Monday, December 15, 2014

Retention and ELLs

As the calendar year comes to an end, marking more or less the mid-point of the academic year in the US, teachers have had plenty of time to evaluate how their students are doing.  Teachers may start to think about the next school year and start to look more closely at which students are having the most difficulty.  Retention may be an idea that attaches itself to a few students.

In the past, it was common for educators to think that retaining English Language Learners would help them "catch up" to their native-English-speaking classmates.  Way back at the end of the 20th century, I had an ELL from Russia whose Grade 2 teacher wanted to retain her until, as the teacher put it, she had "mastered the second grade curriculum."  But this student had only come to the US at the start of 1st grade and, because she had been raised in an orphanage and in Russia children did not start school until they were seven years old, and because the child knew no English when she first arrived in the US, the child through no fault of her own was not at the same grade level as her classmates.  I researched the effects of retention on students and at the meeting with the principals and the teacher to decide what to do, I was able to convince them that holding this student back would be counter-productive.  It was also, as a matter of fact, against the law because students cannot be penalized for not knowing the English language.

Fortunately, things have changed.  A new report, Patterns and Trends in Grade Retention Rates in the United States, 1995-2010, explains that the overall rate of retention for American public school students has declined ( And although students of color, of lower socio-economic background, and immigrant students or those whose parents are immigrants still tend to be retained at higher levels than other students, the report states that the rates of retention for those students have also declined in the past few years.

This is good news for ELLs!  As the population of public students for whom English is not their first language increases, it is incumbent upon teachers to analyze why a student is not making satisfactory progress and, if it is because of a language issue, then the teacher should consider getting ESL support for the student before considering retention as the solution.  Many times, when ESL services are provided, the student will make noticeable progress in comprehending the instructional material.  For a resource that can help teachers when they are considering retaining an ELL, please take a look at this product, A Guide for All Educators: Is it ESL or a SPED Issue? 
(Available at: While the emphasis is more on determining whether an ELL has a learning disability or just needs ESL support, the questions posed are also relevant when an ELL is under consideration for retention.

This is not to say that ELLs under no circumstances should ever be retained, although, personally, I am against it in the vast majority of cases.  However, holding students back in order to give them more time to learn English or because they haven't "mastered the curriculum" are not valid reasons.  This new report seems to show that teachers in the past decade have come to recognize this fact and this realization can only benefit English Language Learners.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Holidays in December

I have a love-hate relationship with December.  On the one hand, November is over and all the attendant craziness of Election Day (a day off for students in my former district but devoted to professional development for teachers), Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, report cards (at least if your district operates on a quarter system), and parent conferences is done.  But on the other hand, winter vacation is imminent and it's not just the kids who are excited.  The last week of the calendar year is, for many students and teachers in the US, the first long vacation they have since the start of school and, naturally, people are not as focused on schoolwork as they are at other times of the year.

Unlike November, the holidays in December are religious in origin and this can be problematic for public schools.  How should educators handle displays of Christmas trees or Chanukah menorahs in classrooms or offices?  What is acceptable and what is not?  How can teachers be sensitive to students who are not Christian yet still acknowledge Christmas for the majority of students who celebrate it?

These are not easy questions to answer but, fortunately, there is an excellent guide available that can help.  Years ago, I got a hard copy of this booklet and I am happy to see it now available online for free.  Published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), it's a concise explanation of what kinds of religious objects and activities are permitted in public schools in the US, with plenty of examples as additional guidance.  Here's the link:

It always bothered me as a student when my teachers made us do Christmas-themed activities in class.  Didn't they know that not everyone was Christian?  But as a kid, I didn't speak up.  Decades later, the same thoughts went through my head whenever I saw my teaching colleagues do lessons that included symbols of Christmas but not other religions or when I saw them put Christmas trees in their classroom without also displaying objects exemplifying Chanukah or Diwali or other religious holidays.  But as a fellow teacher, I did speak up, depending on how well I knew the other teacher.  In one case, I even gave a large dreidel and cloth menorah to a teacher friend to put next to his Christmas tree.

As long as instructional materials contain images of more than just one religious tradition, then according to the ADL they are acceptable in public schools.  Here's an example of a product I created that contains both Christmas and Chanukah symbols:  And activities that teach about religions are also acceptable as long as they do not promote those religions.  Here's a product that teaches about Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa:

Given the diverse student population in the US nowadays, I think educators are much more aware of the necessity and importance of not promoting one religion over the other than when I was a kid.  However, sometimes people do not realize how something might be doing that.  The booklet by the ADL is a great resource that can help educators determine if their activities and displays are acceptable or not.

