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Essay: Giving English language learners the classroom support they need

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In the 1990s, I was a science teacher at Central East Middle School, now the Feltonville School of Arts & Science. I usually taught five sections of students – more than 150 young adults per week. My classes were built around weekly lab experiments, and I worked hard to make concepts about science concrete through these hands-on and minds-on activities.

On any given Saturday, I could be found with other teachers taking classes or workshops in search of ways to improve my teaching. But I never took a class to help me teach students for whom English was a second language, even though half my students came from homes where English was not spoken by all the adults.

I talked about learning Spanish, since many of my students were Latino, but I never moved beyond listening to a conversational tape in my car. I relied heavily on my bilingual students to translate in cooperative learning groups, and the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers in my building for support.

In retrospect, I’m disturbed by my assumption that my bilingual students could explain my lessons for their classmates. I realize now that the scientific words and ideas I was teaching were largely lost in translation. At most, my students were explaining my directions, not the learning behind them. My ESOL students, I see now, were often “politely” lost during my lessons.

In contrast, my reliance on my bilingual colleagues who taught ESOL was well-placed.

Ben Lariccia, a former Latin teacher who had lived in Mexico and spoke Spanish, started teaching ESOL before the District provided any formal training. On his own, he learned to help students develop a deep understanding of English through multi-sensory experiences, developing a tightly organized program of project-based learning. Always seeking to build on students’ gifts, Ben guided them to become “experts” on topics like “Titanic: Lost and Found” and “Pompeii: Buried Alive.”

Until the Y.S. lawsuit compelled the District to pay more attention to English language learners, Ben said, there was little accountability for their progress. Still, Ben pushed his students academically and always sought ways in which their experiences in their home cultures and languages could enrich our school.

At Central East, I also worked with Cindy Corabi, who has taught ESOL for 23 years. Cindy began her career teaching Spanish, before getting her master’s in bilingual studies and taking the District’s ESOL test.

We were in the same small learning community, and Cindy sometimes “pushed-in,” or attended my classes with our ESOL students to support my teaching and their learning. I found this helpful, but Cindy said that on reflection, push-in “is splattered support… not enough time, regularly, to make a difference.” She thinks it is better for students to learn content in their native language, although that model has been largely abandoned here and elsewhere.

Today, Cindy works with her students at least once a day essays for sale, pulling beginners out of their English/reading block for a double period and students more proficient in English out of social studies for a single period. She also said it is crucial to follow up with students who exit ESOL, most of whom would benefit from bilingual tutoring and after-school programs.

Finally, Cindy told me it is important for content-area teachers to have not just a strong background in what they are teaching, but training in ESOL instruction. I know from my own experience that she is right. At many schools, our immigrant population continues to grow, and the great majority will spend most of their time not in ESOL class, but with content teachers.

While learning Spanish would have helped my communication with many of my students and their families, what I really needed was a greater understanding of the methods needed to support the success of each immigrant student, regardless of their primary language or culture. Without focused training in ESOL strategies, too many teachers are leaving our ESOL children behind, despite our best intentions.

Our students deserve the intensive support that Cindy describes – support that will require additional training and preparation for the majority of our teaching staff, who, like me, speak English only.

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