know English yet either. Granted, perhaps they'll acquire it more quickly and with less direct instruction.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the approach to ELLs is successful in elementary schools or anywhere. I know an elementary ESL teacher who has nine co-teachers, and he is by no means extraordinary. There is no way on God's green earth that any teacher can be effective with so many co-teachers. I'd argue that two should be an absolute maximum, and that this should be written either into state regulations or local contracts.

That said, we know younger children acquire language more easily than older children. I've not only studied it, but I've also seen it firsthand with my niece who came here at six from Colombia, and my daughter who I adopted from Colombia at two. The geniuses in Albany fail utterly to distinguish between younger and older language learners in several ways.

First, we know that children's brains are almost pre-programmed to learn and acquire language. They are veritable sponges. We know that everyone acquires their first languages perfectly, no matter how hard or easy adults may find them. We also know that this ability begins a precipitous decline around puberty, thus accounting for why our high school students pick it up more slowly than elementary students.

One of the rules passed down by the geniuses in Albany is that ELLs may not be more than one year apart. This makes for programming nightmares systemwide. I'm not an expert on elementary education, but I suppose there might be significant developmental differences between first and fourth graders. Perhaps they ought not to be in classes together. Indeed an elementary school could range from K-6, and maybe these students ought not to be grouped together.

High school is a different matter altogether. Ninth and twelfth graders are not so different that they cannot share a class if they happen to be at the same learning level. The need to create multiple classes for these students is a huge problem. This is at least partially why so many high schools are out of compliance.

Thus a high-school teacher friend of mine has multiple classes with multiple co-teachers. His school contends that English 2 is one prep even though it's taught by different teachers. That's absurd. There is no way that this class, taught by two different teachers, is the same day to day. Thus my friend has, essentially 5 preps. He's in a long grievance process right now, and I'm not sure how he'll fare. Nonetheless, he's right and his administrator is a callous and cynical troglodyte.

I honestly don't understand what goes on up there in Albany. Either the Regents actually read these books and are incapable of assessing them, or they rely on people equally incapable and take their word. Even if they were not basing their decrees on superficial nonsense, their decision to absolutely ignore high schools in their decisions is at best ignorant, and at worst highly irresponsible.

Anyone who rates the sitting NY State Regents higher than ineffective is laboring under a serious misconception.
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