Forum Educates on the Experiences of English Language Learners in Schools

On Saturday, March 3, the Student Education Association (SEA) and senior Lauren Martin hosted the SEA Spring Forum called “The Evolving Education of English Language Learners.” Faculty from St. Mary’s College, along with other educational professionals from outside the College, visited to discuss their various experiences with English Language Learners (ELLs).

Katy Arnett, Associate Professor of Educational Studies, gave the opening speech for the forum in French. Most people in the audience did not speak French, so this gave them the experience of what it is really like to be an ELL. ELLs are students in English-speaking schools whose first language is not English. Some have some experience with English before starting school, while others may have none at all.

Six speakers came to the forum to discuss different topics related to ELLs. Students and faculty participating in the forum were able to choose three different speakers to listen to during the three breakout sessions. The sessions were separated by 15 minute breaks, during which participants could eat snacks and discuss what they had learned.

Assistant Professor of English Brian O’Sullivan delivered a lecture called “The Complexities of English,” during which he explained how difficult English can be to learn because of all its grammar and spelling complexities. We are “free and irregular in how we form words,” said O’Sullivan. English words are often spelled based on the language they originate from. Since words can originate from such different languages as French, Latin, and German, they can widely differ in spelling.

“There is so much memorization involved in learning English,” said O’Sullivan as he discussed the different ways words can be spelled. An example he gave was the different sounds the letters “ough” can make in different words like tough, though, and through.

In addition to learning English, ELLs also have to learn how to properly write an essay in a way that is accepted by English speakers. The American way of formatting a paper is to start with a thesis or argument, and then end with a conclusion. According to the French, if the thesis is presented at the beginning, there seems to be no reason to keep reading past the thesis. And for Asian writers, it is most common to start with a proverb instead of the essay writer’s individual logic.

Joanna Bartow, Associate Professor of Spanish, delivered a breakout session called “Experiencing Submersion.” For the first 15 minutes of her session, she communicated with participants purely in Spanish, whether or not they had any Spanish proficiency. Bartow asked students to read and interpret a short article written in Spanish and answer questions about the article in Spanish.

“The whole point was to do everything in Spanish,” said Bartow. “How did you feel?” Participants said they felt bored, frustrated, confused, lost, and stupid. “It’s tiring to speak Spanish all day even when you’re a Spanish major… What happens when a child is in this situation for the entire school day?”

Students in a classroom who do not understand the primary language being spoken may become bored, leading them to daydream or even misbehave. They are sometimes disruptive just because they do not understand what is going on and feel frustrated. This leads some teachers to believe these students are troublemakers and not give them the patience they may need to effectively learn English.

Associate Professor of Educational Studies Angela Johnson, along with Flavio, an ELL from Mexico, delivered the breakout session called “Family Experiences of ELLs.”

Flavio introduced the session by talking about his experience as a student starting school in the United States without any prior knowledge of English. “I was really nervous… People were saying ‘hi’ but I didn’t know what they were saying so I just said ‘yeah.'” His teacher gave him flash-cards to learn English, but with no knowledge of how to interpret English spelling, the flash-cards were not very helpful.

After a few years, Flavio was able to become proficient in spoken English, but he still had trouble writing essays and understanding other academic assignments. “His teachers have a really hard time believing that he doesn’t have academic proficiency,” said Johnson. Flavio’s teachers wrongly assumed that because he could talk well, he could also easily do everything else involved with school.

Having non-native students in the classroom brings in interesting and unique experiences. “Teaching kids from all over the world made me into a much more interesting person,” said Johnson.

The forum’s closing panel discussion was hosted by senior Lauren Martin and involved Katy Arnett, Montgomery County ESOL teacher Katie Siguenza, and St. Mary’s County Physical Education teacher Sabra Szczyglowski.

“Only about 13 to 15 percent of teachers have had any professional development in working with ELLs,” said Arnett. “SMCM is the only school in the state requiring ESLAC [English as a Second Language Across the Curriculum].”

Szczyglowski talked about the difficulties that come with having an ELL in the classroom without the proper training in how to work with them. “You don’t realize what you don’t have until you need it,” she said.

“At my school, we have 21 different countries represented, and 19 languages,” said Siguenza. “They have to produce in two years the same as a proficient student [would in English].”

After Martin finished leading the panel, students and faculty in the audience participated in a question and answer session with the panel members. Students seemed to enjoy the forum and left with a much better understanding of the experiences of ELLs in public schools across the country.

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