Thursday, August 30, 2007

Use What You've Learned (doing better II)

I've taught in this district for six years, and I've never once heard an accurate identification of the main challenge(s) facing our schools. I've heard platitudes, starfish analogies, seen mediocre progress elevated to a heroic victories in the face of the evil accountability monster, even heard it suggested that our students can somehow compete with "top schools." I've seen instructional goals presented to the board that made my stomach turn, but I've never once heard a clear statement -- that was supported in any way by data -- about the nature of our limitations and barriers. I've never once heard any one talk about Ana and Jorge.

Now it's a momentous journey from tales of starfish to a clear-headed, data-driven identification of the problems at hand. No doubt. But once the summitting has occurred, you can't stop. The data that outline your issues, also suggest your solutions.

Newcomer Centers
Lot's of em. All over the place. The CDE tells me there's 300 qualifying kids, but if you extend the definition to include kids who've been here 18 months, or those who have been denied access to needed instruction, it's much, more more. Create these classrooms. You need one at four of the seven middle schools (one middle school in particular probably requires two), two for every three elementaries west of Capital, maybe one for every three east of it. These need to be capped at 15, taught by competent people, and left alone to do their jobs.

Starfalls is not a Newcomer Center.
Differentiation within Open Court is not a Newcomer Center.
High Point Basics is not, in and of itself, a Newcomer Center.

Yes, you will need more teachers. Hire fewer consultants.

For what it's worth, the lack of such classrooms continues to be beyond my ability to comprehend. I just don't get it. Even assuming districts function only to maximize test scores, why the hell would you want 300+ kids limping through the system, inevitably scoring Far Below Basic year after year after year, until they (rightly) give the fuck up, and come to my class as the academic equivalents of Lindsey Lohan on a Monday morning?

Learning to Read Centers
This is a temporary fix, to bridge the gap until the entirety of the reform effort is put into play. These are, quite simply, classes for kids who can say, "Hi, my name is Jorge," but cannot read this same sentence. For the first few years, these classes will be populated by the causalities of Open Court, the kids who missed phonics and sat through futile attempts to differentiate for years. Some RSP/ SDC kids can roll on through, too.

Here you'll teach kids how to read. You'll do it by teaching letter sounds and blends, by modeling what reading sounds like, by providing decodable books for kids to read. Assessment will be frequent; instruction will be responsive and elastic. The second a kid reaches the 2nd grade level of independent reading ability ship em out to the nearest available High Point or Open Court classroom. You will need different curriculum, or you will need people who know what they're doing. Both are available.

Once the next step is taken, you will no longer need these classrooms.

L1 Literacy
Go back to Ana and Jorge. Beyond dumb luck, Ana's got a big leg up on Jorge because she is literate in her first language. When you teach how to write a topic sentence in English, her learning curve is dramatically shortened because she can do this in Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Tagalog, Farsi, Tigrinya, or Mandarian. She's building on what she already knows, which speeds her acquisition and retention of new information.

Thing is, those places where Ana is coming from, they're not doing so hot on the education front. They produce relatively few Ana's. We need to pick up the slack.

English Language Learners, immigrant or otherwise -- of course we have native born ELL's, of course -- need literacy in their first language. This is another of those no-brainers: Is it easier to learn to read and write in a second language if you can already do so in your first language?

We need to provide L1 literacy using the alternatives provided for in the racist knee-jerkery that was prop 227. By combining literacy instruction in a student's primary language with simultaneous L2 instruction (see: Newcomer Centers), and using Mathematics instruction to bridge the two, we will finally create the instructional model to reach Jorge. Dig it: Jorge learns to read and write and think in Spanish in the morning. He gets BICS English in the later morning. He learns math in the afternoon, which is eventually taught in English, because he's got the BICS to handle it. That's year-1. Year-2 repeat, except now the L1 literacy is advancing to higher levels, and the L2 literacy begins. The math goes quicker because L2 is stronger, and there's time for Science, which, when done right, is a fantastic source of ELD. Year-3 goes much the same, but at a higher level, and maybe with fewer kids. Many Jorges would be ready to jump into the general Structured English Immersion (SEI) pool by this point.

