My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the tag “NYCTF”

Today’s Education Reform Rant Brought to You by the Letter “C”

I was once sitting among some colleagues who were discussing the difficulties our ELL students have with spelling – like kids who write “whase” for “was”. Teaching spelling is even trickier when your population’s first language has different sounds, and different sounds represented by letters that differ from English (if they have any experience with letter alphabets or writing at all).

We use Words Their Way, which is essentially a phonics program that encourages deductive reasoning, and uses pictures or word cards, all of which have proven problematic for classes such as mine. Firstly because when doing sound sorts with word cards usually kids just look and see that “mat” looks like “sat” and not “set”, and group them by letters rather than sounds, which they’re supposed to be noticing. While this might be useful for students if you’re teaching them the letters in the English language, but the usefulness even then is limited. Secondly, the picture cards, where they match pictures by the sounds in the words they represent, require vocabulary knowledge! You have to know the picture you are looking at is of a “hen” to see how it fits with “pen”.

Add to this the fact that spelling is arbitrary. There is no inherent logic that the squiggle that looks like a “c” should make the /k/ sound rather than the letter “g”. I know kids don’t need to know that, but teachers and curriculum authors ought to! Besides, spelling in English is so irregular that teaching rules has never proven too helpful (in my experience) because there is also a “however…” tacked onto the end if it.

So, it really struck me as such a surprise when I overheard a fellow teacher say, “No matter how many times I remind them, they still spell ‘excited’ as ‘exited’”. I responded by saying, (in the positive scenario, assuming the kid doesn’t have other problems or difficulties), “There’s a similar word in Spanish but spelled “exitoso”, and maybe that’s why.” And this person paused and replied emphatically, “But you can hear the c,” and then pronounced the word slowly.

What made me really stop in this comment is that despite knowing that ‘c’ can make more than 1 sound, what she didn’t know was that letters don’t actually “make” sounds. They are just representations of sound, and often they represent very different ones (between and within languages), which can reinforce confusion by ELLs and likely not just ELLs.

For example, if I’m thinking of something to say in Spanish or Italian that has the letters “ch” in it, which is pronounced differently in the two languages, I first think to myself how “Che” is said in Spanish, and then I know which sound I need to make. The Italian pronunciation for “ch”, is represented in English by the letters k, c, and also ch (think character). And both Spanish and Italian have their trilled “r” sounds that most people think English doesn’t have. We have one of them. Just say the word ladder out loud and compare what your tongue does to either the Spanish pero, if you know it, to see the similarities, or to the English “made” to see how our “d” at the end of a word differs when “d” is in the middle. Now do you want to teach kids how to pronounce words in English, or how to spell that way? A little trickier, isn’t it, when you think of all the sounds we actually make.

But I digress.

This is NOT a dig at this person, or at teachers — because many of us have not had the experience of really learning a foreign language, or of taking a linguistics class that really invite us to rethink the written language differently from its sound system, or phonetics. And perhaps the way we teach spelling would be different if teachers were encouraged to reflect on their teaching and their particular population’s needs in deeper ways, instead of just being given a book they are required to use three times a week.

I’d like you to consider: this is someone who actually has years of experience with ELLs and still doesn’t understand some key aspects of their learning. So imagine the true value of someone with no experience with ELLs — and I don’t mean the teachers now, but the politicians and others who actually write policy and determine teacher training and curricula — imagine them having the impact they do on our education system.

And we’re just talking about spelling here.

If this question of English orthography and phonetics interests you, I suggest reading this.

Tenure.. Curse or Cure?

Education isn’t as much in the mainstream media as it was just this past school year, which is sad given the march on Washington that recently happened (psst! As a former activist, i have to say that emergency rallies, while harder to populate, are much more effective).

So while this post also may not be as timely, I feel I must weigh in.

Not long ago, I was discussing (here?) a colleague from a nearby school who was being scrutinized for no clearcut reason. Her principal said things like, “I don’t think you know how to teach children how to read.”

The teacher in me cringes when I hear this because, while quite pointed, it isn’t helpful criticism. Is there a strategy she’s using that’s ineffective? Is there some aspect of the program she isn’t implementing to the principal’s liking? With the principal’s few extra years of teaching experience, was she able to problem solve and lead the teacher to find and address her weaknesses? Or is teaching children to read suddenly as easy as A, B, C?

The researcher in me cringes even more. The children this particular teacher is responsible for tend to be young, English-learning immigrants with limited or no prior education or experience with literacy in their native tongue, and have no exposure outside school with oral English. They typically aren’t read to at home or included in meaningful conversation since parents work long hours or are illiterate or alliterate themselves. Anyone who knows anything about ESL knows how pivotal oral competency or proficiency are to literacy. And there is scant research on how children such as these are learning to read in this new tongue. Much of the existing research is based on older students. They can’t “transfer” in the same way literate children can (in terms of reading skill and habit), even though some people like to talk about transfer as some magical element that just makes literacy in the target language “happen”.

Teachers responsible for teaching these children — and their administrators– are doing them little good if they are simply regurgitating the same approaches used to teach English-dominant kids. Yet that is what some teachers are being told to do. They are given teaching points such as, “good readers make sense of new words by asking themselves ‘does that sound right?’”. What a worthless lesson for newcomers! Yet when these teachers’ students don’t advance as quickly as native English-speakers, they are the ones being held accountable by getting their probation period extended before tenure is granted. Who does this help? It’s like setting a fire and locking the exits.

