Fourth in a series
In addition to bilingual classes, which exclusively target Spanish-speaking students, both the Sherman and Denison independent school districts offer English as a Second Language instruction for students who speak one of a multitude of languages.
Since Sherman’s and Denison’s bilingual classes are offered only in Spanish, the native language of incoming English language learners is a determining factor for students.
“For our Burmese students, we don’t have anyone in the district that speaks Burmese, so we have to teach them in ways that we can teach English language learners, but only through English,” SISD’s Director of Bilingual and ESL Education Lauren Dill explained, using the Burmese students as an example. “So we don’t necessarily have any type of native literacy things for them. They just learn straight in English in all content areas from the beginning.”
There are 25 other non-English languages spoken at SISD schools. In Denison, however, there are just a handful of English language learners who don’t speak Spanish as their native language.
In the case of Denison students, their grade level when they enter the district plays a big role in determining their path. The district currently offers bilingual classes from pre-K through second grade only, so students at the higher grade levels are put on the ESL path.
“When students come to our district, … they are given a language assessment,” said DISD Director of Instruction Shonda Cannon. “If they possess strengths in both languages, then we look at the language that is spoken at home. If that is Spanish, then they are a good candidate for the dual-language (or bilingual) program. If that family has made the switch to where English is spoken predominantly at home, then they will follow the ESL track.”
She said the reinforcement of Spanish at home is key for students’ success in the bilingual program.
Ultimately it’s a case-by-case decision at both districts.
“The language doesn’t necessarily dictate the program,” Dill said. “It’s really about individual students and making sure that individual needs are met. It’s not language-dependent because the goal is to learn English. If you’re in peer groups and no one else speaks what you speak, you’re more apt to experiment and play with language regardless of whether you’re right or wrong.”
Dill estimated that just over 1,000 students in Sherman schools are involved in ESL classes. The district has ESL classes available for students beginning in the pre-k classes at the Fred Douglass Early Childhood Center and continuing all the way through 12th grade at Sherman High School. This allows the district to assist students new to the district, or the country, whether they’re in elementary school, middle school or high school.
“At Sherman High School we have what are called SIOP classes — Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol,” Dill explained. “Our SIOP classes are specifically designed and teachers have received specified training on how to work with English language learners and make the content.”
The Bilingual/ESL director explained that SIOP classes allow students to have comprehensible content no matter their language level. With students on different language levels in most ESL classes, Dill admitted it can be difficult for students to communicate with teachers who don’t speak their native languages.
In all Denison’s elementary campuses, there is at least one ESL certified teacher at every grade level, Cannon said, and it is in those classes that students in need of ESL instruction are placed. At B. McDaniel Middle School and Denison High School, a different model is used. Students spend one period a day with an ESL teacher. The class functions almost as a study hall for the students, with a teacher trained especially for helping them.
“That support is there so that, one period a day, they’re working with that ESL certified teacher, who, if they need that extra support in their algebra, or their English, or their geography, can provide that support,” Cannon said.
She said the model also allows the teacher to form a strong relationship with those parents and students. “They’re also kind of a mentor for that student,” Cannon said.
More and more, Cannon said, Denison teachers are showing an interest in receiving ESL training. A number have participated in a basic online primer course and approximately two dozen have signed up to participate in a training and ESL certification testing in the spring. The district is also emphasizing the skill by paying for the training and testing and providing a stipend to ESL certified teachers.
“Our teachers see that as a challenge and are stepping up to that challenge,” she said.
The skills that teachers learn in these trainings aren’t about speaking the student’s native language. Cannon said teaching ESL is about being sensitive to the many irregularities in the English language and emphasizing vocabulary.
“I think it’s just being cognizant that you’ve got to provide that vocabulary support that they don’t bring to the table as a non-native English speaker,” she said.
Dill said “bringing in real world things and showing them and having them make their connections from what they previously know” is a big part of ESL instruction. “Like the easiest way to learn what a cat is, is to show a picture of a cat.”
Kerry Harlan, ESL coordinator at Neblett Elementary in Sherman, often works with students in small reading groups where she will use this technique to help build their language skills. She explained that she’ll talk with students about things like which toppings they like on their pizza after showing them a picture of the favorite children’s food.
“I don’t speak Mandarin, I don’t speak Chinese, I don’t speak Swahili and I speak very little Spanish,” Harlan explained. “I do inclusion or pull out small groups, but I have a number of teachers on my campus that are ESL certified. Within their classrooms, they’re providing many of the same strategies that I would provide in a small group, but they’re providing to a whole group. Those strategies aren’t just best utilized for your ESL kids, they’re going to be wonderful to use with any kid. So as much as possible, we really try to keep kids within their classroom because they’re going to gain more from being amongst a group of kids that speak English.”
Harlan and Dill each explained that interaction with students their own age, whether they be English language learners or native English speakers, help ESL students become comfortable in experimenting with language.
“Our ELL students typically interact with their peers in academic and non-academic settings,” Dill said. “Just yesterday, I was at Douglass and observed a variety of ELLs interacting, dancing, playing with balls, running around and they were just being kids. As adults, we often perceive that it might be difficult for students with varying levels of English proficiency to interact with peers. However, kids have a level of resiliency that allows for them to communicate when we as adults might be uncomfortable.”
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