Monday, August 07, 2006

Content Area Literacy......aka......."it's actually STILL about race"

During the teaching credential program it went by the name "Content Area Literacy". For the last two years, elements were brought up at our school in a program called "Reading Apprenticeship". Last summer, it was in all the classes that I needed to complete to acquire my CLAD. Well, I guess that it wouldn't be California if we didn't rehash the information yet again. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the continuing focus on English Language Learners (ELL).

In May, I was asked to attend a two-day conference that ended last week called SALT, Secondary Academic Language Tools. If you have any knowledge of Content Area Literacy you will already know where SALT is going. Basically, the idea is getting kids competent in the "academic language" of the subject matter that teachers are teaching. I love the idea of academic language because it makes kids more focused and better prepared to learn when they are required to speak the subject matter content. Plus, students feel very empowered when they talk academically, as if they now realize that the not only know something, they understand it. If you are alive and actually teaching then you are probably very well aware of the usual strategies; concept mapping, Think Aloud, Talk to the Text, Compare and Contrast, Fact vs. Opinion, Timelines, and dozens of others. What it really should be considered is a "best practice" form of teaching, not simply something to help ELL students become subject matter competent. If you aren't using some of these in your classroom then you are probably missing out on some very good teaching. It should be used as a compliment, to embrace learning's reach to those students who don't read very well. Unfortunately, this routine has been drilled into me and has become mind-numbing. It is so repetitive that I could teach these conferences with a notepad and pencil, and make nice money doing so. After attending this conference last week, to quote 90's rap group Nice and Smooth , "Ain't a damn thing changed". In this case, in more ways than one.

While these practices should be used in all classrooms, with all demographics of kids, that was not what this conference was about. It was about teaching students who are English Language Learners, as stated on the mission statement, "SALT....helps teachers meet the needs of English Learners. SALT was developed specially for content area teachers who have English Learners in their core courses." I'll forgive the educational establishment, once again, for refusing to acknowledge that there are many students who can't read, most of which are not ELL. Our school has a population that is 25% Hispanic. Out of the 1/4 population, about 65% are classified as ELL students, and some of those are very English proficient. So, what we are dealing with is that I have been in hours and hours of instruction that is focused on only 15% of the school's population!!!

What is the big deal, you might ask.

Are you insensitive to that 15%, you might ask.

The answer is that the system is a failed system, and the system is being insensitive by not looking at the big picture.

For instance, we are still treating this issue of ELL students knowing content as a primary issue in education. The real issue should focus on teaching everyone, and I mean every race, English and how to read. Students that have no English ability should be put into intensive programs (as in 'rigorous', not sensitive) that emphasize English, and place them in classrooms to get acclimated to knowing and understanding English. But none of this is really going to work until the kids, all of them, are treated as equal scholars. The focus needs to be on creating a population of teachers that all use best practices for everyone, including those not in the 15% ELL category.

The second, and "3rd rail" problem in the ELL system is the idea that race is the primary reason that ELL students are not learning English. This came up, as it does all the time at Content Area Conferences, when teachers start addressing variables in kid's lives that they can't control. When conversations started drifting in that direction, I stated that the incoming culture needs to assimilate to their new culture and be less resistant (ie: no English at home, a month in Mexico) to accepting it. The reaction from most of the teachers, and one conference presenter, was akin to a hornet's net being hit by a baseball bat. Comments from these people? You betcha. And here they are, verbatim. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, these are educators.

You will never know anything about racism because you are white.

You will never know anything about prejudice because you have never been a woman.

You have been brainwashed by white society and are programmed to automatically be a racist.

The main reason that Mexicans are not learning English in this society is racism.

The police hate Mexicans and Blacks.


American culture is a white male culture.

Mexico is fine. You know nothing about Mexico because you have never been there.

The government is racist because there have never been any black presidents.

America refuses to accept any other cultures.

Corporate America refuses to accept any cultures.


No, these are not misprints and are word-for-word. However, it does get better.

For example, corporate America doesn't allow cultural hairstyles.

At this point, I giggled. Of course, that made things worse.

Corporate America will not allow employees to wear cornrows.

This teacher was dead serious, and it was taking an act of God for me not to bust out laughing.

That is a cultural hairstyle. Not allowing cornrows or afros is a form of institutional racism.

Ok, I had to laugh. Wouldn't you? For the record, I wouldn't allow a mullet at my company either.

unfortunately, the last comment a specific teacher made was not very funny, and the commanding reason that ELL programs are failing everywhere.

You are a racist and have been programmed by white America to act like a racist. When you are in your classroom, you automatically make assumptions about people of color and women. Don't say that you don't, because you do. You do it because you are a white man.

This is the problem. This is the divide that is present in our profession that leaves us looking like a social experiment in guilt reparations, and less like professional educators.

On one side is the teacher who sees every student as a potential success. This teacher demands hard work, responsibility, and grades students based on the quality of their work, their civic responsibility, and their characters.

On the other side is the teacher with a non-professional approach. This teacher sees the students as split (as they see society split), between the "haves" and the "have nots". This teacher is offended that some students have more, labels those students "privileged" and thus can be skimped in teaching. Those students who have less, or are minorities, are looked at as "victims". Because the student "victims" have had it harder, they deserve much more attention and less responsibility, since their lives are so difficult. This teacher assumes the "have nots'" victimhood is caused by white males, either from racism or the oppression of the poor. Therefore, white male teachers, especially if they own a home and a car, owe it to the "victims" to coddle them because "white male culture" is part of the problem.

Ok educators, which teacher are you? Which do you think is best for the kids? The country? The world? Do we prepare all the kids for success, instilling ethics of hard work, responsibility, accountability, character, and citizenship? Or do we prepare a generation of kids feels either guilty for being born better off, or feels degraded & coddled for being born under less-than-fortunate circumstances?

I listened to these comments, and although I became irritated at the half-dozen teachers in the throes of their tirade, I also became reaffirmed and more resolute in my reason and passion for teaching. I really care about kids, and I don't think that they are being prepared to make a positive contribution to society. That is why I teach. I don't teach with guilt hanging over my head. I don't teach with the idea that I owe the kids anything, or that the kids will ever owe me anything. I teach because I care about kids, and fortunately, my job is about caring for kids. If I do my job successfully, it benefits my students, my community, my country, and the world.

Open the dialogue and fix the ELL problem. We are losing students, good students, by keeping them divided, ignoring the cultural resistance, and not demanding scholarly standards.
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