This is the Golden Hinde of public ELL pedagogy, set to sail beyond familiar coastline and out to open water.

Money may well be needed to hire and compensate more teachers (see: hiring fewer consultants; see also: meeting state filing deadlines, avoiding costly law-suits, making better choices regarding insurance providers). Courage may well be needed to assume a multi-year approach to education, rather than an isolated single-year sprint to nowhere. AYP looms, API beckons, and I can see folks rightly concerned about how providing instruction in L1 will affect CST data. We know we get the first year free, but then what? Won't kids bomb those tests and adversely affect the district because of lack of English instruction? Maybe, but the CDE tells me that we've got 5,000 Jorges stuck on open water, becalmed, now. Under the current model, Jorge is testing Far Below Basic indefinitely. With L1 instruction, he may test Far Below Basic for two years (the first of which won't count), but will begin to move forward with actual foundational skills -- in both L1 and L2. Years one and two won't be much different either way; the ballgame is in year three and beyond, where Jorge may actually begin to learn things, like, for real.

Even as our schools fill up -- slowly and impermantly -- the Proficient and Advanced portions of the STAR reporting page, we are often populating the bottom sections to do so. Faustian bargains like this tend not to have happy endings, and hoping for an '08 donkey-victory and the continued growth of the low-wage service sector seemes like a disingenous way to go about doing our jobs. We have data. Do we have brains and spines to use them in new ways?


Anonymous La Maestra said...

Hallelujah! Tell it, brother. I was a 4th grade Spanish bilingual teacher, and whenever I tried to express how grossly inadequate the materials and programs were that we were providing for Newcomers, I was basically told to shut up. Since I had a BCLAD, administrators insisted that somehow I was therefore supposed to be able to teach beginning English literacy to my handful of Newcomers while simultaneously teaching the regular 4th grade English language arts curriculum to everyone else. Of course, I can try, but will I ever get as far as a teacher in a Newcomer Center who has that as his only responsibility? Of course not! Whenever I tried to voice my opinion, district administrators basically told me I needed to get better at differentiating. But everyone (or at least everyone who has ever taught it) knows differentiating within Open Court/Houghton-Mifflin for Newcomers is a joke. Of course Newcomers will learn something, but as much as they can learn? No way! I hope lots of people read your post.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Mr. AB said...

I enjoyed both of these posts immensely. Today, when a truly new newcomer walked in my door, 20 minutes after the start of school, I thought of your blog. Actually, that's a lie, I furiously thought about how to keep him engaged, happy and productive. When the dust settled and I realized I wasn't satisfied with my plans for him, then I thought of your blog entry. I'd greatly appreciate your advice and, besides, he'll be your student next year.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Differentiation within Open Court is not a Newcomer Center."
Hah! Yeah, my school district just got a new reading program, that supposedly includes ELL materials. What I've seen so far is useless. The modified ELL materials are dumbed down. My kids are smart, they just don't speak English yet. They can handle as many spelling words as the other kids - they'd just like to be told what they mean. Teachers have been told they can't use any materials that aren't part of our new literacy program. Too bad - I'm going to use what I need to.

We're lucky - so far, all our ELLS are very young and are learning to read along with their native English speaking peers. Your job is SO much harder. Your instructional model makes perfect sense to me as an experienced language teacher, but whoever's been making up the rules recently clearly has no language teaching experience :-(

I work on a pull-out/push-in model as we have to few ELLS to have a real ELL program and classroom teachers don't understand why I need more than 45 minutes a week with an ELL kid - hey that's all the music or art teacher gets them for, right? Teachers don't want me in their room, and they don't me pulling kids out either as then they will 'miss' important things!

6:17 PM  
Blogger B said...

I'm so with you. Here's my story:

4:44 PM  

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