Charters Tackle ELL Instruction

By Melissa Katz

It’s hard to believe that we’re approaching the end of the school year! As I reflect on the progress made this past year since I joined the Charter Center team, I already find myself looking forward to next school year. After conducting numerous, stimulating and informative school visits and English Language Learner (ELL) events this year, I would like to share with everyone some of the trends I’ve noticed throughout NYC’s ELL community:

Committed Educators

This year, I visited close to sixty schools and facilitated around 15 ELL events. I’m happy to report that I have been pleasantly surprised by how committed the teachers are to helping their students. From detailed and differentiated lesson plans to museum-worthy anchor charts and visual aids, ESL teachers are going the extra mile to make sure they can make academic content comprehensible for their ELL students.

At KIPP, for example, I observed ELL, special education and speech teachers meet for three hours to examine data, learn and discuss best practices for meeting the needs of their students, and reflect on ways they could adjust instruction and collaboration to better serve their students. Charter educators are also reaching out to colleagues in the ELL Community of Practice and me with questions and ideas on resources, technical assistance, and best practices. The energy these educators exhibit is unparalleled!

Engaged Students

The number one thing I miss about being in the classroom is working with students, and this fact is reinforced every time I go on a school visit and observe classroom instruction. The level of student engagement and enthusiasm that I have witnessed is truly impressive. Creating a supportive learning environment is particularly important for ELLs as they take risks with both language and content. On many visits, it was clear to me that teachers had successfully built relationships and consistent routines with the ELL students, which in turn created a learning environment in which students felt excited to participate and do their schoolwork.

On one recent visit to East Harlem Scholars II, I was thrilled to spend time in an ELL classroom where 100% of the students actively participated, raising their hands to answer all the questions. The ESL teacher pulled out a guitar and had them all sing the poems that they had just composed using new vocabulary! Her classroom was covered with visual aids to help students understand the meaning of the words and it was obvious that this was not the first time she had used music to help make the lesson more “sticky” and fun.

Content-Based ESL Instruction

A majority of the schools I’ve visited have a push-in/pull-out model of ESL, meaning that an ESL teacher either “pushes in” with a whole class and works with the ELLs in the classroom or “pulls out” a group of ELLs and works with them separately. While the nature of push-in instruction is that the ESL support is content-based, that is not always the case with pull-out. However, most of the pull-out instruction I’ve seen on my school visits is content based, a best practice that aligns especially well with the Common Core. When ELL students receive content-based ESL instruction, as opposed to standalone language instruction focusing exclusively on vocabulary, grammar and language functions, they are able to learn English through grade level content in a meaningful context.

On a March visit to The Bronx Charter School for Children, I was lucky enough to observe a pull-out ESL lesson that had second graders tackling a folk tale to figure out both what literally happened in the story, as well as the larger lessons that the characters learned from different events that occurred throughout the text. These ELLs were learning new vocabulary and how to sequence events, and they were also being taught how to think critically and evaluate which details were most significant in order to pull out the story’s theme.

What’s Next?

Next school year will usher in new proficiency levels, new English as a New Language (ENL) learning standards, and most likely another revised NYSESLAT – the third revision in four years. It will be interesting to see how teachers tackle these challenges.

I predict next year I’ll see even more differentiation as teachers think about planning instruction across five proficiency levels, instead of four. I also think we’ll see even more integrated ENL as teachers use the Common Core-aligned New Language Arts Progressions to guide instructions. Regardless of the “how,” I am confident in saying I think teachers of ELLs are going to meet these challenges with asset-based thinking and unrivaled energy. I can’t wait for Fall 2015!

As the Charter Center’s first ELL Specialist, Melissa works to ensure that the city’s charter schools have access to the essential supports, resources, and technical assistance necessary to lead their English Language Learners to academic success. Her goal is to advocate for ELLs and strengthen their presence and achievement in NYC charter schools. She worked as a K-5 ESL teacher for the NYC DOE for five years. During her time in the classroom, she created an inclusive environment through culturally responsive teaching and best ESL methodology, including SIOP. Melissa holds B.A.s from Trinity College (Hartford) in French, Spanish and English, and earned her M.S. in TESOL as a Teach For America corps member from Fordham University.