By Matthew Tungate
Being the new kid in school can be hard. But being a new student who has limited English skills, little understanding of American culture and possibly no previous school experience can make it downright overwhelming.
That’s where Warren County schools’ intensive English classes can help, providing students with the teaching and support they need to master English and content, and eventually move on and succeed in traditional classrooms.
The district’s intensive language classrooms began in 2008 following an influx of refugees from Burma (Myanmar) and Central Africa, according to Skip Cleavinger, Title III coordinator/director of English learner programs with Warren County. His predecessor started the classrooms so that the academically neediest 15 students at each school level could receive a year of very intense English and basic academic instruction, he said.
Many of the students had come from refugee camps and areas where they had little schooling even in their native language, Cleavinger said.
“Their instructional level can sometimes be many, many years behind their grade level,” he said.
Intensive language classrooms are located at Moss Middle, Cumberland Trace Elementary and Warren Central High schools.
Students are assigned to the school that is appropriate for their age, Cleavinger said, and teachers start “from ground zero” helping them learn English that will be used in an academic setting and academic subjects.
“We really focus hard on the first six months of just getting them to the point that they can orient themselves, describe themselves to others and discuss what their needs are, but once they’re in that state of English proficiency, they can actually really start doing well in a classroom like that,” he said.
Kim Bowman started the intensive language classroom at Moss Middle. This year she has 10 students from eight countries speaking as many languages. As she does not speak those languages, she has to find other ways to communicate.
“Our whole day is about scaffolding information and language so that the kids can access it, so we use everything we can to make sure that the kids are ‘getting’ it,” she said. “We try to hit all the domains every day (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and try to make sure that all the kids are working at their own level within those domains.”
Daniel Bemiss, the intensive language class teacher at Cumberland Trace Elementary, said he tries use a lot of visuals and hands-on activities for his students. He also tries to work at a pace they can handle.
“These are really smart kids, but the most difficult thing is the language,” he said.
Besides teaching them English, mathematics, science and social studies, Bemiss said he tries to help his students get accustomed to American culture.
Jonathan Vanderpool is in his first year teaching the intensive language classroom at Warren Central High after living the last three years in India. He said that helps him relate to the students in his class.
“I know what it feels like to walk into another country and have no clue what is going on. I had great people who helped me to learn the language and the culture, and that is what these students need. These kids are coming from cultures that aren’t just a little different from America – in some ways they are polar opposites,” he said.
“These students are not dumb just because they don’t know English. What they lack in education they more than make up for in life experience,” Vanderpool continued. “They or their families have probably had to make tougher decisions than we will ever be faced with.”
Teachers can make things easier for their students, he said.
“They need patience and help. They need to be able to wrestle with the language and mess up. Get to know the students and their families. Get to know their cultures. See if you have anything in common with them. Your relationship to them goes a long way in their success.” he said.
Jayne Kraemer, Title III consultant for English Learners and Immigrant Students with the Kentucky Department of Education, agreed, saying that English learners generally are very motivated to learn both academic content and English.
Having taught in both traditional ESL classes and a newcomer program, Kraemer said there are many techniques teachers can use to help students learn even when English isn’t their native language.
For instance, having an aide or teaching assistant who speaks the native language is helpful, she said. About 65 percent of Kentucky’s nearly 17,500 English Learners speak Spanish, Kraemer said. But students in Kentucky speak 105 different languages, so it is not always possible to find someone who can speak a student’s particular language, she said.
Teachers may allow English learners to use a bilingual dictionary, and to receive extra educational time. Kramer said teachers can help students by using graphic organizers and lots of visuals, being very explicit in directions and focusing on the language they use when talking to students.
“That traditional structure of the teacher being at the front of the class and providing a lecture, for English learners, it really doesn’t work because they need opportunities to use the language that they’re hearing and practice that,” Kraemer said.
Bowman said the difference between traditional ESL programs, where students may attend traditional classes most of the day and receive assistance in class or during a pull-out, and the newcomer students is that content-area teachers may not be able modify the content to a level that makes the information meaningful to the newcomers.
“And newcomers don’t have a single moment to waste,” she said. “We need them to hit the ground running and accelerate their learning as quickly as we possibly can. In the Intensive English programs, we give the kids individualized instruction and small-group instruction all day long. If I’m doing my job well, the kids are leaving every day at the end of the day exhausted from the mental workout.”
MORE INFO …
World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA)
Jayne Kraemer, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 564-4970
Skip Cleavinger, email@example.com, (270) 904-4059