By Linda Chantal Sullivan
As I read Nancy Bailey’s blog post, “Challenge to the Common Core King and Queen: Get Involved Really!,” I found myself vigorously nodding my head in agreement. How ridiculous that Bill and Melinda Gates say reforming our education system is the hardest job they’ve ever tackled.
I was thinking, “Yeah, you want to see what’s hard? Come spend a week with me!”
You see, I am a high school ELL teacher–English Language Learners for those who use other acronyms. My students are immigrants whose English skills range from nonexistent to advanced, but still not advanced enough to be considered English proficient. They are all LEP, or Limited English Proficient.
Nancy laid out a great list of what’s hard. Many of them really resonated with me but, as I read down the list, I thought about how much I have learned about high school ELLs that many may not know. Maybe I could add some of those to Nancy’s list. She invited me to and so here they are. My list is based not on statistics, but solely on my own fifteen years in the high school ELL classroom.
Here’s what’s hard:
- Kids who move here and speak little to no English but are required to enter mainstream classes immediately because we have no newcomer program for them. Yet teachers are required by federal law to make their curriculum accessible to ELLs. How do you do that with Common Core?
- Refugee kids who have had little or no education at all and don’t know the most basic beginning math, yet are placed in Algebra.
- Teaching Common Core to students instead of what they really need: numbers, the calendar, verbs, American culture, keyboarding skills. We have one keyboarding class per year in a school with 1500 students. Last year, we were forced to use the 3rd grade CC notebook. Our beginners didn’t understand a word of the stories; it was a complete disaster.
- Watching kids cry when told how many tests they need to pass in order to graduate. Seeing that look of despair on their faces because they know they can’t pass them. They’ve already tried, and are taking makeup tests in addition to another try at them in the spring.
- Hearing kids’ stories of hardship and not bursting into tears in front of them. Harrowing stories of dangerous voyages to avoid being killed, of leaving mothers, fathers and other family members, friends, and all personal belongings behind. Of feeling so scared and lonely.
- Always being forgotten. First and foremost, ELLs are the invisible ones. Even just this week, I found out that all other students received a PSAT preparation guide weeks before the all school testing day. I accidentally stumbled upon one in a Language Arts teacher’s room. So I asked for them and had just two days to show it to my students, instead of two weeks. Every time we have any event that requires a visit to all Language Arts classrooms, ELLs are forgotten.
- Watching kids lose that spark of enthusiasm when the elective they really wanted to take is taken away from them so they can be put in another LAP or Title 1 remedial math or English class. So then they have four math and English classes, plus science and social studies year after year.
- Not being our own department. Our district will not grant us department status because we have only one ELL teacher in each school. Never mind that we need more teachers, that our classes are too big to give kids the attention they need, that we are overwhelmed by state and federally mandated paperwork not imposed on mainstream classes. Special Education is a separate department. They have class size limits. They have extra time or stipends for their paperwork, but not ELL, even though we make up a greater proportion of the student body.
- Being totally stressed out at the beginning of the year to properly place newcomers, investigating ELL status for incoming students from our state, placement tests for those out of state/ country. Notifying parents of ELL status in multiple languages.
- Having to address disciplinary difficulties because ELLs have had no American school experience and don’t know how to behave. Dealing with students who are disrespectful because women have no status where they come from. Trying to show them that I care even though I’m giving another detention.
- Asking a mainstream teacher how I can help an ELL with her homework and being told, “It’s on the website.” The student doesn’t have a computer at home, and doesn’t know how to access the website at school. Even if I help her find it, she doesn’t understand the shorthand used to describe the assignment and, most of the time, neither do I.
- Having to go to all the other department Planning Learning Communities and ask teachers why the ELLs are failing and what they are doing to differentiate learning. I have to put teachers on the spot (I’m just a teacher myself!) so I can include it in my state compliance binder. The form says that I am responsible for developing the curriculum (Biology, PreCalculus, Sports Med, etc.) and the mainstream teacher for delivering it. Like I know anything about their courses!
Like Nancy, I could go on, but it’s depressing. We know what our students need. They are vulnerable human beings, not Common Core cookie cutter robots.
So come visit me Bill and Melinda Gates. We live in the same region near Seattle. Come hang out with us and tell me how you would reform ELL.
Or maybe, just maybe, you might listen Or maybe, just maybe, you might leave education to educators. We can only hope.
Linda Chantal Sullivan is a high school ELL teacher with a classroom near Seattle, Washington.