This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The 7th graders were learning about pendulums in Judy Huynh’s class at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures (FACTS) Charter School on the northern edge of Chinatown. On a drizzly afternoon, they were going to put their learning to the test using a ruler and a length of string knotted to a metal washer about the size of a quarter.
And 12-year-old Xinyi, a recent immigrant from China, would do her part, counting with a partner how many times the washer, hanging 30 centimeters below the ruler, could swing from side to side in 30 seconds.
No matter that Xinyi was still learning to count in English.
From the viewpoints of Huynh, her science teacher, and Lucinda Megill, her English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, the student was learning key words, including pendulum and velocity, and key concepts, such as the steps of the scientific method.
She was on track learning to speak, listen, write and think in English. And with the best efforts of her teachers and her own determination, she was working in grade-level classes, attempting to learn the same math and science lessons as her English-speaking peers.
“She knows it’s an experiment to test and to measure,” said Megill. “But the pendulum experiment is less important right now than for her to describe what happened. We’re learning to talk in past tense.”
Megill was in Huynh’s classroom that day to assist Xinyi and several other Chinese- or Spanish-speaking students. On other days, Megill worked with Xinyi and the others either one-on-one or in small groups.
And Huynh played a role in translation, repeating and enunciating key words clearly and consulting with Megill beforehand on how to adapt the lesson.
Teaching English learners uses a variety of approaches, depending on the school, the size of the immigrant population, and the resources available to teachers. Instruction in recent years has been enhanced by the sharing of best practices and help from technology. Google Translate, for instance, translates words, phrases, and even whole pages, covering dozens of languages, to assist the student — or the teacher.
It was not always so. Once, many school systems plunked newcomers into mainstream classrooms without assistance in a policy known widely — and cynically — as “sink or swim.”
But in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Chinese American students who had brought suit against the San Francisco Unified School District, which insisted that immigrant students received equal treatment because they shared facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum with English speakers.
“We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful,” wrote Justice William O. Douglas.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines reiterating the civil rights of English learners, including an admonition that they be placed in mainstream classrooms as much as possible.
In Philadelphia, some schools take a bilingual approach, including these elementary schools: Southwark in South Philadelphia; Cayuga and Alexander McClure in Hunting Park; Lewis Elkin in Kensington; Muñoz-Marin and Bayard Taylor in North Philadelphia; and Independence Charter School in Center City.
An option for older students is to receive intensive instruction at the Newcomer Learning Center in the Spring Garden neighborhood. The burden for older students is that there is less time — fewer school years — to acquire both credits and functional English.
“That’s where a lot of schools really struggle,” said Allison Still, deputy chief of the District’s Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs. “It gets really challenging, especially as the kids get older. The content gets more rigorous, the language gets more intense. So there’s a gap between where the language is and where it needs to be” to understand the coursework.
Children with the least English spend as much as two hours a day in a small-group setting focusing on basic vocabulary skills, but they also get exposure to content, said Kim Somahkawahho, ESOL coordinator at Spruance Elementary School.
“Even if you’re a 7th grader and a beginning English speaker, you still need to be exposed to the content,” Somahkawahho said. That’s a change in recent years from a longstanding policy where grade-level instruction got short shrift, resulting in students acquiring English but lagging in academic proficiency.
“But foremost,” the ESOL coordinator said, “we try to make them feel safe. We embrace their different cultures and have them write and speak about where they’re from. They want to talk about what they know. They all have something to bring to the table.”
There are 5.5 ESOL teachers serving nearly 500 English learners at Spruance. At FACTS, four teachers assist newcomers. That school has about 500 students, with about 10 percent identified as ESOL, according to testimony before the School Reform Commission in December by Ellen Somekawa, FACTS executive director.
Spruance, FACTS, and most other schools pair up students with similar linguistic backgrounds. A French-speaking child from Haiti can learn some English while working with a classmate who has a French background.
Mahumoudou Sylla, 12, from the Republic of Mali in West Africa, arrived at Spruance last year speaking French and Arabic. Now he’s acquiring English in ESOL classes – and Spanish by making friends with Latino children at school and in his neighborhood.
The lesson for Mahumoudou, in 7th grade, and other learners one day was pronouns.
"What are you? His? Hers? He? She?" asked Somahkawahho.
"He," the youth answered.
A shared responsibility
The school also has what the District calls ESOL-friendly classrooms, 32 in all, with a cluster of English learners among the English speakers, and the classroom teacher working with support from an ESOL teacher, much like Huynh and Megill’s shared responsibilities at FACTS.
At both FACTS and Spruance, collaboration among teachers is key, the educators said.
“We say it’s really a shared responsibility,” said Still. “Everybody needs to be teaching language and everybody needs to be sensitive to students from other cultures.”
Somekawa said FACTS’ success teaching English learners cannot be attributed to “using method X or software Y.”
The school, she said, has “a team of teachers, including one who focuses on ESOL, one who focuses on math and science, and one on special education needs. They can talk about the whole needs of the students and they can collaborate. ESOL practices are often the best practices for everybody.”
There’s one issue that especially riles teachers of English learners — the state-mandated tests known as the PSSAs in grades 3 to 8. Newcomers are exempt their first year, but not after that, said Sandra Cerniglia, adjunct professor of education at Eastern University in St. Davids.
“It can be difficult to hold them accountable to grade-level material when they’re not yet at grade level in terms of language skills,” she said.
Somahkawahho said her message to all her English learners is the same: “This is not defining you.”
At Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, ESOL teacher Amy Roat and others have urged parents to opt their children out of the tests.
Roat said that English learners can benefit from more bilingual teachers and staff, more communication with parents, heightened efforts to weave cultural references throughout the curriculum, and whole-school celebrations of heritages.
“These types of things are extremely important to the students and their families. My school gets it. It’s as if it’s in the DNA of teachers serving these children,” said Roat. “But I don’t know that every school is so culturally aware and willing or able to do the work.”
Connie Langland is a freelance education writer who writes frequently for the Notebook.