As the American population become more diverse so has the classroom. More and more students are entering our classrooms with diverse academic background. The Limited English Proficiency (LEP) sub group is one of the most prevalent ones in our classrooms. Interestingly, this group has remained under-served in our schools. Stuffed in crowded classrooms,  taught by teachers who lack the experience and allowed to settle for mediocrity, these students are being “left behind daily”. It was predicated on this and desirous of  serving this population that I consented, six years ago, to leave from a seemingly high achieving school to take up assignment at an alternative high school for at-risk  adult secondary school students in Arlington, VA. The experience has been riveting, rewarding and inspiring. I shall endeavor to share my experiences in the lines to follow.

My first week at the school was eye-opening. I saw students walked in school with no materials, low expectations, convoluted priorities and encompassing apathy to their education. At the onset, the situation appeared hopeless-change, I thought,  was never to come. But, my thoughts soon changed. I recalled the saying “treat children as if they are what they are  and help them to be what they ought to be”. Guided by this and moved by the determination to make a difference I purposed to bring real changes-changes that would be conspicuous, uplifting and promising. A herculean task ! I just could not think about any other thing to do. I knew it was the right thing to do.

Classroom Structure

The situation that greeted us in the classroom was appalling. A culture of non-nonchalance permeated the classroom. The students displayed no inclination towards the purpose for which school was intended. Sadly, frustrated by the repeated failure of the students on state mandated test and the general lack of interest on the part of the students some teachers adopted a “not my battle” posture.  Consequently, learning was not taking place in some classrooms  though good teaching was happening.  So we, obviously, had to restructure our class and put in place effective monitoring mechanism to spur interest and appreciation for learning.  Students were told that not trying or failing was not an option and that success in school required efforts at home and in school.   Saying this was simple; doing it was arduous. We had to go far beyond a desire to change. We had to facilitate the change we envisioned. This meant going beyond the call of duty; establishing effective relationships and making connections.  Customs and practices of the past had to give way to new models and fresh ideas.  And so be began.

We had to literally extend the school week by a “day” : Friday was added.  Students were told that the concept of no work on Fridays was a thing of the past and that teaching and learning would go on daily in and out of class.   Additionally, classwork had a different meaning: students had to do it and not merely copy answers provided by the teacher. Homework had to be done though I understood that most of them had to go to work directly from school.  In short learning had to take place. This was bound to cause disruption and necessitate changes in lifestyle.

My students responded positively and so that required a commiserate response from me.  My classroom was filled with students before, after school and  during lunch and students were seen doing math homework in other classes. Using the constructivist approach, I facilitated learning rather than provided instruction. Students were emboldened to communicate  their ideas, be comfortable with making errors and to attempt difficult problems. Myths were destroyed and students soon saw that what was perceived as  impossible was possible and that they could learn.

The moment of truth and pride was soon to come. The end-of-the year soon came quickly and one measure of the success of our initiative was the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Algebra end-of-course test. We looked to the test with guided optimism. Amazingly, all but one of the eleven eligible students who  sat the test passed. It was joyous day as students return from the Vice Principal’s office beaming with smiles about their achievement. They hugged me. They thanked me. They were loud and nothing could stop their joy.  I was elated. I felt fulfilled but little did I know that as a result of their achievements my students would begin to dream big dreams. I heard talk about college. Yes, I heard students from this group of dejected students speak about moving forward with their education.  The news of my students’ success on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Algebra end-of-course test  spread like wild-fire. The roots had being planted and growth was to begin.

With such an exhilarating story of success that came out of sleepless nights, long days and sweat  I shall now cataloged the journey. Most LEP students bring so much to the classroom the lack of prior structure education, language barrier, socio-cultural misunderstandings, difference in appearance, ugly experience from other classrooms, etc. These issues formed seemingly impermeable structures which must be extirpated. We had to engage them. Numerous hours had to spent learning about our students, their  life experiences, their home situations, the goal and the perceived obstacles to achieving their goals. Getting such information can be daunting. My students for the most were Hispanics. I spoke no Spanish and though like them I was an alien the differences were easily discernible.  I proceeded with my goal of knowing my students pillared on the belief that the enormity of the challenge does not absorb one of the responsibility to engage it.  Accordingly, I looked for moments to share concern and identify with my students. I would render services to them that were unexpected. I listen to their frustration and together worked to find solutions to their problems.  Slowly, I won their trust.  My classroom and specifically the chair next to my desk became a comforting spot for students needing the attention of an adult. This provided me more teaching moments. We would speak with our students about their problems and then discuss mathematics.  Interest was generated and more students sought help. The results confirmed the impact of this approach.

The second issue that had to be addressed was the low expectation that permeated the school. Low expectation was institutionalized. The students were being instructed from textbook that were limited in content, vague, peripheral and demoralizing. Students were accustomed to  doing the same worksheet repeatedly since there was no need for moving to the next topic since in fact the students “will not be able to learn it”. Those worksheets and textbooks had to be replaced. We instituted the use of the approved textbook of the county that were used by other high schools. Obviously, we had to support our instruction by enriching the academic language of our students. We refused to skip the word problems simply because  the “language was too hard” for the LEP students. We did some contextualizing, use the services of other students, made connections to real world situations to decode word problems. We allowed  students to verbalize their thoughts and approaches. In short we settled for nothing less than the highest possible points. Our students followed: they elevated their thinking, developed interest and responsibility for their learning and pursued excellence. Here again, the results were telling. We dismiss stereotypes about our students and raised consciousness about their ability to learn and excel.

This ends my first post.  In the next post I will catalog the personal experiences of my students.


Posted by: izawolo | February 15, 2010

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