Teaching in an urban educational setting has many challenges. Of course, there are challenges associated with trauma and with poverty and other social problems.
One of the greatest challenges, in my opinion, is to work with students whose primary language is not English. In my current classroom, the ratio of native English speakers to English Language Learners, or ELLs is about 1:3. Just to be clear, 17 of the 23 students are acquiring English and learning in English simultaneously.
I have a lot of admiration for my ELLs. First of all, I attempted to learn a foreign (to me) language – and not just as a whim in high school. After about 30 minutes of the teacher speaking to our group in the new language, in my case Italian, I thought my brain was going to burst. Hanging on to my minimal grasp of Italian and understanding about 10 percent of what was being said is exhausting! By the end of a three-hour class, I could have curled up into the fetal position and never come out.
In a classroom with such a large percentage of ELLs, we accommodate English and English acquisition all of the time. We work with realia, we check in and monitor when vocabulary is incomprehensible, we shelter our students’ learning as they acquire the language in which they are expected to work and perform.
One of the most important things I think I do for my students is insist on speaking. If that seems like a “duh” moment, realize that when managing 23 personalities in group discussion and activity how easy it is to accept a head shake or pointing or some other gesture in place of using words.
I – and we – accept gestures in communication all of the time. The importance of using verbal communication is in learning the constructs of English and in increasing the vocabulary word bank of my ELLs.
Even after so many years in this teaching environment, I catch myself accepting nonverbal communication from my students. It is an easy habit to slip back into – for both of us! But it is one habit that we constantly monitor because the success of my students who are acquiring English as they work in English depend upon it.