What Happens When Kids Can’t Go to School?

(This picture in the NY Times, Monday, September 26, shows migrant children being taught at the disused tobacco factory that serves as the Oraiokastro refugee camp in northern Greece. )

I get it. Most people living reasonably comfortable lives don’t want to rock the boat. I include myself. And many people are fiercely protective of their families and children which is usually a good thing. But today I read a story that made me sad and shook me out of my complacency.

The story in today’s New York Times, “Migrants in Their Schools? No Way, Some Greeks Say,” is about the Syrian children housed in makeshift refugee camps in northern Greece who were recently told they could attend the local schools, only to be rejected shortly thereafter by groups of parents fearful of outbreaks of contagious diseases and disruption of their way of life.

It is a very painful situation. As a former English as a Second Language teacher, I taught many immigrant students in my classroom over the course of 22 years mostly from Central and South America and southeastern Asia. I have witnessed firsthand the fear and anxiety of the new students who don’t speak the native language of their new country and many who may never have attended school. Their challenge, to adapt and learn to fit in and succeed academically, is almost insurmountable. Some thrive if they are lucky enough to have a supportive, intact family. Many others fall in with the wrong crowd by middle school and drop out by high school. Others struggle and barely manage to graduate.

My primary job was to teach English to the new immigrants, while simultaneously exposing them to the mainstream curriculum (since the arrival of the Common Core mandates). My other (unspoken) role was to help these students and their parents negotiate their entry years in the school system. I have walked the walk…and I can tell you it is very difficult. But the reason I became an ESL teacher is because I know that the best outcome for the children of immigrants is to become educated and fully participant in their new culture.  Without education there would be no assimilation. Kids want to belong.

The flip side of this story is that these children have nowhere else to go. It was not their decision to migrate to Europe and they are stuck in limbo until they are accepted, or until their parents move on either by choice or by expulsion.  In the meanwhile, the conditions they are living in are unsanitary and certainly not conducive to affording the children any kind of security or sense of well being.  None of them are attending local schools.

I do understand the health concerns of the local parents; I would have the same concerns.  And I do understand the fear of the local people who are afraid the newcomers will introduce values and practices that are alien to their own. But what I learned in the 22 plus years I was an ESL teacher is that first and foremost, children just want to be with other children. The natural forces of wanting to fit in and be accepted are very powerful and will speed up the integration of these children into the local culture.  Their parents want the best for their children, so they, too, will begin to conform to local customs, but probably more slowly. It will take time, but things will sort themselves out.

Eventually, everyone will have to compromise a bit.  The local people will feel less anxious when their health concerns are addressed.  The immigrant children will begin to learn the new language and bring home what they learn to their parents. The parents will feel more at ease when they feel more accepted.  There will be changes in the small villages that accommodate the newcomers; some of those changes will be unwelcome, but others will expand the outlook of the local inhabitants.  Some of the immigrant families will move on; others will stay.  Some, like the 9-year old girl, Mariya, who is featured in the article and wants to attend school in the nearby village, may be given the opportunity to  pursue their dreams: in her case, to become a lawyer “helping people.” That is, unless her parents decide to move on to Germany, or return to Syria. Or unless the villagers reject her.  Then…what will become of Mariya?

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Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.

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This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.

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I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

Has the World Gone Mad? Thoughts On Co-teaching ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Yikes!!! Things are happening in the world of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and they are NOT ALL GOOD! I’ve been reading and hearing bits and pieces about how the new CR Part 154 regs have changed (they determine the rules and parameters for ELLs and ESL teachers), but never did I imagine the current scenario: ESL teachers are now required to co-teach in mainstream classrooms on a regular basis.

Before I retired a year ago, after 22 years as an ESL teacher, I taught a mostly pull-out program. Although I often wanted to collaborate, I co-taught with only one willing co-teacher every day for three years in a third grade classroom, and occasionally I co-taught a special unit (ex. Chinese New Year) with several other teachers in the building who sought or welcomed my input. For the most part, all the teachers I interacted with preferred the pull-out model for their English Language Learners because they knew how “out of synch” the ELLs were in their classrooms, and how much they would benefit from differentiated instruction in my classroom. Whenever possible, I tried to support the work that the mainstream teacher was doing in the classroom while I had his/her students in my classroom. This, of course, was not always possible and never with Beginners, but everyone understood that. Usually they expressed relief when I came to collect a Beginner.

Here is a quote from an ESL teacher commenting on the new regs
(from a NYS TESOL listserv)that require ESL teachers to co-teach in a mainstream classroom:

“Here are my thoughts regarding CR Part 154: As a result of these changes, ESL teachers have lost their independence. We’ve been reduced to classroom aids at best. What a waste of talent, experience and instructional time. ESL is a discrete subject, with its own goals, knowledge base and methodology. All the good ESL teachers I know have a well-ordered system for imparting the English language to new learners, and know which materials are most effective and when to use them. Many of us have spent years collecting and developing these materials. Thanks to CR Part 154, all of this is out the window: We’re part of the regular ed. classroom now–too often in the same sense that the furniture is. None of the classroom teachers I know have training in ESL. None of them are aware of the revealed wisdom contained in CR Part 154. Even if they were, and cooperated fully, there is not enough time in a day to for me to stay abreast of the goings-on in five or six different classes and come up with lessons relevant to ESL students and everyone else. It is now impossible to work with beginners in any meaningful way without disrupting an entire class full of kids. More advanced students no longer have a sheltered environment where they can practice their developing language skills, or have a difficult concept retaught in a way that they can understand. Students with no English whatsoever are now forced to sit through lectures on Hamlet. Regardless of what the studies say, this is not what the parents of ESL students want. They simply want their kids to learn English in the most effective manner possible. For newcomers to America, mastering English is critical to success in school and in life. It is imperative that ESL be taught as a stand-alone class by people who know what they are doing and without unnecessary distractions.” (Comment by Stephen Blanchard: sfblanchard@yahoo.com)

I completely agree with everything this teacher has said. Are you experiencing these changes in your district? As a mainstream or ESL teacher, how do you feel about them? It took me nearly three years, including student teaching for the second time in my life (I have a degree in teaching secondary English), to fulfill the requirements for my certification in TESOL, and even so I felt it was really challenging for the first several years. Based on my 22 years of experience, without that kind of preparation, no one is qualified to teach ELLs.

What I would rather see happening is encouraging teachers who would like to collaborate,giving them some common planning time and making sure they have compatible schedules. There are times when it makes sense for co-teachers to be in the same classroom and times when the ELLs need to be taught separately because of their special needs. They are, after all, learning a new language; something that seems to have been forgotten by the policy makers

During the three years I co-taught with a mainstream teacher all our planning was done during our own lunch breaks, before school began, and often after school. Without this kind of support from the administration, co-teachers eventually become exhausted and stop co-teaching. Now teachers are being told to do this, still without the necessary support, causing resentment from both sides.

Would love to hear your comments….