Friday, October 18, 2013

English Language Learners and their Native Tongues

What Price Must ELL's Pay?

It's a sad thing that so many people - educators included - view English Language Learners' native tongues as burdensome or unnecessary to students' language and academic development. I read a great article by Judie Haynes that included the case study of a young Puerto Rican student named Isobel. Isobel's teacher told the girl's parents that they should only speak English to her at home so that her English-speaking skills would improve in the classroom. However, Isobel's parents were only fluent in Spanish, and they knew little English.  As a result, the quality of Isobel's and her parents' conversations at home diminished. Eventually Isobel felt ashamed of her native language; she wished her parents could speak proper English like every other adult she knew. Isobel's parents and her teacher did not realize what they were doing by only allowing Isobel to speak in English. This experience was detrimental to her learning because she was not able to express ideas in English that she could have expressed in Spanish. If she had been allowed to discuss her learning and experiences in her native tongue, this knowledge would have transferred over to English eventually. The bottom line is that what students learn in their native languages will help promote their English proficiency. As Judie Haynes says, "The concepts and skills that students learn in one language will transfer to the second language when the learner is ready."

When the learner is ready. That is key. Teachers can't expect students to discuss in English a concept they barely understand in their native language. If, however, schools take a different approach in certain situations and allow students to learn and discuss concepts in their native tongue, it will generally be much easier for those students to display their knowledge in English. Much evidence supports the idea that emerging bilingual students' native language is a strong foundation for future learning (Nieto & Bode, p. 226). Nieto and Bode state that school policies usually want to transition students to English as soon as they can, steering them away from their native language (p. 226). However, research has shown that bilingual brains stay sharp longer than monolingual brains; and increased attention control, working memory, metalinguistic awareness, and abstract reasoning are associated with people who speak more than one language (p. 226). Aren't these traits and skills exactly the sorts of things we want to see in our students? How is it ever okay to take something away from a student that will most likely enrich his or her academic experience? Moreover, when is it ever beneficial to give students the impression that their culture - who they are - is any less superior or unimportant than the dominant culture? These kinds of attitudes need to stop. Not only are they barbaric and inhumane - they are detrimental to students' learning experiences. 

Although a variety of practices exist to teach emerging bilingual students and certain ones are more effective than others, the fact remains that bilingualism can promote learning (p. 226). Instead of viewing students' native tongues as burdens to overcome and regarding English proficiency as the Holy Grail, educators should view bilingualism as an additive factor. Suppressing students' cultures is never the answer. Not only does the research show this, it is common sense. Any practice that makes a student feel inferior or incapable is never the way to go. As educators, we should be conscious of how our teaching practices affect our students and their families, and we should be careful not to give advice to ELL students' families before we have done our research and analyzed the particular situation. English language learners must not pay the price for schools' lack of awareness. Just as we would not want our own children to be deprived of their culture in another land, ELL students' parents generally don't want their children to forget who they are and where they came from. The business aspect of education likes to refer to students as outgoing products; however, we should be careful to remember the individual nature of each of our students. This means seeing their potential, addressing their needs, and encouraging them to be true to their roots. The educational system doesn't need any more robots or carbon copies. We need students who are proud of their diverse backgrounds and use their varying experiences to open our eyes to what learning truly means. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Woes of Standardized Testing


Logical Nonsense: Judging Diverse Students by the Same Standard

Standardized testing. What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? Accountable testing, accurate comparison results, guided teaching, objective evaluations? Or, maybe you think of cruel and unusual punishment, unfair assessments, teaching to the test, and unwarranted stress. 

Although the idea of standardized testing may be of merit, the implementation of it is certainly having detrimental effects on America's students and educators. In Kira Zalan's article "The Problem with Standardized Tests," Zalan provides excerpts from cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman's book Ungifted: Intelligence Refined.