Update on 12/17/14: Here's a link to a compilation from MiddleWeb of resources for teaching about religious holidays; it has a wealth of good information:

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Home Language Surveys

Federal law states that school districts must identify children who need support because English is not their first language (P. 5,  To meet this requirement, home language surveys are administered when families register children in a new school district.  There is no uniform, federally-designed form as each state is permitted to use whatever home language survey it prefers.

One would assume that caregivers would be happy to sign their children up for ESL support if English was not their first language so they could get extra help in school, if a test showed that would be beneficial.  But that would be an incorrect assumption!  As this report from ABC News says (; update 2/16/15--the link is no longer active so click here to read the article:, parents do not always provide accurate information on home language surveys.  There are several reasons why.  When I tested newly-registered students to determine their English language proficiency in my former school district, I encountered this situation first-hand.

There were always a few cases of parents who maintained that their children did not need ESL support and only checked English as the language used at home even when it was clear that another language was also present.  They opted out of having the children receive ESL services but as the school year progressed, some of the kids had difficulty doing the work.  When that happened, ESL services often would be recommended again and at that point, the parents were more willing to give it a try since now there was evidence showing their children were not as successful as expected.

Another reason caregivers gave for not wanting their children tested was because they didn't want the students to be pulled out of their regular classroom for an ESL class.  Many districts use a pull-out model for ESL instruction so, inevitably, the ELLs would miss whatever was being taught in their regular ed class.  It is certainly understandable that parents don't want children to lose out on instructional activities.  However, that concern has to be balanced with the fact that ESL lessons will give the children the knowledge and skills to be more successful in their regular classroom.  Over the years, it became easier to persuade parents to let their children be tested and to allow them to be placed in the ESL program because teachers made a greater effort to ensure that whatever instructional activity the ELLs missed would be made up at another point during the school day.  Mainstream teachers, as they faced classes with more and more ELLs in them, became much more adept at managing the needs of all their students.  Doing so has alleviated many parents' concerns.

Some years ago, the teacher of a student in the special education program at my school felt that the boy would benefit from ESL support.  Upon looking into the situation, we learned that the mother had refused to have her two children tested for English language proficiency when they enrolled in the district.  It turned out that the mother had herself been in an ESL program as a student and had not had a good experience, so she didn't want her own children to go through the same thing.  The SPED teacher was able to persuade the mother to give ESL a try and, despite a rocky start, when her son finished middle school, she thanked me profusely for helping him and I am still in touch with the student as he prepares to graduate from high school.

The point I want to make is that educators need to listen closely to caregivers when they say they don't want to have their children tested for English language proficiency.  They have valid reasons for their refusal.  But we as educators must explain clearly how the advantages of being in an ESL program will benefit students.  If pull-out ESL is the only option, then we have to work with regular ed teachers to make sure the ELLs don't miss out on essential classroom instruction.  If the parents are basing their decision on their own negative experiences, then we have to describe how our classes will be different.

When educators take the time to really talk with parents about the needs of their children, we can often overcome their resistance.  After all, caregivers and teachers all want the same thing: To have their children succeed in school.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Native American Heritage Month

In this month of November, many classrooms in the U.S. teach about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving.  It's an iconic image: English people in black or brown clothes wearing black peaked hats and shoes with buckles, and Indians dressed in deerskin clothing and beaded moccasins, eating turkey, pumpkin and squash and smiling.  We know now that it wasn't that simple, that the story of Thanksgiving is much more complex.

Certainly, the arrival of the English Separatists, later known as Pilgrims, on the coast of Massachusetts in 1620 was a turning point.  There is no doubt that they faced hardship and that local Indians helped them survive.  Without the help provided by the Wampanoags, the English settlers might not have made it through the winter and then the history of this country would have been very different.

In May 2014, I visited Plimoth Plantation and the Wampanoag Homesite nearby.  It was fascinating!  I spent an entire day there soaking up the atmosphere and learning about the history of both peoples through talking with reenactors playing the roles of actual Pilgrims and with members of the Wampanoag tribe who share their culture with visitors by describing what Native life at the homesite was like.

I took over 300 photos and created a slideshow for my students in fifth grade who learned about Early European colonies, including Plymouth, addressing part of the Massachusetts History and Social Science standards ("5.6: Explain the early relationship of the English settlers to the indigenous peoples, or Indians, in North America, including the differing views on ownership or use of land and the conflicts between them...").  The following photos show what a huge contrast there was in the cultures of the two peoples.

About Thanksgiving | The ESL Connection

The English arrived in the New World on the Mayflower; shown at left is the Mayflower II, a reconstruction of the original ship that is docked in Plymouth Harbor.

About Thanksgiving | The ESL Connection

To the right is a photo of a Wampanoag mishoon, the Native Americans' typical means of transportation on water.  There is quite a difference in technology here!