Anyway, back to my colleague. After two years of getting observed months apart, her principal came to teach a lesson to the students in this class. Only then did she realize the problem wasn’t with how this teacher was teaching. She saw how much they still needed to hear their first language to understand complex ideas (and codeswitching is outlawed), how several had clear learning disabilities, and how the current curriculum was severely deficient. This colleague was finally given some validation and the S grading she deserved.

My purpose in recounting this story is to show that the problem isn’t tenure per se. It isn’t a lack of tools for assessing teachers. It is sometimes a lack on the part of those assessing them. It might be pragmatism, relying too much on “data” (which is neither objective nor completely accurate), laziness, and lack of experience implementing the new curriculum and strategies they are pushing.

Thinking of making an “Our Languages” Dictionary…

I recently wrote about wanting my students to celebrate each other and I’ve just come up with another idea to promote community, cultural awareness and respect in my classroom. I’m going to use a sketchpad to create an “Our Languages Dictionary” of phrases and words, and have different kids write how those things are written (and transliterated in English for pronunciation purposes). Then, I may have kids bring in, print out, or draw pictures or decorations to go with each page. What do you think? So far the languages in my classroom are: Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, Bengali, Indonesian, Pashto, Nepali, Urdu, and Hindi (the last three have many similarities when spoken, it seems – just in terms of some of the phrases they have told me…which I found extremely interesting.) I could also past the pictures for the sign language we’re learning.

I have a “bill of rights” of sorts in my classroom that lists the right that every child has to speak in their first language, when appropriate, and I have wanted to create posters with sayings such as, “One Language Is Never Enough” (from omniglot.com). Perhaps this is a better way to celebrate that sentiment…

Teaching Math but Assessing English

We use Everyday Math to teach in my school and rarely do you find a teacher who has something positive to say about it. I went to some PDs last year about ELLs and math, and even there a lot of school math coaches in attendance were sharing other texts – one published in NY – that had real ESL components.

There are many problems with EDM, but a major flaw is how much it teaches that has nothing to do with grade level standards. It assumes certain topics were taught to students in previous grade levels and won’t reteach them, or teaches things kids don’t “need” for 2 more grades. (Yes, “need” seems defined by the standardized math tests). So we are told to scrap certain lessons and supplement with yet another math text, Coach.

A new element this year is we are no longer using the assessments provided by EDM. Instead, the math coaches have created mini and cumulative assessments. My gripe? It does not actually allow me to properly assess my newcomers’ math skills because of the english in it. At least the EDM tests used the same language or format of workbook pages. You’d think if we were going to create our own tests in-house, there’d be accomodations made. Nope. I mean, are we assessing their math skills or their ability to decipher the English in math, because those are different skills!

Supposedly kids are doing really well on them. Not mine! And it kills me because math is not my strong point, and I try to teach beyond what the text gives us, and I teach the language, and I just wish I had a better idea how much they are grasping! I’d like to know what more I could do to teach the testing language or if they truly aren’t learning. (Some kids do get 70s, 80s, and even 90s, but far too many get 40s or below.)

To top it off, so many of my kids did not attend a school in the US before this year (and at least 2 didn’t go to school much at all last year), so there are no doubt plenty of skills they don’t know –or they learned to do things differently and aren’t sure how to apply what they know.

Supremely frustrating. From now on I’m going to create separate tests for the newcomers that uses less language and we’ll see how that goes.

UFT sues DOE… and I get my 29th student

Will An Appropriate Class Size Ever Be Enforced for Self-Contained ESL Classes?

(I had a new student arrive in my class in November and then leave for another school in December. Then I got another new one, bringing my numbers back to 28, and now #29).

My supervisor called me today and asked how many kids I have and I responded 28. “That many? Well, we have a problem. There is a new student from Nepal and we have to take her and she doesn’t speak any English. Think if there is a student who you could..” I knew she was going to then offer to move one of my more advanced students to another class so I interrupted her, saying, “Just send her over. I’ll teach 29.” Why get rid of a student I rely on to help the others?

So I now have the most of the 4 fourth grades in our building and, I’d guess, of the whole grade but who knows?

Clearly our school needs more teachers trained to teach ELLs. Not only that, but the DOE considers self-contained ESL classes as a general ed class, so no caps exist despite the obvious higher needs of the students. What will happen when I reach 32 students and they get more new immigrants? What fifth grade will they go to?

And the funny-enough-to-cry news is the teachers union has just sued the DOE over funds that were supposed to be used to keep class size down! I’m glad they are suing, but I’m not sure it will accomplish much. I am a cynic when it comes to politics… and so really enjoyed this post on the same topic (it includes a handy chart that shows how, despite enrollment decreasing, class sizes have increased).

And to be honest, I almost felt happy we were getting a new student. My initial thought was that it’d be fun. Can you imagine that?? :) My students cheered too, especially the girls since now they outnumber the boys – 15 girls and 14 boys. I almost can’t fathom being in charge of so many kids at once! It’s crazy when I think about it.

When I told my supervisor I’d take the kid, she told me to polish my halo. Forget the gratitude/pity; how about just pay me more?

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