First Person

First Person: Our stopgap strategies for helping long-term English learners aren’t good enough

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A new student at Scott Carpenter is learning English for the first time at the Adams County middle school.

My colleague, a bilingual paraprofessional, recently came up to me with a blunt question.

“Why does [student] have a para?” she asked. She knows that most students with that kind of one-on-one support have a severe disability, but the student she was asking about did not. He was a 10th grade student who had been in the country for three years.

I explained that because of the student’s limited English ability, he should have been placed in a bilingual program. But, for one reason or another, he was not and was sent to our school instead. A paraprofessional was given as compensation.

While paraprofessional support is better than nothing, our situation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding at the root of how New York City supports its most difficult population: long-term English language learners and students with interrupted formal educations.

Too often, we simply have more adults work with those students, instead of the right adults.

English learners are sometimes placed in classrooms with two teachers, one trained in special education. Supporting their learning often falls to the special education teacher, who has experience and training in meeting students’ individual needs and helping students who are behind.

For my first few years teaching, I agreed with this philosophy. I’m one of those special education teachers, and I already create different materials for students with different needs. It made sense.

What I’ve learned since is how wrong this way of thinking is. Although I am good at meeting students’ individual needs and working with low-level students, I do not truly understand the social, emotional, and academic process of language acquisition.

This year, my ninth grade class had a student, Joseph, who was new to the school after leaving New York to live in the Dominican Republic for several months. He had shown some ability to read and comprehend text in Spanish, but struggled to transition to written English. Joseph also had anxiety about speaking and writing — common for students who have been struggling to learn a language and who fear social ridicule or failure.

Recently, Joseph and I were discussing the text “Night.” When asked how the narrator describes himself, Joseph told me, “religious.” I prompted him to write down his answer. He stared at me. I told him to begin with, “He describes himself as …”

Slowly, Joseph picked up his pen and started to write, “Hi.” Then he stopped. He looked at me, then put the pen down. Joseph could see he had made a mistake, but didn’t know how to fix it. So he shut down.

I picked up his pen and wrote for him for the rest of the period. Once the anxiety of writing was removed, he was able to show some comprehension of the text. Over the long term, however, this is not a solution for Joseph, who needs more support in transitioning from Spanish to English, in writing and verbally. As a result, Joseph is often off-task, conversing with friends in Spanish instead of struggling through written English.

In the case of another student, Paulo, I’m not sure if he is making appropriate progress or if the support I offer is helping.

I provide him with English and Spanish versions of texts, expecting him to read in English and use the Spanish version to support comprehension of difficult passages. This seems to be working, as at least Paulo is completing some assignments. But I don’t know what the next steps are or what other social and emotional support would help him most.

Additionally, there is the question of time and resources. Because of the lack of Spanish texts available, I do all of the translations on my own. Each ELL student should have a daily language objective, where they learn how to use a specific word for a specific purpose, to support their language acquisition. But given the varied needs of the students in my classrooms, it would be nearly impossible for me to give each student that level of support.

Across the city, we are losing these students. In addition to academic challenges, many students with interrupted educations come to New York alone and are often traumatized by the experience or end up in shelters or foster care. Without having had consistent schooling, they struggle to sit for long periods of time or follow rules like asking to use the bathroom, which is unnecessary in most other aspects of life.

In addition to being behind academically, they are often older, making the social as well as the academic transition difficult. Moreover, because 21 is the age limit in New York public schools, they often need to make significant progress in less time than their peers.

When I think of Joseph and of Paulo, I’m constantly confronted with the fact that I lack the time, resources, and expertise to meet their needs. I do my best, but I know that these students are still at serious risk of becoming discouraged, disengaged, and dropping out of school. What we need are more programs, support, and training to help this very vulnerable population succeed.

This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, Learning Curves.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.