The Teachers HELP (Helping English Language Proficiency) Summer Academy, which is a part of a five year program to offer high-quality English Learner (EL) endorsement and professional development opportunities, opened with a science lesson.
Anjelika Riano, the ESL (English as a Second Language) coach with the Hamilton County Department of Education, lectured the group of in-service and pre-service teachers about the parts of a plant. The “students” were expected to keep up with the lesson and to take notes… all in Russian. This immersion experience was intended to let these teachers feel what an English learner student feels while trying to learn academic content in an unfamiliar language.
Ms. Riano then repeated the lesson, still in Russian, but implementing strategies designed to aid ESL students, such as displaying a plant and pointing to each part while it was discussed. The teachers were then able to see firsthand what a difference the strategies can make.
“The point is to help students to learn English and also learn academic content in English. We can’t wait until students are fluent in English for them to learn academic content, they have to learn them at the same time,” said Anne Gamble, Teachers HELP Project Director.
Teachers HELP is a five-year National Professional Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Education awarded to UTC in 2012. The main goal is to have 140 teachers with the ESL add-on endorsement teaching in this area in five years.
“We have a goal to have more ESL endorsed teachers, but we also have a goal to help all teachers be better prepared to teach English learners,” said Ms. Gamble.
Between 1995 and 2005, the population of EL students grew 370 percent in Tennessee, and has only continued to rise. While EL students are often assumed to be Spanish speakers, there is a much greater variety in local schools. In Hamilton County alone, students speak forty-five different languages. The rates of Spanish speaking students are increasing in Tennessee, but so are the rates of German speaking students, with the arrival of Volkswagen, as well as other languages, through the work of Bridge Refugee Services.
“Tennessee is an English only state; we don’t have provisions for instruction for students in their own language, we only teach students in English. So what these teachers are learning is strategies to teach in English as they teach English,” said Ms. Gamble.
The training provided in Teachers HELP doesn’t focus on teaching new languages or helping teachers to educate only Spanish speaking students; rather, they are learning strategies that will benefit all students.
“Those students are in our schools, so there’s a real need for them to have an understanding of how to teach a diverse population of students,” said Ms. Gamble.
The program benefits both novice and veteran teachers – the 2014 cohort boasts a combined 143 years of teaching experience. Pre-service teachers are recruited from the UTC Education Department, while veteran teachers are recruited from six local counties: Hamilton County, Bradley County, Cleveland City Schools, Grundy County, Marion County, and Sequatchie County.
“We don’t have any problem recruiting. We already have 15 people who have applied for next year, out of 35 slots,” said Ms. Gamble.
Importantly, Teachers HELP doesn’t propose depriving students of their native languages.
“We don’t want them to lose their original language. We now know that there are so many cognitive benefits to being bilingual, so we don’t want to take that away from them,” said Dr. Amye Warren, HELP Program project evaluator and Research Master’s Program Coordinator in the Department of Psychology. “We don’t want their parents to stop speaking to them in their original language. The parents aren’t often the best demonstrators of academic English, when they may be learning the language themselves. Students need that social, conversational English, but they also need that academic, formal language in the classroom. We want them to be able to do both.”
The program provides numerous strategies for teaching EL students, who may have much greater knowledge in their native language than in English.
“The EL student may have a lot of information in his or her native language, but can’t tell you in English, so if you can help the student show you what he or she knows, then you can help put English vocabulary to that,” said Dr. Kay Cowan, Teachers HELP Faculty Advisor and Professor of Reading and Language Arts in the UTC College of Education, Health, and Professional Studies.
Strategies involve more concrete learning, which involve movement, art, and music. Multimodal learning is encouraged, so that students from all different backgrounds have options other than writing what they know – they may be able to create projects, simulations, web-based assignments, or other non-verbal assessments.
“Our strategies don’t just help EL students. What we’re doing helps language minority students – maybe a student speaks a dialect of English that isn’t necessarily focused on academics. When you teach the language of school to EL students, you teach it to all the students in a class who may just be struggling,” said Dr. Sarah Sandefur, Teachers HELP Faculty Advisor.
These techniques can benefit all students.
“Lecture instruction is some of the most difficult to grasp, so we try to make it more concrete, and then bump it up, and all our students grasp is faster,” said Dr. Cowan. “I used these strategies with all students, even gifted students who weren’t struggling. It positions all students to perform at a higher level, to see different ways of interpreting and presenting content.”
The students are being taught in a particular, research based model that has been validated as good instruction for EL students and all students.
“We know that these strategies lead to improved student performance,” said Dr. Sandefur. “Even if they have no EL students in their class, their instruction techniques will be stronger for this.”
With the grant half over, many of the students who have completed the Teachers HELP Summer Academy have already been hired, according to Dr. Valerie Rutledge, Dean of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies.
In the future, UTC’s Department of Education is planning on incorporating many of these strategies into their coursework.
“We are creating the coursework that will go into our undergraduate education so that all teachers will get information about teaching English learners. We are also working on an ESL concentration in the master’s program,” said Dr. Rutledge.