Schools get creative to integrate English language learners

| February 2, 2011 | 1 Comment

Kindergarten teacher Karen Peterson uses a special teaching method to help her students, many of whom speak a language other than English at home, learn the alphabet at Blessed Trinity School in Richfield. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Karen Peterson holds up an alphabet book in front of her kindergarten class at Blessed Trinity School in Richfield, then presses “play” on the CD player. On cue, about 20 excited children jump to their feet.

As Peterson turns pages, the children belt out: “A is for apple, a, a, a. B is for bounce, b, b, b . . .” to the “Jeopardy” theme song while pretending to eat an apple, bounce a ball and perform other actions illustrated in Peterson’s book.

The children don’t realize it, but Peterson is using sheltered instruction — a teaching method designed for students who don’t speak fluent English.

About half of Peterson’s students speak a language other than English at home. With five foreign languages represented, this kindergarten class is particularly diverse, said principal Sue Kerr. “We call it our little United Nations.”

In recent years, Blessed Trinity, like many Catholic schools in the archdiocese, has enrolled a growing number of students whose first language is not English. Lacking the budgets to hire full-time language teachers, Catholic schools have had to find other ways to meet the challenges of mixed-language classrooms.

For the past two years, the archdiocese has provided training and resources for Blessed Trinity and a handful of other urban schools with a high number of English language learners, including St. Matthew in St. Paul and Ascension, Pope John Paul II and Risen Christ in Minneapolis.

With funds from the archdiocese’s Legacy Grant, the archdiocese has contracted professors from Hamline University in St. Paul to conduct teacher workshops in sheltered instruction, provide classroom observation and coaching, and assess students’ language skills. Many of these schools also have formed faculty groups that meet regularly to share best practices.

Every teacher’s job

At Blessed Trinity, a preK-8 school where 36 percent of the student body speaks English as a second language, language instruction is not the job of one teacher, but every teacher, the principal said.

“The things that the teachers do are subtle, things like just slowing down when you’re talking to the kids, . . . using real-life examples, pictorial examples,” Kerr said.

Rather than using a watered-down curriculum for students learning English, sheltered instruction allows for the content to be equal to that of native English speakers while improving their grasp of the language.

For example, Peterson often asks her kindergartners to repeat what she says to make sure they understand. Or, sometimes she pairs up students to talk about what they did over the weekend before writing in their journals.

“The techniques that you use with English language learners are good for all students,” the 28-year teaching veteran said.

Differentiating instruction, or grouping children according to their ability, is another technique many teachers use for classes with students working on English proficiency.

“If all you do is teach one way to the whole group the whole time, then that would slow down the native English speakers,” said Helen Dahlman, principal at Risen Christ.

But differences among students go beyond language ability, Dahlman pointed out.

“What education as a whole has discovered in the last 20 years is that there are so many different varieties of learners in any particular classroom,” she said. “[Teachers] really have to have multiple groups and multiple ways of teaching so they can challenge those kids who are on the high end . . . as well as giving supports to those children who need it on the other end.

“It makes teaching, as a profession and as a craft, much more intricate and challenging,” Dahlman added. “That’s why professional development has to be very intensive and ongoing.”

Ten years ago, the number of English language learners at Risen Christ was so low the school didn’t keep records of them. Now, as more immigrant families have moved to the area, 64 percent of  students at the K-8 school speak a language other than English at home.

Students who start school speaking little to no English spend some one-on-one time with an ESL teacher, but they also attend classes with their native-English-speaking peers.

To better communicate with Spanish-speaking families, Risen Christ has made Spanish fluency a requirement for its secretaries. About a dozen other staff members are bilingual.

Small school, big challenge

Some rural schools also are enrolling more English language learners.

Last year, when several Latino families asked Father Thomas Joseph, who celebrates Spanish language Masses at Guardian Angels in Chaska, about enrolling their children in Catholic school, the priest brought their requests to Franciscan Sister Jancy Nedumkallel, principal at nearby St. Bernard in Cologne.

With fewer than 50 students at the preK-6 school at the time, St. Bernard was under review by the archdiocese to determine its viability. Sister Jancy saw the prospective students as an answer to her prayers. But, having learned English in school herself, the India native was well aware of the challenges she and the teachers would face to meet the students’ needs.

“First of all, I prepared the teachers to handle them,” Sister Jancy said. Sometimes they spend extra time working with the English language learners during recess, she said.

The school also acquired Title I funding to hire a part-time ESL teacher.

The students have made great progress in their language acquisition, Sister Jancy said. And their parents have expressed to her how grateful they are that their children are getting a Catholic education.

“I have never seen this much appreciation for kids going to Catholic school,” Sister Jancy said. “I think we are doing mission work right now, right here.”

Reaping benefits

Although Catholic schools have had to apply some creativity to meet the needs of fast-changing demographics, the efforts appear to be paying off.

At Blessed Trinity, 86 percent of the student body met its target growth for the 2009-10 school year, according to a standardized test students took in the fall and again in the spring. “When you consider our population, that’s pretty amazing,” Kerr said.

Opening their doors to a diverse range of students has paid dividends in some unexpected ways, as well.

Four years ago, when more Latino students began attending Blessed Trinity, former principal Kim Doyle told The Catholic Spirit that the children got along well, but some parents were having a more difficult time adjusting to change at the school. Today, Kerr said, that is no longer a problem.

Some of the Latina mothers at the school recently organized a cooking class for the U.S.-born parents. “We tried to communicate as best we could with one another and learned how to make tamales,” Kerr said. “Little things like that are helping the parents to get to know each other better and to get over the language barrier.”

Tags: , , ,

Category: Catholic Schools Week