Learning from the USA

09 Mar

In recent weeks I have commented several times on my other blog on what passes for educational thought these days at the federal government level here in Australia, most recently in Donnelly the dreadful, where you will find a link taking you to other entries. Since much of that thought seems to derive from a particular strand of Republican Administration ideology currently in vogue, it is worth looking into the pages of Education Week, an American magazine for educators. Free registration is required to access the articles. I have done this, and also get details of the latest issue emailed to me. It is well worth it. You will find a healthy debate there about the nostrums our government so seems to admire.

Take one issue: should early stage ESL learners (or ELLs — English Language Learners) do the same standardised reading tests that are part of the No Child Left Behind package, upon which also depend things like school accreditation and funding? You don’t have to have much imagination to see the relevance to Australia. One recent report on this is Tussle Over English-Language Learners by Mary Ann Zehr, who also has a blog in Education Week. If you check those links you will probably be invited to register before you can read them; do so. 🙂

Fifth grader Any Samaria and 4th grader Maliksha Dursunov are both classified as English-language learners, but both can confidently read aloud in English from books at a 1st grade level. And they’re quickly picking up some of Virginia’s required academic skills for reading, such as how to identify a “problem” in a story.

Even so, the three teachers for their reading class of beginning English-learners at Waterman Elementary School in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley oppose making the students take the state’s regular reading exam at their official grade levels, as federal officials would require.

After all, Any (pronounced AH-nee) came from Honduras only about a year ago, and Maliksha, a Meskhetian Turk from Russia, arrived less than a year ago. The two still struggle to speak full sentences in English…

Also having a blog on Education Week is Emmet Rosenfeld, “an English teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. He has 13 years of experience as a teacher and writer. In this blog, he is chronicling his experiences as he works toward certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.” Here is a little gem of an entry by way of sample.

February 4, 2007: The Usual Magic

I am writing this while standing up. It’s 9:20 pm and I am at a computer in a lectern in Room 127A at the community college where I teach a freshman comp class two nights a week. I am not lecturing—the part where I talk is done for tonight. But the classroom is buzzing with voices.

It’s a writer’s workshop. Six tables of adult students are reading drafts of their personal narratives to one another in our first formal workshop. And, as usual, the magic happens.

A guy with a gold tooth and bad lungs from the Gulf War talks to a round-cheeked Latina, who I actually taught when she was an ESL student in 9th grade (10 years ago?). She’s just shared a piece about one of her younger siblings, a twin who is severely disabled.

An Ethiopian man has written about his older brother, an educator and activist who never came home to dinner one night—the family found out on TV that he’d been murdered by the government. A less world-weary young man at the table, also Ethiopian, wrote about his first—or maybe his last—cigarette.

Earlier this class, we discussed Virginia Woolf’s “Death of a Moth,” produced when she was distracted one afternoon at her writing desk by a moth trapped between the window panes. The essay turns into a meditation about the passage from life to death that every living creature makes. One of the class’s more mature students, a substance abuse counselor with scarred knuckles, brought the wisdom of his years to our discussion.

So did another older student, a middle-aged Chinese woman with an accent so thick that I have to listen through it like falling water to make out the words. Last class she told me I was bossy and asked if I’d been in the military, because I forced her to tell me where the breaks should fall in the page-length paragraph she’d handed in.

My back is getting sore, and my feet are tired. The boys will be asleep by the time I get home. But as I listen to these people tell their stories, I begin to feel something else. Maybe it’s that no one’s calculating their grade on a graphing calculator; or that I’m not trying to videotape student achievement.

Whatever it is, I’ve faded away, and all there is in the room are the words, bright beads of light buzzing around our heads like dying moths. We’re connected tonight, but by what? The class ends and everyone files out the door. I walk to my car in the cold night air, too spent to wonder.

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Posted by on March 9, 2007 in equity/welfare, esl for teachers, for teachers, pedagogy



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