In Ungifted, Kaufman stresses that standardized tests do not provide students with opportunities to express their own unique intelligences. These tests categorize students and label them according to one learning standard. Kaufman states that students need multiple formats through which to express themselves, and if they are not afforded such opportunities, the students may end up being labeled "ungifted" - when, in fact, that is not the case. Additionally, Kaufman discusses the idea of hope being essential to student progress. He communicates that students need multiple pathways, strategies, and alternative routes to reach their potential, and when students are given this freedom, they are hopeful and have a much greater potential for academic success. According to Kaufman, "If we set up schools that...[are] project-based and [involve] inquiry-based learning, and we don't compare people to each other, but we allow students to express their knowledge of the material on their own terms, in their own unique voice, and at their own pace, I think we'd be setting up all students for the future much better, including those students we label gifted now." 

Nieto and Bode point out the negative aspects of standardized testing in their chapter on Structural and Organizational Issues in Classrooms and Schools. They affirm that this type of testing "ha[s] frequently been used as a basis for segregating and sorting students" (p. 115). Additionally, Nieto and Bode specify that little evidence exists supporting standardized testing as a gateway to greater achievement (p. 116). Standardized tests oftentimes restrict teachers' creativity and force them to "teach to the test" instead of focusing on students' individual learning needs. According to the text, "The higher the stakes, the greater the teachers' focus on tested content" (p. 117). This means that the more weight the government puts on these tests, the less teachers are able to focus on their students. The classroom transitions from a place of student-centered learning to a prison of test-focused content that usually has little meaning and real-life application to students' lives as individuals. Students see themselves as takers of the tests - a mere statistic - a category on a piece of paper, a paper that describes to them their ability levels (and oftentimes implies their limitations). 

As a future teacher, the increased use of standardized testing in classrooms frustrates me, saddens me, and disgusts me. Why are we content with leaving so many students behind? Why do we continue to raise the bar for our students and teachers, yet not raise the bar for the effectiveness of our testing strategies? We cannot continue to lump our students into groups based upon how they perform on a series of tests. The tests are generally of a single format, for Pete's sake! Our students are as diverse as wildflower fields; even species that are the same display their beauty in different ways. If each individual student is so unique, why then, are our methods of testing not as diverse? Why do we try to gather all the red flowers into a cluster - when we truly have a mix of scarlet, ruby, magenta, crimson, auburn, and chestnut?

Proponents of standardized testing may choose to ignore its flaws. They may choose to focus on it as a way of gathering data about student learning so they can easily compare, contrast, and analyze test scores. This may seem practical, this may seem logical. However, just because something seems logical or looks promising on paper does not mean it works. Nieto and Bode bring up student scenarios in which individuals have been in tracking programs since the elementary grades due to how their tests categorized them. How is this fair to the student with a drive and motivation to learn, with a passion and commitment to higher education? How is this fair to the student who has great potential but low a self-efficacy due to how he has been labeled by tests? If we allow standardized tests to classify our students, we are doing those students a considerable disservice. Believing in our students means much more than encouraging them and pointing them in the right direction. Believing in our students means continually providing them with opportunities to further their learning and prove themselves to be capable, independent thinkers. How are educators supposed to focused on these goals if they must be concerned with an image? They need those good test scores; they have to prove to the government, society, and school that the students and teachers both are competent. 

However, in the midst of this process, we are losing sight of the meaning of education. Education is not passing a test. It is not stating the right answer. It is not being categorized as "accelerated," "advanced," or "capable." Education is so much broader, so much deeper. It is a tool for thinking, a gateway to inquiries, a means of critically analyzing and discovering the world about us. Real education never ceases. Truly, there is no final accomplishment, for there is always more to learn. Why should an "A" be the standard? Why should an accelerated score be the target? Why are we so busy attempting to measure up to others and prove ourselves through a number that we forget what learning really means? 

Standardized testing is "logical" nonsense. When we begin to genuinely focus on our students' needs and stop trying to fit students into our own limited interpretations of how we believe they should display knowledge, we will see progress in our educational system.