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!