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Teaching in Translation

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A growing number of educators face the challenge of teaching students whose first language is not English. How do they cope with the realities of today’s mixed-language classrooms?

by Romel Hernandez

When Kerri Convery started her first day teaching kindergarten at a Portland-area school, she realized that 10 of her 18 students spoke little or no English.

Convery wasn’t alone. Across Oregon, schools have been grappling with the challenge of educating a boom of English language learners. 

“I feel my job as a teacher is to serve every student in my classroom,” Convery says. When she graduated from college she was “ready to teach in a mainstream classroom, but I was unprepared for such a great number of limited English learners. I said, ‘Wow, I need to further my skills.’ “

When Convery’s district offered her a chance to enroll in Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling to earn her endorsement as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages (ESOL), Convery jumped at the chance. This fall she has moved on to a new teaching job as an English language development teacher in the Oregon Trail School District.

“[The graduate school’s] program really changed how I see the world,” Convery says. “I now feel equipped to serve each and every one of my students, while maintaining the academic rigor in my teaching.”

Created a decade ago, Lewis & Clark’s ESOL Endorsement program prepares about 125 teachers every year to educate English language learners, a population that today represents 1 of 10 Oregon students. Although the number of these learners has declined slightly throughout the state in recent years, districts still feel the impact. In the David Douglas School District in Portland, for example, 1 of 4 students has limited English skills. In Woodburn, north of Salem, the proportion is 2 of 3.

“It’s a huge challenge,” says Alejandra Favela, assistant professor of education and the program’s coordinator. “A lot of districts are still scrambling. And even now that they’re gearing up, it can still be a struggle to find good, trained teachers.”

The ESOL training is typically organized in partnership with districts, with most offered on-site in schools. Most participants don’t plan to be specialists like Convery; they simply want to keep pace with the changing demographics of their classrooms.

“As a teacher trainer, I find just being out there in the schools makes a huge difference,” says Sara Exposito, assistant professor of education. “You not only get to know the teachers, but you meet the kids and the parents and the custodians. You feel connected to that community.”

In the 2005-06 school year, more than 50,000 Oregon schoolchildren–10 percent of the public school population–were classified as “Limited English Proficient.” Although Spanish speakers, most from Mexico, make up three-quarters of the total, the population is strikingly varied, with significant numbers of Russian, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Korean, and Chinese speakers. The Oregon Department of Education identifies dozens of primary languages, from Somali to Serbo-Croatian, Tagalog to Trukese.

That diversity makes Oregon “much more complex and much more interesting” than other places around the country, where a single group dominates, Favela says. To meet the needs of students, teachers must adapt nimbly to different cultures. For example, communication with families is often key to success in the classroom, but even routine interactions can present challenges. Mexican parents may avoid eye contact; Russians often stand quite close during conversation; and Africans and Indians are accustomed to holding hands when speaking.

A common misconception is that many immigrant children are slow or don’t want to learn English. In fact, most quickly learn enough English to get by on the playground; what they lack is the mastery to decipher a textbook or to write an essay.

“The problem is they’re not learning academic English fast enough to keep up with their peers in school,” Favela says. Once they fall behind, these students struggle to catch up. An Oregon Department of Education study found that the achievement gap is sizable, with native speakers meeting state math and reading benchmarks at a rate far higher than their limited-English classmates. And though the state doesn’t track dropouts by language, it does

track the rate by ethnicity: In Oregon, the dropout rate for Latinos is twice the average of all students.

The picture is similar across the nation. There are over 5.4 million limited-English students in schools, and the U.S. Department of Education estimates they could represent 1 of 4 students by 2025. The federal No Child Left Behind Act has made closing the achievement gap a top national priority. And while there are many shining examples of schools (including some in Oregon) that are narrowing that gap, education leaders agree schools have work to do.

Lewis & Clark’s ESOL program trains working teachers in proven techniques for blending language instruction with content, so that students learn English while they are keeping up with math and science. But what truly distinguishes the program is its emphasis on culture and advocacy. Courses such as Culture and Community as well as Historical and Legal Foundations are designed to give participants a context for gaining a better understanding of the diversity of their students.

That focus has been a hallmark of Lewis & Clark’s program from its beginning in the late 1990s, when the state sanctioned colleges to offer the endorsement to teachers.

The ESOL program’s ultimate goal isn’t only to educate, but also to enlighten and empower. “Our teachers not only become better teachers,” Favela says. “They become advocates and leaders in their communities.”

That commitment to social justice is a personal matter for Favela, who experienced the struggle of adapting to a new language and culture. Born in Mexico, the daughter of a U.S.-born mother and a Mexican father, she was sent to live with relatives in Washington, D.C., when she was 4. Favela spent her formative years moving back and forth across the border before settling in the United States and attending the University of California at Berkeley. She worked as a teacher for six years before earning her Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University.

“[My own story] has everything to do with why I do this work,” she says. “I have an affinity for working with immigrant kids because that was me. I was a shy kid who didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed.”

Students in Lewis & Clark’s classes, which average 20 participants, spend a lot of time “unpacking,” as Favela puts it, their own cultures so they can begin to understand other ways of thinking and being. During a recent class, students were assigned to share “artifacts” that symbolized their heritage. Favela showed her own artifacts, bringing a Scottish Glengarry bonnet to represent her mother’s heritage and a Mexican cookbook to honor her father’s. The students brought in objects ranging from family photos to a quilt from Africa.

“Lewis & Clark takes a transformative approach,” says Gary Hargett, a longtime respected education consultant in Oregon who has also taught in the graduate school’s ESOL program. “They understand that the goal is to make a difference in the community.”

Mary Jo Commerford M.A.T. ’87, a teacher at an alternative high school in The Dalles who recently completed the program, says that the graduate school’s thoughtful, comprehensive approach has made all the difference in her own classroom.

“If kids know we value their language and culture, that is really fundamental,” she says. “When a kid believes a teacher understands the world he or she is coming from, that’s a kid who is wide open to learning.”

Commerford recalls her experience with a student who had moved to Oregon from the Los Angeles area because his family wanted to get him away from gangs. The boy was remote and disinterested in school, but Commerford connected with him through an aptly named book, Breaking Through, a memoir by Mexican migrant author Francisco Jimenez. She was introduced to the book in a class at Lewis & Clark. For the first time, the boy started to take his studies seriously; his mother was so happy she cried at the parent-teacher conference.

This year, the boy will be Commerford’s classroom student aide. “He’s been a shining light for me,” she says. “He’s one of the students I think about when I need to remind myself why I do this work, what it’s all about.”

Lewis & Clark is in the process of expanding its efforts for English language learners. The graduate school recently created the Oregon Language, Literacy, and Cultural Institute to roll out new initiatives that include training, consulting, and school-community partnership development.

“Districts want help to make real long-term, systemic change,” says Sherri Carreker, director of the Center for Continuing Studies at the graduate school. “We’re trying to be innovative, going out to districts to see what they want and need.”

“We’re doing a good job of training teachers and we’re going to continue doing that,” Favela says. “But there’s so much more work to be done, especially at the middle and high school levels, where kids are really struggling. Lewis & Clark can be a great resource.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

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