Saturday, December 22, 2012

Are the Feds serious about ELLs?

I once had the opportunity to meet Rosalinda B. Barrerra, the Director of Title III programs at the federal level.  She had amazing energy and passion for the work of improving educational outcomes for ELLs.  I asked her, "Why did you decide to work for the Department of Education?  Isn't the bureaucracy stifling?"  She said, "Well, I was a bilingual leader in my district and I thought I could make a bigger difference at the state level so I became a state-level director, then I thought I could make a bigger difference in Washington so I came here."  She was determined to make a difference and that's why it's sad that she left suddenly and without an explanation from the Feds.  Perhaps it was related to the fact that Title III funding has been lumped in with Title I since 2008, which effectively made Title III more beholden to Title I and less able to advocate effectively for resources for ELLs.  Or - perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the National Clearinghouse for English Language Education (NCELA), a source of research-based information for many professionals, has been outsourced to a company that has only existed for one year.  The long-term contract for operating NCELA had been held by George Washington University but the Feds opened the contract for bidding and awarded it to a fledging company with little language experience.  Thankfully, due to complaints they are reviewing the decision and may open up bidding again.  However, all of this makes me wonder if there is a true commitment to improving educational outcomes for ELLs or if the Feds are looking for short-cuts and opportunities to use the "business model" to address ELL language needs quickly and cheaply.  Click here to read the Edweek article with more information.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Inspiring meeting!

It's not often that you get to put the words inspiring and  meeting together, but today is that day.  I met with 11 highly dedicated and motivated ESL teachers this morning for the first Team Leader meeting of our MinneTESOL Elementary Interest Group.  We are ready to roll our sleeves up and focus on advocacy for our profession and our students, professional development to ensure knowledge of best practices, and new technology resources to reach out to members and make information easily accessible.  This group is SO important - as are other grass-roots groups like it.  After 10 years of NCLB what do we have to show for it?  Anxious teachers and students, millions of dollars spent on testing annually, an abusive evaluation system designed to "catch" teachers being unsuccessful rather than help them improve AND most importantly - not much academic progress to show for it - ESPECIALLY for ELLs.  So - if you have ideas on how to advocate for the ESL profession and students - please share!

Friday, November 30, 2012

It's becoming clearer every day that ELL services and the rights of ELL students need to be addressed in a comprehensive way.  So many ELL teachers I meet are discouraged because their support (jobs) have been cut back, or they've been co-opted into becoming reading teachers, content teachers or teachers' aides.  With the frenzy to get all kids performing at grade level on reading and math, ELLs language needs are dismissed in many educational settings.  I recently spoke with two ELL teachers who wanted advice on how to serve the elementary newcomer students that had recently arrived.  They had been instructed to work with them in small groups to develop literacy skills - so the students were learning the alphabet and basic phonics while they still had no clue how to follow directions in the classroom or make new friends.  Of course the ELL teachers knew the students needed direct English instruction but they felt powerless in the situation and were struggling to integrate language while still teaching basic reading skills.   This made me think of how much we need to band together and share our insights on how to advocate for the needs of ELLs.  I'm working with the elementary group in MinneTESOL to begin by defining, "What is an ELL teacher?"   What should we be doing?  Why is it important?  What does it look like?  If anyone has some information to share - I'd love to hear about it.  Comment here or on my new Facebook page dedicated to all things EL Advocacy!

Facebook - ELAdvocacy Network

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's time to make language mainstream!

I just reviewed a new feature from ColorinColorado - it's a great new blog supported by the AFT, Common Core and ELLs that focuses on implementation of the Common Core and ELD standards.  My thought was, "Hooray!" our day has come and this is the perfect opportunity for us to integrate language into what everyone is doing.  I'm currently working with local ELL experts to develop an ELD standards implementation plan - and of course - we're recommending that the ELD standards be developed as part of the Common Core standards work.  It's still in draft stage, but I hope to share more as it is developed further.  I'd be interested to know what others have done to implement ELD standards and if they've been able to use them effectively with mainstream teachers.  It's time that educators recognize that anything labeled ELL does not belong exclusively to bilingual and ELL teachers - they are students who deserve access to a high quality education and that will only happen if we all work together.  Consequently, all students will do better with the support of a comprehensive educational team and in the words of the late MN senator Paul Wellstone (10 year anniversary of his death 10/25/12) -  "We all do better when we all do better."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I'm worried about the teaching profession...

