Minnesota: collaboration is the favored method for teaching English-language learners

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 21 00:42:12 UTC 2007

St. Paul, Minn.

In the St. Paul public schools, pullout teaching is frowned upon. Instead,
collaboration is the favored method when it comes to teaching
English-language learners.

The approach--a mandate from the central office--seems to be working. For
three of the past four years, the district has made adequate yearly
progress for its English-language learners under the federal No Child Left
Behind Act. And it has done so with a population that is primarily Hmong,
a Laotian ethnic group that was first resettled in the Twin Cities in the
late 1970s after the Vietnam War. As recently as two years ago, the
district received more Hmong students from a camp in Thailand.

Over the past seven years, the district here in the Minnesota capital has
revamped its programs for elementary students so that inclusion has
replaced assigning English-language learners to a full-day
English-as-a-second-language track or having an ESL teacher regularly pull
them out of class. Now, mainstream and ESL teachers co-teach in the same
classroom, which is not a commonly used method. Many of the Hmong families
living in St. Paul received refugee status because some had fought on the
side of the United States in the Vietnam War, and were persecuted in
Communist Laos after the war. Traditionally, the Hmong were farmers and
had little experience with formal schooling.  Another 2,000 Hmong students
have enrolled in St. Paul schools since the 2004-05 school year, when they
arrived from a refugee camp on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in
Thailand named Wat Tham Krabok. ("District Shifts Strategies To Welcome
Refugees," April 14, 2004.)

Now, one in four of the districts 41,000 students are of Hmong heritage.
Many U.S.-born Hmong dont speak much English when they start kindergarten,
so Hmong English-language learners include both American-born and newly
arrived students. Of the districts 17,000 English-language learners, 9,800
are Hmong and 4,000 are Latino. At the elementary level, the district
concentrates its recently arrived English-language learners in 14 schools
that have extra ESL teachers or bilingual staff. They are mixed with
native English-speakers in all classrooms.

One November morning, while Mr. Petrini goes over rituals such as naming
days of the week, Ms. Farrell takes three 1st graders who are Hmong and
speak English only in one- or two-word sentences into a separate classroom
for a half-hour and reads to them. She calls the activity a pre-reading
lesson, and has thought through how the exercise is tied to the curriculum
that all children receive. Ms. Farrell acquaints the two girls and a boy
with the book When I Was Five by Arthur Howard. She highlights words such
as astronaut and birthday, and tries to connect the book to their own
experiences by having them talk about their birthdays. Later, Ms. Farrell
takes the helm of the class to teach a writers workshop using the same
book. She occasionally calls on the three Hmong children from the
pre-reading session, asking questions similar to those they answered
earlier and encouraging them to take part in the whole-class experience.

Ms. Farrell then asks all of the children to work individually on me
stories, 1st grade lingo for memoirs, about when they were 5 or 6 years
old. She and Mr. Petrini circulate to help them. St. Pauls collaborative
model, developed locally, is constantly updated.  Its mapped out in
teacher handbooks, curriculum guides, a CD, and handouts with neat
graphics. The district has even produced purple buttons that say, Got
Collaboration? One goal of the English-language-learner program is for
teachers to provide instruction tailored to children with different needs,
without the children even knowing it. Some teachers have resisted, says
Valeria Silva, a native of Chile and the director of such programs. While
the approach was started with teachers who volunteered, she says,
eventually all elementary school teachers were required to use that model.
Some people left the district, she said. They wanted to do pullout.

The district mandates that each day, every elementary school teach an
hourlong writers workshop, an hourlong readers workshop, and a 30-minute
workshop for vocabulary and spelling. Each workshop involves a mini-lesson
and then a time for pupils to work in small groups or individually while
teachers help them. That setup allows teachers to provide the
differentiated instruction that students need, according to Ms. Silva. A
common curriculum for mathematics is required in elementary schools and
the district is phasing in a workshop approach to that subject. Eight ESL
teachers work out of the districts central office to monitor the progress
of English-language learners and coach teachers at the elementary and
secondary levels.

At the secondary level, however, the district uses a more common approach
to teaching English-language learners, separating them out, at least at
the lowest levels of proficiency, into a separate ESL track. The big push
in middle and high schools, through training and coaching teachers and
writing centralized curriculum, has been to help educators go beyond
teaching students conversational skills to teaching academic English. The
curriculum is aligned both with state academic-content standards and
standards for developing proficiency in English. English-language learners
in the first two of five levels of English proficiency attend mostly
classes taught by ESL teachers. After that, they are put in regular
classes, except for receiving one ESL class a day for about two years.

While his classmates represent many countries--Ethiopia, Mexico, Myanmar,
Somalia, Togo--the 15-year-old interacts mostly with fellow Hmong from the
camp. Mr. Yang understands a lot of English, but speaks only a few words
at a time and draws often from a limited pool of expressions, such as a
little and not right now. He attended school for five years in Thailand
before he dropped out to help his family to carry water and cook meals.
The oldest of eight children, he spends a lot of time outside of school
caring for his younger siblings.

