M-A’s student population comprises a dynamic group of individuals, whose backgrounds, experiences, and means of communication differ on a broad spectrum.
While many of us are aware of the many English learners at M-A, it is difficult to understand the complexity of challenges they face as they are integrated into English-speaking classrooms. These students are provided with special classes designed to offer them targeted support, whether it means providing full translation or simply tutoring in one subject.
M-A separates English learners into several categories: Long Term English Learners, and English Language Development (ELD), the latter divided into three levels. Level one (students with the least amount of English knowledge) has the largest population, while level three has the smallest. While a majority of ELD students speak Spanish, M-A has students from several countries throughout the world. M-A provides many resources for these students, including Instructional Assistants and emotional support from counselors, however, due to the the uniqueness of the individuals’ stories and restrictions on classes, the school cannot meet all of their needs.
Kai Lee teaches Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Life Skills/World Studies, LEP Modern European History, and regular World Studies/Life Skills. She has a total of about 60 students in her two LEP classes, and about 20% of students in her classes for English speakers are Long Term English Learners, students who “are still acquiring academic English but they can function enough to be in an English only class.” Lee encourages English-speakers in these classes to reach out to students in these situations and welcome them, rather than let them “sit there and feel invisible.”
About half of the students from each of Lee’s two LEP classes have very little understanding of English. She explains that many of these students come from Central American countries of conflict, leading to inconsistent schooling. While Lee strives to assist these students “[her] ability to remediate them and close that gap is really limited.” In addition, Lee compares the journey of some of these students to the impossible task of “time travel to the future”- as they are forced to skip levels and jump to high school solely because of their age. For this reason, they struggle to complete all of their classes for credits, as they are so far behind in the material.
She also comments that “not all of them come ready to learn. They had a very traumatic experience getting here…it might take up to a year for them to start learning and doing the homework and engaging in class.” Despite these obstacles, Lee says “those students are my heart just because of my own language background…I feel like I have some idea about their stories.”
Jeff Chin-Sell, an LEP Algebra 1 and LEP Algebra Support teacher, expresses the challenge he has faced when trying to work with students of differing math levels. In the past, Chin-Sell taught math classes intended for students with very little exposure to math, however because the classes were not A-G eligible, the school district removed them. He must now teach Algebra 1 to students who are struggling just to learn addition and subtraction. The school allowed him to split the class into two periods, targeting the abilities of the students in each class, however this resulted in the removal of an extra support period for both classes.
Chin-Sell explains the method he uses to teach as “specifically designed academic instruction in English.” He must not assume students understand what he is saying, moderate his vocabulary, and provide them with supplemental written instructions. In addition, he receives support from an English Instructional Assistant, and speaks in Spanish if necessary. Chin-Sell believes that “a lot of [the students] are very motivated, hard-working, and work really well together.” They generally enjoy group work and the opportunity to help one another much more than the students in his English-Speaking classes do.
Cynthia Cardona, one of three M-A English Instructional Assistants, describes her experience working with ELD students. She strives to assist students without just translating, because M-A is an English school. This sometimes proves difficult because she does not want their lack of understanding of a language to interfere with their ability to learn a subject. Through her work with these students, Cardona has the opportunity to listen to the difficult life challenges they face. She admits that “the hardest thing for me is hearing those stories and hearing what their life is like outside of school and feeling like I can’t do more for them than just help them in their English and math class.”
One student who came to M-A about a year ago wants English speakers to know that “we [non-fluent English speakers] are really shy… be open to us and understand us.” While she is currently in mainstream classes, and has improved her English skills, she still finds it difficult to connect with English speakers, as she fears making a mistake and embarrassing herself.
M-A is a place where we are all challenged, whether it be academically, socially or emotionally. However, most of us do not realize that the most challenging classes at M-A are not necessarily the honors or AP classes, but rather the lowest introductory levels at our school. In these classes, students struggle just to understand English, let alone the material teachers are required to teach.
We must do our part to reach out to the other faces at M-A, the ones who feel misunderstood and invisible. We must show them that despite our language barrier, we are all one group of people, struggling, learning, growing, and most of all supporting one another.