Tonight my son overheard a conversation I was having with my husband about my anxiety for an upcoming dental visit. (Fun fact: I despise going to the dentist, a fear I typically manage to hide from my children so they don’t inherit the same aversion.) As he walked into the room, he heard me say, “I just feel like I can’t breathe and my heart is going to explode; I’m just so nervous.”
He innocently asked, “Mommy, are you worried you will have to speak German to them?”
I suddenly realized that he equates the feelings I described to his feelings on communicating in German. “No,” I replied and asked, “but do you feel that way when you have to talk to someone in German?” He explained that he does and sometimes he gets really upset when he wants to tell his friends something but can’t due to lack of vocabulary.
My heart broke.
He’s my baby and communication is his favorite pastime (he will talk anyone’s ear off!). The thought of simply talking with friends causing him anxiety makes this mommy, who tries very hard not to shelter her children, want to reach out and protect him from this discomfort.
I also realized, with guilt, that I have never carefully examined the perspective of an English language learner student sitting in my classroom. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can better teach them, but how much time have I spent thinking about how they feel in my classroom? I’m ashamed to say not much, and certainly not enough.
I reminded my son that it’s his choice to attend German school and that he can be transferred to the American school on base at any time. He assured me that he loves his German school and wants to stay, but that it’s just hard sometimes. He then happily switched the topic of conversation while I was still deep in thought (though thankfully no longer worried about my trip to the dentist!).
In many ways, I am relieved that he would choose to stay in a challenging environment.
I truly feel that attending German school is an amazing experience for him. I know that he will be both a stronger student and an individual that sees challenges as exciting after attending school in a foreign country. I also believe that, with the right support, students who are English language learners in American schools will become diligent, resilient individuals who can excel in adulthood. However, looking back, I’m not sure that I gave my ELL students enough support. This brings a number of thoughts to my educator mind:
I wonder what I could have done to better facilitate social interaction between English language learners and native English speakers in my classroom.
I wonder what my school/district could have done to provision me with tools and training to support academic learning for English language learners.
I wonder what my school, district, and I could do to enhance the small group support of English language acquisition for students who are non-native English speakers.
I wonder why, in a society where many Americans believe that everyone should speak English, I haven’t witnessed time, funding, and certified bilingual educators dedicated to English language learning programs. Especially since I have been both educated and have taught in a state with a large bilingual population.
Please do not consider this pondering a negative critique of my school, district, or myself. These are simply questions from an educator whose perspective has shifted. They are questions that I know will change my approach to teaching English language learners in the future and might give ideas to those who can enhance ELL instruction in American schools and districts.
After pondering these questions and my family’s experience as foreigners, I’ve
noticed several things about how the German school system has treated our transition.
My children receive German language support almost every day for 1 to 2 hours.
This is done in a small group setting by an educator who is bilingual and using curriculum specifically designed to teach German language learners. How can we encourage districts to allocate funds for daily small group ELL instruction by a trained educator?
Our German school and students just completed a two week fall break. My children, however, did not go on holiday; instead, they went to their school each day for 4 hours for an intense German language instruction class. There were less than 10 children in the class and all the students were in their first year of German language instruction.
Is there a way that we can use breaks from school to support further ELL instruction for our English language learners?
Perhaps something similar to academic summer school, for which we currently allocate funds? This class not only helped my children develop their German language skills, but also kept them in an environment where they were hearing, reading, and using German. If they would have spent two weeks at home, they wouldn’t have heard or read much German, and opportunities to speak German would have been limited to our interactions when we ventured out into our wonderful town.
In my art education undergraduate studies, I took a course on educating English language learners. It was one of my favorite classes and I learned quite a bit. However, when I became a core academic teacher after almost a decade of art instruction, that single class was insufficient for my new environment and I had to complete the state requirement for English language learner endorsement. At first I was annoyed at the thought of completing five classes in order to not be classified as teaching out of area. However, I soon replaced those negative thoughts with the hope of becoming stronger educator through the courses. Though I’ve only completed one course so far, I regret to say that it did not make me into a better ELL instructor.
I’m not sure what type of training German teachers receive to teach German language learners, but both of my children’s teachers are multi-lingual, as are many of the other educators at their school. How many of our schools can boast that same claim? The improvement of ELL instruction will not be an overnight fix, but we should strongly consider our path forward. What can we do to offer more engaging, impactful, and research-based professional development in the area of English language acquisition instruction?
Author's note: This has been, by far, my most difficult blog to put into words. Mostly because of the (small) part of my mindset that is still fixed loudly yelling, “Teachers do so much already!” and “You worked very hard to have a classroom that educates ALL students!” and “Your district produces amazing students who learned the English language through their schooling!” and “Where in the world do you think the funding for these ideas is going to come from?”
However, we can always do more and we can always do better. Just because we have had some success does not mean that we do not have more room to improve for our growing ELL population. We have to continually examine the methods, practices, and structures of our system to reflect the needs of our students, families, educators, and stakeholders.