All day long, Mr. Yang is intent on learning the difficult academic words
that are thrown at him. Territories, territories, he repeats aloud during
a lesson on Canadas geography.  Quotient, he says quietly six times to
himself, after learning the word in Algebra 1 class. Some experts think
the district needs to do more for English-language learners at the
secondary level. Bee Lee, the program manager for Hmong enrichment
programs and a liaison with Hmong parents for the districts department of
English-language learners, contends that most mainstream secondary
teachers arent using strategies to help second-language learners. That
affects students in levels 3 to 5 of English proficiency, who mostly
attend regular classes, he says.

Ms. Silva acknowledges that her departments focus has been on training
teachers in the ESL track at the secondary level. At some point, she says,
colleges and universities must step up to the plate and turn out
mainstream teachers prepared to engage second-language learners. Zha Blong
Xiong, an associate professor in education and human development at the
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, believes that while ESL classes are
necessary for newcomers, they can stifle the motivation to learn for
U.S.-born children from Hmong families, who are particularly sensitive to
being singled out at school. A lot of my students who come to the
universityevery one of them talked about the damage to the psyche, despite
some good experiences in ESL, he said, adding that he was referring to
American-born Hmong.

In St. Paul schools, he says, a lot of second-generation Hmong get stuck
in ESL through middle school and even high school. At the request of
Education Week, district officials ran an analysis to see if Mr. Xiongs
perception was right. They found that 2,484 of the 3,029 students who
enrolled in St. Paul schools as English-language learners in kindergarten
and who are now in grades 7-11 still havent met the districts criteria for
being fluent in English. Nearly 2,000 of them are Hmong. Also, 9,800 of
the districts 11,800 students of Hmong heritage are classified as
English-language learners.

But thats not the same as being stuck in ESL classes. The data show that
22 percent of those 3,029 who enrolled in kindergarten as ELLs and are in
grades 7-11 are still receiving help designed for English-language
learners, with a much smaller percentage in the upper than lower grades.
If students carry the ELL designation for a long time, St. Paul educators
are likely to provide other services for them, such as special education
or extra help with reading, says Heidi Bernal, the assistant director of
the districts department for English-language learners. The St. Paul
district reclassifies children as fluent in English when they score
proficient in reading and writing on the states English-language
proficiency test and also either score at the 60th percentile on the
Stanford Achievement Test or pass the states high school exit exam. It is
a high bar because we want to make sure we are supporting kids until they
can be successful in the mainstream classes, Ms. Bernal said.

She acknowledged that the high standard for fluency may mean that St. Paul
has more students with higher skills counted in the subgroup of
English-language learners than other cities, and thus may have an easier
time showing that the gap between the students and native speakers is
being closed. Mo Chang, who has a masters degree in teaching and learning,
is the charter school liaison and special-projects coordinator for the
district and a member of a cabinet that meets regularly with
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. As a Hmong refugee who enrolled in St.
Paul schools in the late 1970s when she was 12 and was assigned to ESL
classes, she recalls how it felt to receive such treatment. I remember
being pulled out of class all the timeI think it was three times a week,
she said. It made me feel like Im dumb and dont know anything. Kids think
maybe something is wrong with you if you need extra services.

Along with Ms. Silva, Ms. Chang was part of a delegation that visited the
camp at Wat Tham Krabok to prepare for the students resettlement in the
fall of 2004. The two district officials were also on the committee that
helped set up language centers at schools, in which children received
intensive English instruction and learned about school culture. The
centers were closed after one school year, and those children are now in
regular programs for English-language learners. Ms. Chang is pushing for
the district to open a magnet school with a focus on Hmong culture and
language. Some schools already teach a period of Hmong language, but
unless the district does more, it will continue to lose students to
charter schools that have a Hmong focus, she says.  Already, St. Paul has
two such charter schools, and one more is scheduled to open.

When her own, American-born son was still assigned to ESL classes in St.
Paul schools in junior high school, Ms. Chang says, she removed him from
the classes, against the advice of teachers. Mr. Lee, who is also a Hmong
refugee who arrived in the United States at a young age, has helped
establish the districts first Hmong bilingual program, offered at Jackson
Preparatory Magnet School. The Hmong have been in the United States in
large numbers only for 30 years, he says, but hes dismayed that many
children and youths, including his 4-year-old son, cant speak Hmong well.
Mr. Lee plans to enroll his son in the bilingual program at Jackson next

A big part of Mr. Lees job is to tell Hmong parents how to navigate the
school system. Its not easy, he says, in part because the district is slow
to change to accommodate Hmong parents. Too many schools still send out
written information, rather than call, even though many Hmong parents cant
read and write, he says. And while school officials provide a Hmong
interpreter at meetings, they often use jargon that Hmong parents dont
easily understand, even in translation. Sometimes Mr. Lee feels as if he
bears all of the districts Hmong students on his shoulders, he says during
a stop to eat egg rolls at a Hmong marketplace here. He pulls his
shoulders up toward his neck, and says, with anguish, My shoulders are too
narrow for it.

When conflicts come up between the district and Hmong parents, he says,
the parents turn to him and say, Bee, youre the inside person, how come
you cant help me? All he can really do, he says, is explain to them how
things work in the United States. Coverage of district-level improvement
efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of
New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 26, Issue 14, Pages 26-29

March 20, 2007 | Receive RSS



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