About Thanksgiving | The ESL Connection

The picture at left shows the English Settlement at Plimoth Plantation which, by the way, is not located at the actual historical site but a few miles away.

About Thanksgiving | The ESL Connection

A Wampanoag cornfield is shown in the picture to the right.  Note how the English have fenced in their land in the photo above but the Wampanoags have not.

About Thanksgiving | The ESL Connection

Another contrast is in housing.  Look at all the furniture and metal possessions the English had in the photo to the left.

About Thanksgiving | The ESL Connection

Although this photo of a Wampanoag wetu at right doesn't show it, they also had many household items; however, they were not made of metal and their furniture consisted of wooden benches.

The photos in my slideshow were a great starting point for discussing the impact of the European settlers on Native societies.  I wish I'd had more time to go deeper!

But I read an article the other day entitled 'All Indians Are Dead?' At Least That's What Most Schools Teach Children and it was an eye-opener.  The core assertion was that most schools do not teach about contemporary Native American society and by not doing so, schools are doing a disservice to all students.

Even with the constraints of the Common Core State Standards, it would certainly behoove all of us to provide a more well-rounded picture of Native Americans and, indeed, all ethnic groups in the United States.  It shouldn't be all that difficult or time-consuming to make connections between the story of Thanksgiving and modern issues affecting Native Americans.  November is a great month to start.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some Thoughts about a Behavior Program for Classroom Management

This week, The New York Times published an article about Class Dojo, the popular online behavior management program.

The article profiled teachers who find the program very useful and described the ways they used it.  The article also included comments from parents who felt the program impinged on their children's privacy.  Chief among their concerns was what happens to the data collected by Class Dojo--who has access to it, how is it used, and for how long is it available?  One of the co-founders of Class Dojo gave assurances the data would not be accessible by third parties but not everyone quoted in the article believed that would be possible.

Another concern was that by presenting the information publicly in a class, children who were not doing as well as others might feel shamed.  Some of the teachers quoted said they only used the positive reinforcement features in the program.  Teachers also said it was an effective way of keeping parents informed.

Some thoughts about classroom management
So much to think about! Source: The ESL Nexus
Some years ago, I looked at Class Dojo because it seemed like a potentially helpful way of managing the behavior of students in my classes.  But there was a certain amount of set up involved and I decided that it would be easier to just use non-computer-based methods instead.  I didn't like the idea of always having to go to my computer to input information about students; for me, it was simpler to just use paper and pen or, actually, stickers or clothespins on a chart.  I can certainly appreciate the privacy issues involved, too.

Besides the various behavior charts I used in my classroom--they differed depending on the grade level--I also developed a form to send home to parents and guardians each Friday to keep them apprised of how their children were doing in my class.  Students were supposed to get it signed by an adult and then return it on Monday, although that didn't always happen.  (If there was something really important I felt the caregivers should be aware of, I sent an email home to let them know they should ask about the form.)  Some parents told me they appreciated receiving the forms and a few would even email me if they didn't get it when they expected it.  It was gratifying to know they looked forward to the weekly updates!  Click here to see the form in my TpT store.

Click HERE for more info; source: The ESL Nexus
Today, there is another article in The New York Times about Class Dojo.  It reports that the company has updated its privacy policy.

The articles and the accompanying comments offer much to consider.  What are your thoughts about using online programs like Class Dojo?  Is it easier to use a computer program to track student behavior or do you prefer to use other means?  Please share your ideas in the Comments section below.

Welcome to The ESL Connection!

Welcome to The ESL Connection!  I started this blog because I am interested in educational policy and how it affects English Language Learners (ELLs).  I plan to write about current issues in education that impact ELLs and will offer my thoughts and opinions about them here, based on articles I read in the media and other places and on my experience in the field of English language teaching.  It is my hope that others will join in by posting comments so that conversations can be started about how best to educate ELLs in schools in the U.S. and around the world.
A blog about issues and policies related to teaching English Language Learners
Thanks for reading! Source: Pixabay
A note about the title of this blog, The ESL Connection: The term ESL is used, instead of ELL, because the focus of the blog is on the entire field encompassing the teaching of the English language, not just the students who are learning English.  And while this blog will also discuss topics pertaining to the teaching of English in countries where it is not the dominant language and when people speak it as a third or additional language, I think that ESL is the term most familiar to most people who are likely to read this blog.

I look forward to sharing my ideas about best practices for teaching ELLs, about effective ways to provide teacher training around ELL issues, about assessing ELLs appropriately, about ELLs and special education issues, about working with ELL parents, and about other issues that affect the education of English Language Learners.  I invite you to follow me and hope to see you online!