By Marissa Maier
Jennifer Warner, a young teacher at the Sag Harbor Elementary School, is sitting in a chair flanked by seven pint-sized students. Reading from a chapter book, Warner reads the phrase “eat my socks” and turns to the group to say, “Does everyone know what that means?” The meaning behind this colloquialism would be clear to any English speaking youngster. This group of students, though, ranging from fourth to fifth graders, are composed of second language learners, and Warner often must check-in to make sure her pupils grasp the intent of these expressions.
Above: Elementary school ESL teacher Jennifer Warner incorporates the SMART board into her second language lesson plan.
Over the past couple years, the number of ESL students in the school district has been steadily rising, said ESL instructor Donna Milazzo. Noting this trend, a group of second language teachers joined together and created a curriculum for the language program, which many believe is the first of its kind on the South Fork.
Since 2007, the number of ESL students in the district has grown from around 50 to 61 pupils. Many of these children were born in the United States, though they grew up with non-English speaking parents and weren’t formally introduced to the language until they entered the classroom. A majority of Sag Harbor’s ESL students hail from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and Columbia, while others immigrated from as far away as Thailand, Russia and Lithuania. A group of ESL teachers presented their work at a Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting in early January, where they also highlighted a wealth of demographic information on ESL students in the district.
The New York State department of education sets standards, or guidelines, for ESL instruction, but the department doesn’t mandate a specific curriculum. When writing the educational plan for the district, the Sag Harbor teachers said they were diving into some uncharted academic waters. A few schools in other states had created their own curriculum, but in Sag Harbor the teachers knew they would need to start from scratch. As Milazzo explains it, the Sag Harbor team set out in October to craft a pedagogy behind ESL instruction and wrapped up their work by December.
“The important part [of the curriculum] is the education continuum and continuing where they are when they move to another school building or grade level. The state has learning guidelines but ours are more specific. We are addressing the needs of the second language learner,” noted Milazzo.
After teaching non-native speakers for several years, many Pierson educators had already honed methods for language instruction. Though the curriculum breaks down the theories of language instruction into two concepts of basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), Warner said educators constantly adjust the program based on the skills, interests and emotional state of the student. And teachers like Warner and Milazzo never tire of finding ways to imbue linguistic concepts.
Last week, Warner could be found in her elementary school classroom separating her seven students into three groups. One set of children stayed by the Smart board, where they learned about westward expansion through a Power Point, a video and an online game. The other pairs of students read books. One group created a treasure map while the other drew a picture and recapitulated the story. Warner said she often pairs the students together so that they will teach one another. Milazzo added that beginning students are placed with intermediate ones, and intermediate pupils are matched with advanced ones.
The teachers also noted that they encourage using the native language in the classroom. Milazzo said research shows when a student’s skills in their native language is elevated, the concepts of English will follow. Native culture is continually promoted in the ESL program because linking experience and interests with language development helps students retain information. Warner explained one student, who was originally reluctant to speak in class, liked soccer and she then found a myriad of books on the subject and crafted a lesson plan around this interest to help engage him.
A strong partnership between the ESL instructor and the mainstream teacher is needed for an effective program, added Warner and Milazzo. Teachers in core subjects frequently meet with the ESL educators to show upcoming lesson plans, which is then incorporated in the language instruction to introduce students to the material in a more hands-on and intimate setting.
As many ESL students are grappling with issues of assimilation, the ESL teachers are part educator and caretaker, and must form a strong alliance with the guidance counselors. Milazzo explained many students leave behind a primary caretaker in their native country, while others feel like an outsider in their new school community. She believes these children are “betwixt and between” their native and secondary culture. The children often go through a period when they refuse to speak their primary language, even at home, hoping to form an identity in their new environs.
“They need the social piece, like after school [programs] or chorus. I have seen children who were so quiet when they first get here and then when they become involved they are a whole new person,” added Milazzo.
The families noted Milazzo and Warner must also become involved in their children’s education, though many of the parents are struggling to grasp English as well.
In the classroom, the teachers attempt to make students as comfortable as possible and this was evident in Warner’s class. The children often shouted out answers and laughed. No one acted out and all the students appeared to work well with one another.
Of the ESL classroom, Milazzo said, “They come in here and their shoulders relax. We want to make them feel safe so they are willing to take risks. There is a lot of fear associated with this process. Unless it subsides the language skills aren’t going to stick.”