In my capacity as a professional development specialist, I have talked to many teachers from different districts and schools.  I have observed many classrooms and heard many stories about the day-to-day reality for teachers.  I'm worried.  Many teachers are tired.  Downtrodden.  Overwhelmed.  Frustrated.  Overworked.  Under-appreciated.  Feeling helpless.  Stressed out!  I know teaching has never been easy - honestly - how many professionals (or anyone) would like to babysit 25 children, much less be with them all day and also be responsible for their learning.  Teachers don't have a problem with that - they can do it.  In fact, they are "called" to do it.  Most of them feel very passionate about meeting the needs of their diverse learners  - they went into teaching to make a difference - and they DO!  However, the kind of difference they make is not necessarily measured on a standardized test.  Sure, some students will improve academically and the goal is for ALL students to improve academically, but kids need more than that in order to be successful.  Many students, from all socio-economic levels, need adults who care about them, who listen, who are kind and "get them."  I recently had an opportunity to drive some 6th grade boys to a Scouting campout.  I took the opportunity to quiz them about their schooling - What classes did they like?  Which teachers were the best?  Which were the worst?  Why?  No surprise - they liked the classes they were good at and they liked the teachers who inspired them.  One boy said he liked his teacher because, "He jumped on a table once."  They all had stories about having "fun" in the class, but that it wasn't too rowdy.  Basically they all described teachers who liked them and worked creatively to help them learn.  Isn't that the bottom line?  Don't we all learn better when teachers are happy and relaxed?  We never want to take our eye off the ball and lose sight of the fact that all students need to achieve high academic standards, but it's a no brainer that everyone, both students and teachers, learn better in an environment that is free of pressure, negativity and unrealistic expectations.  I want ELLs to succeed and in order for that to happen, teachers have to have the time and support to address diverse linguistic needs within each content lesson.  Will that be possible in the current learning environment?  What will make things better?   These are questions I'm thinking about quite deeply and I'd be very interested in any insights you might like to share.  I'm very worried about the teaching profession.....

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Danger of a Single Story

I'm taking a class on authenticity in multi-cultural childrens literature and came across this fascinating video clip on the Ted Talks website.  The TED website is so cool you can waste hours browsing talks by fascinating, famous people with new ideas to expand your mind.  In this case, a Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie gives a talk on, "The Danger of a Single Story."  She describes in personal ways how other's beliefs about her culture were fostered by a narrow knowledge of Nigeria and therefore, her.  She also describes her own learning about how we all need to develop the desire and ability to learn more stories about others.  She quotes the Palestinian poet Mourid Batghouti, "If you want to dispossess a people start with "secondly".   Start the story with arrows of the Native Americans,  and not with the arrival of the British and you have an entirely different story."  She underscores the power inherint in storytelling and influencing beliefs about other cultures.   "Stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.  Stories  can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity."  So - take a moment to check out this thought provoking piece and think about the stories you've read about other cultures.  What did they tell you?  What more do you need to know?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Want to be a civil rights protester?

Ever have visions of yourself as one of the "Freedom Riders" or marching with Dr. Martin Luther King or Ceasar Chavez? Well you may have missed those opportunities, but there are still plenty of opportunities - unfortunately. Here's one that works well if you're looking for summer reading. Arizona has banned books from being read in ethnic studies classes (and effective banned ethnic studies as well.). The list of books is far reaching and includes titles such as, "House on Mango Street" and "Like Water for Chocolate."

Click this link to get more information and to find a list of banned books.

As an act of civil disobedience I suggest that you choose a book from the list, read it and then take action. Perhaps writing to the Arizona legislators to tell them why the books are important or sharing the book with others and letting them know why it's so important to stop banning books. Think of any other ethnic group - would we do this to them? In Minnesota would we ban ethnic books based on Norwegian or German culture? What is so threatening about Latino culture? What message are we sending to students when we ban literature that represents their voice? So pick a book, read it and be part of the protest! Leave a comment letting me know your thoughts and other ideas for activism.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We all do better when we all do better.

