Sunday, October 21, 2018

Teachers, ELLs, and What the NY State Board of Regents Hath Wrought

Yesterday I gave two PD sessions at 52 Broadway. The title of my workshop was The Affective Filter and How to Avoid it. I probably should have changed it to something more sexy because it was not all that well attended. I think the morning session had 10 participants and the afternoon had only six.

The workshop focused on the theories of Dr. Stephen Krashen, who's all about comprehensible input. Krashen says, and I agree, that the only way people acquire language is to actively use it, via input that's workable and comprehensible. Krashen says that input ought to be at, or a little above, the student level. He also says that when things get too difficult, veritable walls go up.

Part of my PD involved giving a paper that was virtually impossible to understand. Participants certainly responded as expected. They hated every minute they had to read this thing. I offered them an annotated version, which helped them to understand it. I offered another paper that explained what the first paper was about. Finally, I broke it down into far simpler ideas via a Keynote presentation.

Sometimes, if you have to teach something that's very tough, you can break it down for your students. Other times it's far more difficult. Because of the very small class sizes, we had pretty extensive participation. I repeatedly heard stories for ESL teachers who were in five different classes with five different teachers.

This was seen differently by new teachers and a veteran. There was only one veteran participant, actually, and she taught elementary. She contrasted what she used to do, which was pulling out students, to the new push-in model. She said when she was alone with the students, she was able to support their use of English. She was able to have genuine interactions and help them build confidence. Now she was expected to push in to the classes of multiple teachers.

There was no time to plan with these teachers because there were so many of them, and also because she did not share free periods with them. She said she tried her best, but the limits of trying to make multiple children at multiple levels understand material that was utterly unsuited for them made her task impossible.

The issue of students at multiple levels being grouped together seemed to bedevil every participating teacher. They are ELLs, so let's dump them all in that class. This is probably made worse by the idiotic mandate that ELLs in the same class be no more than one year apart. Thus, you can't place a freshman in a class with a junior. How do you deal with that issue? Just dump all freshman with all sophomores, and dump all juniors with all seniors. Problem solved.

One teacher running around to five different classes told me that she was afraid to complain because she didn't have tenure. I told her to come and tell her story in the ELL focus group that meets monthly at UFT. Actually I told several of the teachers to do that. I would love to see them tell their stories to the whole group. What the NY State Regents have done to  ELLs with their mindless reworking of Part 154 is an abomination. Their notion that we offer direct English language instruction only so that our students can do better in core courses shows utter English of not only language acquisition, but also common sense.

The best language learners in the world are children. Unless Eva brainwashes them very early, children are not primarily concerned with taking tests. Kids want to share and talk and play. That's a quality, we hope as parents, that will linger into adulthood. Of course we want our kids to do well in school, but first and foremost we hope they're happy. It's beyond remarkable that the Regents have no interest in that.

On a side note, I met an occasional commenter to the blog. He introduced himself and we talked for a while. He said, "You talk just like you write." I've been told that before, actually. Ultimately, it sounds like a good thing. Still, there are thousands of ELLs in NYC that can neither talk nor write in English. When we dump them into native ELA classes and tell them, "Read to page 37 of To Kill a Mockingbird by Tuesday, we aren't doing them any favors.

I'm not sure what will rouse the tone-deaf, callous, ignorant, and self-satisfied Board of Regents, but I'm thinking torches and pitchforks might be a good start.
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