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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.