Diversity and Education: EAL Learners

Abstract

This reflection explores the issues related to diversity and education. English as an Additional Language Learners (EAL) are one diverse population of leaners. EAL education poses many challenges, both professionally and educationally, to our current structure of education. Things like student placement, labels, and support or resource allocation are things that need to be considered. EAL learners bring with them a variety of stories, strengths, weaknesses, and language experiences that need to be addressed and reflected in the overall school environment and classroom. This involves a high level of differentiation and the implementation of various assessment measures to ensure academic success and confidence with the English language. Like any students, EAL learners are shaping their own identities as adolescence and need environments that provide a safe place to grow. Within our current structure, tensions between stability-change and diversity-uniformity need to constantly be addressed when considering our diverse population of EAL learners.

Keywords – EAL, diversity, education, English Language Arts (ELA), educational assistant (EA), response to intervention (RTI), sheltered program, mainstream, modified, differentiation, belonging, academic achievement, 21st Century learners, globalization, technology, tensions, stability-change, diversity-uniformity, fair and equitable treatment, advanced placement English (AP)

 Diversity and Education

I had the privilege to observe Ms. P’s Grade Ten English as an Additional Language Learner (EAL) English 10 class, while pre-interning at a Regina High School. This was a new experience for me and the diversity of these learners was overwhelming. The learners included three Caucasian students, fourteen students from the Philippines, a refugee from Sudan, a refugee from Afghanistan, three exchange students, and three students from Africa. Ortmeier-Hooper notes that “immigrant students represent one of the largest categories of ELLs in our schools” (2013, p. 7) and this proved true at this school. The class is structured or administered as a “sheltered” English course. Ortmeier-Hooper explains sheltered instruction as classes where “subject matter instruction is organized to promote second language acquisition, while teaching cognitively demanding, grade-level appropriate material” (2013, p. 15). This means that students complete the exact same outcomes as a regular class. However, a regular English 10 class would complete more indicators. Since the completion of outcomes is what matters, this class appears on a transcript just like any Grade 10 English Language Arts (ELA) course would.

The purpose of a sheltered program is not to teach English per say, but to allow students to adjust and function to our Canadian school system. Students are familiarized with our western teaching practices, such as persuasive writing, rubrics, presentations, rules, and group work. This highlights the tension between uniformity (maintaining the current structures and traditions) and diversity (adapting to incorporate diverse learners and learning styles). Ms. P’s sheltered EAL class is a pilot project for all Regina Catholic schools. Since it is a trail, other EAL learners in the school who require explicit English instruction are placed in separate or modified courses. Other EAL learners work alongside their peers in mainstream courses, which is a more progressive and inclusive practice. However, these learners often struggle academically and face a daunting workload, due to the lack of supports and modifications that are usually present in mainstream classes. Ortmeier-Hooper recognizes that although mainstream classes are the ideal, we need to remember that EAL students need to balance “school and home expectations and struggles, [learn] a new language” and create their identity as an adolescent (2013, p. 9). Whether or not an EAL learner is placed in a modified or mainstream program is based on testing results from the Welcoming Center or an EAL consultant. I view “sheltered” EAL English courses as a way around structural tensions of change-stability and uniformity-diversity; sheltered courses allow students to receive the supports they need, while working on the same curricular outcomes. This structural adaptation is an attempt to balance stability and change because we are adapting our current system to incorporate a third placement option.

Even within a sheltered classroom, the needs vary; some of Ms. P’s students have been in Canada for years, while others have just arrived within the past month. Furthermore, some students are learning English as a third or fourth language. Each student has their own distinct experiences and educational backgrounds, regardless of a shared EAL label. As an inclusive education minor, I am very aware of the necessity and value of labels. However, I often find that labels – which serve a structural purpose of determining instructional choices, supports, and resource allocation – are the very things that undermined students’ distinct experiences, linguistic diversity, and educational backgrounds. Beyond the label is a learner with their own strengths and weaknesses but these labels often “shape [educators’] understanding of these students” about what they can and cannot do (Ortmeier-Hooper, 2013, p. 6). Labels can limit educational opportunities for students. I find that when students have a label, educators have a “tendency to look for deficits, focusing almost exclusively on concerns and challenges in teaching them” (Ortmeier-Hooper, 2013, p. 94). Furthermore, the labels we use continually change, causing some confusion. The current term is EAL but recent textbooks often use terms such as English Language Learner (ELL). The tension between our need to identify our learners and the tension between treating each student as an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses is one of the main structural challenges.

With our desire to label students comes the issue of determining whether or not an EAL student has an additional disability. It is hard to decipher between a lack of language proficiency and extensive learning challenges. Within Ms. P’s classroom, four of the students require their own individualized programming; however, they are not officially on individualized program plans (IPP) but are on the waiting list to meet with an educational psychologist. These students require instructional and assignment modifications, as well as, extra supports. However, an educational assistant (EA) had not been assigned to any of the students and the community EAL consultant only showed up twice. Instead of in-class supports, Ms. P will be sent to SIOP training in April. This lack of support puts a lot of onus on Ms. P, who is a new educator with no formal EAL training. Sadly, a lack of supports is a reality in many of our schools and illustrates the gap that remains between our ideals.

