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Middle School Bilingual and ESL

What I Learned In Summer School

By Tina Kern

A s I walked down the hall, a teacher burst from her room booming, “ Gamal did really well on his pronunciation word test.  Can we get him out of ESL now?”

I opened my mouth to comment, but a colleague (who had been an ESL teacher and also had Gamal as a student) interjected, “Not this year.”  The first teacher continued with accolades to his fluency.  You see, she had been a summer school teacher, and for the first time in her career, she had a former ESL student.  Now, through her vast experience as a classroom reading teacher and her 4-week stint in summer school, plus having read several books on the subject, she qualified herself as a specialist.  I knew it would be a very long year – and this subject would be revisited.

I knew Gamal’s progress was incredible.  September 2011 marked only one year that he had been in the United States. He had needed to learn a new alphabet, a new language, make new friends, and adjust to a different educational system.  On an informal test, Gamal had to read various words as he continued on to lists of higher level words; he excelled in his word attack skills. His fluency, though, was only one part of the complete picture.  I couldn’t explain the complexity of the process in one conversation.  But I knew, no matter how many times I explained the basics of the process of teaching ELLs to become successful, it was never too many times.  This bears repeating:  as teachers of ELLs, we design programs and educate the educated in the unique qualities of our populations.

I knew that one of our roles, exercising sensitivity toward our populations, was truly needed here.  The students in that teacher’s class were told that they would “get out of” ESL soon -- very soon.  That is not the way we want the students to perceive our program.  ESL classes are not  negative, but positive, additions to their schedules.  We teach these children so that they are successful in regular classes…classes where the other children grew up immersed in English and educated in our American schools.  Unfortunately, these children came to me asking questions, and referred to “getting out” and who would, and why and why not.  I knew I had to devote some class time to explaining how wonderful an opportunity ESL is.  And then I would have to confer with our school’s teachers as to the language used when the ESL teacher, with multiple measures, made the joint decision that the student was ready to exit.

It seems my life is full of fairy tales and fables like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.   In our schools it seems that either the classroom teachers and administrators want the students to exit too soon (“the porridge is too hot”), or not for a long time (“the porridge is too cold”). Rarely is it “just right.”

Years ago ESL teachers begged for classrooms, as we were relegated to the room behind the stage, or the newly renovated closet with no windows just a peep hole in the door.  Now our populations of students are on  the front lines and are given some prominence, as our numbers color the testing results and cause concern because our students don’t pass the test easily. At the same time, many schools have cut programs and reduced staff so that we see fewer teachers servicing more students. 

The year 2014 is looming, and our ELLs are part of the group that must pass the tests. As I write this, New Jersey is considering the new federal exemption, but testing still is a reality, and no one seems to have a better way to measure progress. How sad! I still remember when administrations (political and educational) exempted our ELLs for two years from state testing, for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, we create our checklist each year:

And the list goes on.  Now that the state doesn’t require that districts submit plans as in prior years, the pertinent information is filed in Central Office.  Some schools are not requiring classroom files, as information is being stored online.   I would suggest that you still keep files with information and scores, and update them.  I utilize my data continually with regular teachers and administrators as we discuss student progress.

While many teachers are members of teams, created by grade levels and/or subjects, we are part of the “specialist” group in some schools.  We are sent to sit in with other grade levels during meetings, but, many times  are not part of the teams created in our schools.  As such, we must communicate with the teams and advocate for our students.  Part of this hinges on the communication we create with the other teachers.  Whether it is enlightening the staff about our ELLs at teacher /team meetings, we must reiterate the challenges to our students. 

Some regular classroom teachers still are unaware of intricacies of language theory and how best to help our students acquire language.  As I share what I know with regular teachers at meetings, I am reminded that our knowledge of ELLs is not universal: We need to educate teachers so they understand our students.  I can’t say this enough.  I am always surprised that what I consider “everyday” knowledge of the ESL teacher is NOT common knowledge for the regular classroom teacher.  It is important that during these first months of school, you need to create your own communication system; perhaps a short email to teachers of ELLs and recently exited students, with a checklist to monitor progress can be expedient.  Regular classroom teachers who teach our ELLs, too, should feel comfortable to contact us on any issues.  When I overhear some comment about our students in the hall, even discipline “problems” involving them, I realize it is time to send an email or speak at a teacher’s meeting, reiterating that we are working together with our ELLs for their success.  It is a shared experience.  I need the classroom teacher to recognize what I mean by “deeper understanding”.  I want the classroom teacher to understand that fluency without understanding is reading words, and is not a reflection of comprehension. In fact, I am in the process of sending a second group of emails to the staff in our school asking for advance notice of content vocabulary that they will be using in future lessons and perhaps an outline of lesson plans from content area teachers in order to integrate this information into my plans.  In this way the students will become active participants in the regular classroom, as we arm them with pertinent vocabulary so they understand key concepts.

With the emphasis on content vocabulary, our role becomes even more critical.  I have always wrestled with the complexities and challenges of vocabulary and am reading extensively on this subject.  I am inhaling books such as Learning Words Inside and Out by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, as well as Building Academic Vocabulary by Robert Manzano, as I try to accelerate the learning of content area vocabulary, Tier 2 words, Tier 3 words, etc.  This is a constant frustration as the state testing presupposes the student has thousands of words in his repertoire. While the science curriculum has lists of content area words, the English teachers, including the ESL teachers, try to choose important words by evaluating previous tests and lists of Tier words compiled by experts. We also teach “exciting” words, and try to eradicate “boring” words.  Some of our students have no prior knowledge or experience that can help them retain the words they need to learn for the lessons in content area subjects. By utilizing lists regular classroom teachers send us, and sharing our lessons, we can reinforce information.  Also we can help the classroom teachers create their own Tier 2 words, or create them ourselves from the lessons.  As research has shown, these are the words we must emphasize with our students. You can check the state website at http://www.state.nj.us/education/assessment/es/njask.

Our job is multi-faceted and our students’ successes depend on so many different factors.  As for the first teacher who wanted students out of the program, we ended a discussion with hugs for now.  I emphasized working together for the same goal for the child: his ultimate success in regular classrooms.  She said she worried about his fluency.  I said I worried about his comprehension (among other things).  But I walked away still preoccupied with the echo of “revisiting” his progress in January.  As for me, I constantly check and recheck progress, and areas of need and review.  When the students do exit, I want them to experience success— success that they earned and deserve. For now, he is entitled to and receives his ESL instruction, and daily enters with a smile, for he knows he is strengthening his skills —and we care about his future.

Tina Kern is the representative for the Bilingual/ESL Middle School SIG. She teaches the Morris School District  and may be reached at tkern@njtesol-njbe.org .


IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT #1: I am happy to announce that we have reconfigured our Special Interest Group to better serve your needs and to address the unique challenges of Middle School.  This year our ESL Middle School SIG is becoming the ESL and Bilingual Middle School SIG.   As a result, I need the email addresses of our bilingual colleagues that were previously included in the Bilingual Elementary SIG.  Please email me at tskern723@yahoo.com so that I can include you in our list and you can receive pertinent information, and join the conversation.

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT #2: Our Student Scholarships/Writing Challenges will be due on March 1, 2012.  This incredible opportunity for our students is one of the highlights of our Spring Conference.  Nothing can match the feeling I have when I present one of the awards to a winner.  Check out the information on our NJTESOL/NJBE website, www.njtesol-njbe.org, download an application pertinent to your grade level (4th, 8th, High School, or Higher Education), and begin encouraging your students to enter our Writing Challenge. The practice is invaluable, and you might have a winner in your classroom!  Good luck!

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