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It's Not Enough to Talk the Talk

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This post is by Lynne Sacks, a recent Ed.D. recipient at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

On a hot July morning last summer, a dozen middle-school students sat around lab tables at Brockton High School. Using stockings, crushed crackers, and orange juice, they modeled the digestive process, talked as a group about what they had learned, and then wrote lab reports describing and reflecting on the activity. Down the hall, another group of kids built models of cells with a variety of arts and crafts materials. They sketched pictures of their cells in notebooks, labeled the parts with terms such as nucleus and cytoplasm, and explained how cells function in living organisms.

Halfway across the state, in Holyoke, a group of high school students rehearsed for an upcoming performance of Othello, pausing to discuss the meaning behind certain lines to ensure they were acting them out correctly. Another class in the same building was busy testing the success of computer programs they had written to send robots on a path through the school halls. If the programs didn't work, they went back to the computer and figured out what had gone wrong.

What is remarkable about these activities is not that adolescents were going to school during the summer by choice. Plenty of kids in affluent communities choose--and pay--to engage in summer learning and enrichment activities each summer. The surprise is that the participants were English language learners from low-income communities who rarely have such opportunities. These students were taking part in the first year of the Massachusetts Gateway Cities Summer Academies for English Language Learners, an initiative created by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education under the leadership of then-secretary Paul Reville to jumpstart ELLs' language and academic skills while also providing ELLs with enrichment activities they've often never experienced. The creative programming in evidence at some of the sites suggests ways not only of accelerating ELLs' English skills, but also of engaging them in meaningful, sustained curricular activities within different content areas that have the potential to spark new academic and career interests.

This is not the typical experience for ELLs. Previous entries in this blog have made clear that "deeper" learning experiences that incorporate critical thinking and require student initiative are the exception rather than the norm for all students. For ELLs, the likelihood of having opportunities for deeper learning is even less than for fluent English speakers. There's considerable evidence that ELLs are more frequently tracked into low-level classes than their native-English speaking peers, a fact which only compounds their academic challenges.

The problem with ELL students having limited access to more challenging classes is twofold: first, it means they fall behind in academic subjects while they are working to master English; and second, it means they are less likely to have opportunities for engaging, deep learning opportunities of the sort that might keep them motivated and in school. And finding ways to keep ELLs in school is urgent: the ELL dropout rate in Massachusetts is more than double that of the overall population, and national data show similar numbers.

Learning English is essential, but it's not enough. ELLs need language support to access the content of the curriculum, not a watered-down program. What often happens instead seems to be the school equivalent of talking louder and slower to someone who doesn't speak your language: assuming that those who struggle to express themselves in the language lack the ability understand complex ideas until they are fully proficient in English. It's no surprise, then, that ELLs opt out of school at rates that are disproportionate even when accounting for other factors such as poverty or race.

The question is what it would take to make this kind of learning broadly available to ELLs during the school year as part of their regular programming rather than just through a limited number of supplemental programs. First, as with most things, is a belief that it is both possible and important. Administrators and teachers need to re-examine ELL placement, shifting their focus from just teaching ELLs English to ensuring ELLs have full access to the academic curriculum. Next is a curriculum designed to foster deep engagement, creativity, and mastery taught by teachers who have been well trained to do those things. Finally, teachers must provide language support tailored to students' developing English skill levels. This means, for example, teaching relevant vocabulary explicitly and more than once, modeling writing forms for different subjects, and providing frameworks as well as time and patience for students to discuss ideas in a language they are still learning.

Part of the reason this isn't being done more often is that supporting ELLs in high-level classes makes teachers' jobs harder. Teaching is already challenging, and teachers have a legitimate claim that they are asked to do more each year. Rethinking curricula to create opportunities for deeper learning that are accessible to ELLs, changing the pacing of class discussions, and incorporating explicit language instruction into classes that are perennially pressed for time is a lot to expect of teachers on their own. But just as schools have internalized the need to provide services to students with special education needs, they must adopt a similar approach to ELL students.

One way to do this is to take much of the burden for designing the curricula and identifying ways of providing language support off of individual teachers. Access to pre-developed curriculum materials would make this undertaking much more feasible. As evidenced by some of the summer programs, there are already those with both the vision and the skill to accomplish this. As Armando Vieira, one of the developers of the Brockton summer academy, explains:

[W]e can teach these kids at the highest level possible, but we have to provide them with a lot of support.... We can do it, we can keep these kids engaged and doing what scientists do. I mean, if we're going to teach them science, that's how we're going to teach them science. Not just listen about science, and write about science, read about it, which is great, all of these things are very important, but they need to be doing it as well. A lot of times our kids don't get to take honors classes because of the language barrier, they don't get to take advanced placement classes because of that language barrier. So, you know, enough excuses on that end, let's see how we can actually have them do these things.

So there it is, from someone who works with ELLs every day: Believe they can do it. Create the curriculum. Provide language support. And watch what they're able to do.

[Corrected: a previous version of this post misspelled guest blogger Lynne Sacks' name.] 

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