Former Minnesota senator, Paul Wellstone, used to say, "We all do better when we all do better."  I believe in this statement, and it is especially true in trying to ensure the academic success for ELLs.  In a recent blog post at Learning the Language, April 30th, 2012 "A Case for Training All Teachers to Meet Needs of ELLs" the blogger describes a study that highlights how successful ELLs are when they are taught by teachers who are knowledgeable in language instruction methods.  Approximately 25% of K-12 students speak a home language other than English, and 60% receive English-only instruction, while 9% receive no language support.  Our educational system has put an awful lot of pressure on ELLs to succeed, but has changed very little when it comes to providing academic support.  Many teacher preparation programs have minimal courses on ELL instructional strategies and language development.  Student teachers I've talked to recently feel that they were not prepared well for the realities of the classroom and the diversity of ELLs.  Imagine if all teachers knew how to instruct with language in mind and could promote literacy and language development within content..... it would help the ELLs, and also the mainstream students.  So, we'd all do better when we all did better.  I'd be interested to hear about current experiences with teacher preparation programs and courses on ELL instruction.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Burro Genius

I just finished reading the book, "Burro Genius" by Victor Villasenor. It's a memoir of his childhood and schooling - not surprisingly an "English only" education. However it wasn't a policy, it was prejudice. The belief by teachers, community members and church leaders was that Mexicans are stupid, lazy and not worth much. It's heart-wrenching to hear Villasenior's childlike thoughts as he tries to figure out what is wrong with Mexicans. His family is warm, funny and wise and gives him the foundation to keep going. As an adult Villasenior was diagnosed with dyslexia and suddenly all the years of pain and insults about his inability to read were put into a new context. Finally Villasenior could fully understand the cruelty and injustice of his "education.". I have never seen such open prejudice and cruelty by teachers, but I couldn't help wondering about my students' experiences outside of my accepting ESL classroom. It breaks my heart to think that they would ever be devalued as a human just because of how they look or sound. I want them to believe that they are smart and kind and important. My goal as a teacher is to teach them in ways that show them they can meet academic challenges and that they have more not less and that's why sometimes it's hard.

Friday, April 20, 2012 feels like a prison

Ah... April. Sweet rain showers, the smell of budding leaves and flowers and the ever reliable arrival of testing season. I haven't seen my students in a week because of state testing. Schedules have been flipped, hallways are as quiet as a church sanctuary with big signs posted, "Quiet. Testing." I finally saw my group of 3rd grade ELL boys. We work on academic language and since they had just finished their first MCA test I asked them how it went. They told me the test was okay and then went into great detail about who got in trouble, couldn't sit still, made noise, and had to be disciplined. This was very interesting to them and they were all very glad that it wasn't them that got in trouble. So I asked them what they would want to say to the testmakers - to tell them about the experience. They did some brainstorming and then began writing. One student used the most descriptive language. He said, "It felt like a prison. My but heart from sitting on the chair. My hand was sore like I put it in cold snow." Wow. So this is testing culture. I asked the students what kind of questions were on the test and what was difficult and easy. They couldn't really remember, but they did remember how it felt in the classroom that day.... I long for the days when April showers brought May flowers and children had time to learn.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Every once in a while you meet someone whose energy and passion for their work is infectious and you think - yeah - I want to go home and blog about that!  Well - maybe not everyone wants to blog, but it does inspire you.  Check out Jeanne Whisler's, blog,, (Teaching is a Political Act).  Yesterday I had the privilege of watching her presentation on the U.S. policies and practices of deportation of undocumented immigrants.  Before the word policy makes you start snoring - watch her short Prezi, Sociopolitical Advocacy it has video clips and the information is VERY easy to follow.  Although I will warn you it's depressing.  Government (Obama) has pledged to deport 400,000 "illegal" immigrants each year, and they've been true to their promise.  Of course they say they are targeting the criminals - the worst of the worst.  However, approximately 30% are being deported for minor offenses such as a tail light out or driving without a license (which you can't get if you don't have legal documents), another 26% are being deported without having done anything wrong.  So Obama kept his promise to deport 400,000 but in the hands of local governments and corporate detention center organizations deporting families has become a big business - approximately 5 billion dollars per year!  Check out this quick clip that explains the money chain and the links between big business and politicians  "Immigrants for Sale".  The bottom line as citizens of a democratic nation and as teachers of many students who live in fear, we are contributing to the destruction of families as our tax dollars pay for deportation.  Yes, it may be a "crime" to come here and work without papers (Jeanne said there are hotel maids who clean rooms for $2 a room!  They can clean 25 rooms a day, so $50 a day!  And we think slavery has been abolished?).  However, should the consequence of this daring act of working be to lose your parental rights as parents are deported and children are left behind in the family welfare system?

This topic weighs heavy on my heart and mind and I know that there are children I work with that live in fear that someday they will come home to an empty house or be awakened in the middle of the night with shouts of, "La Migra!"    As legal citizens we have the social-political capital to do something about this and stop the misinformation and blaming of immigrants for every problem the U.S. has ever had.  Watch Jeanne's Prezi, get some facts, figure out what you can do!  That's my plan.