At the end of the day, it is our job as professional educators to try our best to differentiate instruction and collaborate with our colleagues to help our students succeed, regardless of structural flaws. Although differentiation is important in all classes, I found that it is vital within a sheltered English class. Ms. P meets with eight colleagues to discuss the direction of sheltered EAL English classes on her own accord. She also varies the reading levels of her materials. When studying Macbeth, three different graphic novels at various reading levels were used. She also modifies exams. For instance, one of the refugees just arrived in Canada this month. She let this particular student use their graphic novel to write the test. Another student did not think this was fair, showing the tension between fair and equitable treatment. Ms. P handled the situation by saying,“You’re telling me that when you just came here no one ever made accommodations for you?”

Ms. P also utilizes Response to Intervention (RTI) Tier 1 interventions as a way to make inclusive modifications for the entire class. For example, she utilizes culturally responsive practices, immerses technology into her regular instruction, and creates various groupings. Currently, the desks are together on either side of the classroom with a space in the middle and working tables at the back. This allows students to assist one another and work through the English language together. They often sit beside peers who share a similar language background so that they can translate together. Although this allows them to succeed academically, it creates an issue of students being segregated into racial groupings. Thus, Ms. P changes the seating plan on various occasions.

Another important consideration for EAL learners is creating a positive environment and sound routines. This can be hard because our current structure is not formed around EAL learners. However, Ms. P’s classroom and routines have been structured with her learners in mind. Posters with the writing process, parts of speech, and new vocabulary words act as extra supports. As students read or hear new words, they get added to the chalkboard. “My Journey” posters were on the walls around a map of the world. Each student’s background, culture, family, and experiences with the English language were represented.

Not only did the environment foster support and belonging, but so did the daily routines. On Monday and Wednesday students read silently, alongside their teacher. Tuesday is #talktuesday and students get a chance to speak informally to their peers about their lives. On Thursday they have #throwbackthursday where students share stories about their childhood, culture, family, and past. Friday is #phoneticfriday and it is dedicated to grammar instruction. Ms. P constructs these lessons based on the grammatical errors that the class is making as a whole. For instance, students learned about when to use dashes, ellipses, and brackets after they misused this punctuation in their previous writing assignment. Students benefit from this explicit instruction. The routines allow them to express themselves and work on skills – speaking, writing, and reading – that they may be insecure about. Ortmeier-Hooper notes that “as students get older, the most valuable gift we can give them is a sense of confidence in their voices and their written expressions” (2013, p. 163) and our routines in EAL classrooms must encourage voice and belonging.

Before this experience, I thought the biggest concern with EAL learners would be academic success. However, it is surprising how much EAL learners are capable of if the expectations are high. The main thing that Ms. P had to do to ensure the academic success of her students was vary her assessment. Students write, act, create videos, draw, etc. She also found out that comprehension questions are not as challenging as application and opinion questions for EAL learners. Since comprehension questions are things that 21st century learners can simply Google, these activities are completed as a class, before and during reading. After reading, students are evaluated on their ability to use their comprehension of a text as a springboard for their opinions and inquiries. This type of instruction is the difference between looking up a definition of a word – instigator, for example – versus being asked to apply the term in a sentence – Do you think Lady Macbeth is an instigator?.” On exams, Ms. P provides more writing opportunities rather than less. This means that fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice questions are almost non-existent. This helps students get rid of their insecurities about writing and develop their vocabulary. Furthermore, as Young et al. point out (2007), “writing is a means of self-expression, creativity, and a way to tell a story or explain our thinking” (p. 16). This is a vital skill to have in our globalized and technological economy (p. 4). These types of assessments allow students to draw from their own personal experiences, knowledge, and thoughts rather than their ability to regurgitate answers. This is a prime example where modernized teaching practices take precedence over traditional methods.

Our current educational structures seem to be slow to change but “more recently there has been an increasing, though by no means universal, tendency to allow greater diversity in the schools” (Young et al., 2007, p. 90). I believe that Ms. P’s sheltered English class is an example of breaking away from the stability and past traditions of our schools. Although learners are still expected to assimilate to our current system of education in many ways, we are slowly adapting our instructional practices, assessment measures, routines, and environments to accommodate a more diverse group of leaners. I believe that this sheltered program will only continue to improve and receive supports. Some improvements that I would like to see are a buddy system between EAL learners and advanced placement (AP) English learners. This buddy system could be structured as a tutoring system or even through collaboration during extra-curricular activities such as, yearbook, school newspaper, book clubs, writing clubs, or research programs. EAL learners would benefit from extra exposure to the English language – as many of these students do not speak English at home – and native English speakers could also benefit from extra writing and reading time. Ortmeier-Hooper (2013) notes that “learning to write [and read] in a second language is a lifelong process” (p. 158) and I think there are many opportunities to expand beyond our English classrooms and create environments that foster belonging and academic achievement for all students grappling with the English language, whether as their only language or one of many. Our population of learners is very diverse and we need to create an educational structure that is flexible enough to meet these needs and balance the tensions.

Resources

Ortmeier-Hooper, C. (2013). The ELL writer: Moving beyond basics in the secondary classroom. Columbia University, New York: Teachers College Press.

Young, J., Levin, B., & Wallin, D. (2007). Understanding Canadian schools: An introduction to educational administration. (4th ed.). Toronto: Thomson.

 

 

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