High School: A Triumph in Learning English
by Adam Sugerman
the TESOL convention in Baltimore this year, I witnessed enthusiastic
groups of professionals who were committed to teaching English
while recognizing and supporting efforts to help students preserve
their own language. It reminded me of one particular soon-to-be
high school graduate.
In June, Henry receives his high school diploma. Looking back
on his school years, he proudly remembers his triumphs over the
difficulties shared by students who overcome linguistic barriers
that mar their early U.S. school experience. Like hundreds of
thousands of his contemporaries, his K–12 journey has been filled
with academic—and social—uncertainty, but he is now ready to continue
on his career path.
Spending the first decade of his life in Colombia, his teachers
were academically strict, using a rote memorization method to
teach and evaluate. Henry’s notebooks, filled with his handwriting,
was at a much higher level than the writing demonstrated by his
peers in the U.S. Students were instructed to organize their notebooks
by subject. We see that his teachers’ linear approach to instruction
allowed Henry to build his thinking from the concrete to the abstract.
When Henry turned ten, his family immigrated to the Midwest. Henry
entered the U.S. school system in the fifth grade and became enrolled
in a private school with little experience in teaching language-minority
children. His parents hoped that his immersion in English would
help him acquire the language much more quickly. After three months
of study, Henry showed little improvement in academic and social
English. More important, his self-esteem had reached its nadir.
Upon consulting with Henry’s teacher and school’s principal, Henry’s
parents decided to enroll him in a “bilingual” program at a neighborhood
public school. In the fifth grade, Henry’s class studied with
second grade textbooks. All classes were conducted in Spanish,
with a weekly one-hour class in ESL. The school had insurmountable
problems, ranging from discipline and overcrowding to a staff
suffering from low morale. For the first time in his life, Henry
dreaded attending school. Each day, his grandparents had to escort
him past the bullies who tormented their arbitrary victims. Once
again, his parents withdrew him and contemplated homeschooling.
In January, Henry’s parents enrolled him in another private school.
Although the classes were conducted exclusively in English, Henry’s
teachers doted over him. The school provided tutoring after school.
The curriculum was also much more rigorous, the students acted
more maturely, and Henry started to thrive. He learned English
by understanding content, by his parents translating his homework,
by listening to the Beatles … and by relating English to his personal
experiences. By the end of the school year, Henry was able to
communicate with his peers in spoken English. It took two years
for him to become fluent in social English and another two years
in academic English. In the meantime, Henry didn’t lose his native
Spanish. Today he is completely bilingual!#
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