Struggling to Catch Up
- Author: Anonymous, Teacher
- State: NY
- Test: State test: Pearson
- Date: May 16 at 3:43 pm ET
I teach a middle school bilingual math class in the Bronx. Most of my students are recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic. Oftentimes, they come in with less-than-average proficiency in math. But, never mind their math skill. The burden of catching up my Dominican students to unrealistic language standards weighs on me as much as the fact that a good portion of them struggle to communicate. Some of them barely passed their classes in the Dominican Republic, and now they’re forced to fail another set in English; their unrealized bilingualism doubles the failure. How is it that I look 30 students in the face, as we’re about to take a three-hour ELA exam (in English, of course), and tell them to just “try their best”? It’s torture. I watch their faces eagerly try to read the first prompt, but halfway through that one, it become obvious to them that they won’t be able to understand much. They can certainly recognize some of the words, but they’re buried amongst a bunch that are completely unfamiliar; Maybe they’ve heard some of them, but they look nothing like they sound. They’ll miss even the ones they know by trying to decipher the others. They end up guessing, or cheating. Most cheat from another that guessed. The writing is a gift to the teachers paid to grade the test; their job is made easier by the blank pages left by most of my students.
My students become targets for the administration: “Mr. B, we need more two’s on this exam.” The administration resents them. They know that my students’ English skills are very weak, but they expect them to change over night. In the area of the Bronx that my school is located you don’t need to speak English, but, you may very well need to speak Spanish to communicate accurately with the clerk at the bodega, otherwise, at best, your order will be slightly off, and, at worst, it’ll come with a complementary side-eye grimace. My students are hardly exposed to English in this environment, which makes it very difficult for them to pick up communicative skills (BICS), and almost impossible to master the more advanced academic vocabulary (CALP). They don’t stand a chance against that exam, at least not in the first few years. They need time and lots of it, which is unfortunate news for recently-arrived 8th graders who may never reach the proficiency they need to graduate high school.
The system fails my students. It needs to be re-evaluated. I think that the problem is much bigger than not enough resources in our classrooms, but that is certainly one of the components. I think we need to advocate for education for EVERYONE, not just the students in our classroom, not just the ones in our neighborhoods, but those in other countries, too. Everyone should have access to education. Can you imagine how much simpler it would be to catch up our English Language Learners if they were proficient in their own languages? Unfortunately, it seems as though our country is more concerned with invading other countries than in raising the world’s literacy rate. Of course, there are things we can do within our classroom to help our students: translanguage as much as possible, provide support, point them to resources, advice them to read, to listen to music, and to watch TV in English, and, most importantly, urge them to find an English-speaking buddy, who they must communicate with exclusively in English. These little things will make a huge difference. You may not immediately notice it on their exam scores, but, you will be making a huge impact in their lives.