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Leadership and Activism

Language Ghettos

Originally posted on Arizona Stories from School blog. These are my thoughts on the rigid four-hour block that pushes out science and social studies in the name of language acquisition.

“Mr. Spencer, what is a common assessment?” a student asks.

“It’s a test that every student on the grade level has to take,” I explain.

The student furrows his eyebrows and continues, “So, why are we going to put our tests in a tank?”

“Um . . . I’m not sure I understand,” I explain.

“We’re going to put our tests in a tank, because we’re the low class,” the student says.

I don’t ask if he heard it from a teacher or a student, but I’m jarred by that term “low class.” In terms of test scores, it’s true. They are almost all within the Falls Far Below range. However, they are bright. They are capable. They are learning a second language, adjusting to a new culture and trying to master content at the same time.

And they are all together.

A group of “low” kids, isolated into a rigid four hour block by a team that consisted of very few teachers, no students and no linguists. We are told that Kevin Clark’s strategies will work the best, but we are given no registered research to prove this point. In an age of data-based decision-making, we are told that ELL students should be rounded up by language, given an hour of grammar, an hour of reading, an hour of writing and an hour of vocabulary/oral conversation.

The students, the subjects, the language levels are all placed into rigid ghettos, monitored by the state at any given moment.

So, here I am with a thirty-five page document describing compliance procedures, knowing that my students will get half as much time for math as the rest of the sixth graders. I am hacking the four hour block, sneaking in science and social studies as if it is some kind of dangerous drug.  Maybe it is. I’m trying my best to turn a rigid set of “best practices” into a project-based, inquiry-based, tech-integrated classroom.

On most days it feels like a mediocre compromise, where brilliant artists are told that they can still access a canvas if they promise to paint by numbers. On some days, it feels different; like we’ve managed to take the crumbling ghetto walls and paint a mural.

I teach a block away from Indian School, a place where children lost their language, their clothing and their culture in the name of God and country. Kids used to look at me in shock when they learned about assimilation schools in the late nineteenth century. Nobody shudders anymore. Desegregation is over. What was once history is now the present. Any progress from the walkouts has vanished. We’ve just changed our verbiage from “Mexican” to “language.”

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


3 thoughts on “Language Ghettos

  1. As a language teacher, I like you know that language acquisition happens when students are involved learning language with rich contextual contexts and not by isolating grammar and vocabulary. Students learn a language by using it not by learning about it. These concepts are well documented in research. Continue the hacking with science and social students. be daring and add music and art. Then take it higher and include math. Combine by activating rich multimedia contexts. Use project-based learning and watch them soar. Then have them publish things to the internet.

    I believe we insist on the other garbage because we know those who are multilingual will learn the world of the future and the paralytic monolingual who try to control it. Set you students free. Carry on with your great work.

    Posted by Toni Theisen | August 21, 2012, 8:31 am
    • That tends to be my approach. For “listening and speaking,” they’ll be filming a documentary on issues in our community and another one on social media. We do manipulatives, story-telling, find-a-context, create-a-problem and podcasts in math. We will most likely paint a mural. I have an art center and a game center – both in which students can stand up. Students will create a collaborative science fair, where there are no competitions and groups help one another out.

      I plan to hack the hell out of the four hour block.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | August 21, 2012, 8:36 am
  2. This is really sad to hear, actually.

    My comments only echo what Toni has said, and as a language teacher I really feel that this organization obviously comes from the top, where they have no idea how things actually work in the classroom. Language is holistic, and teaching it should be as well.

    Keep on going! 🙂

    Posted by Shaz J | August 23, 2012, 3:37 pm

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