“Use your pencil,” the teacher said, and almost everyone in her first-grade class obeyed.
Then she walked across the room and tapped on a cup of pencils.
“Pencil,” she said to the boy who was sitting motionless at his desk.
He did not reach out to take it, so she put it in his hand.
“Pencil,” she said again.
He held it loosely, staring at her without comprehension.
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There’s nothing wrong with him. He is simply one of the 320 students in the Schenectady school district who cannot yet understand English.
Some of them appear in the middle of the school year, old enough to be placed in higher grades where students are expected to read textbooks and learn from them.
It’s the teacher’s job to somehow catch them up, even if they must pantomime every lesson while still teaching the rest of the class.
Making matters worse, there are so many English as a Second Language students in the school district that in some of the elementary schools, classrooms rarely have just one child who can’t speak English.
There have been years when ESL students made up one-third of the class, said Lorena Hurst, a first-grade teacher at Paige Elementary School. She has four children in her classroom this year who speak little English.
The group of English-learners has been steadily growing in the district, at a rate of up to 2 percent per year. At this point, more than 15 percent of the 10,000 students in the district speak a language other than English.
“Schenectady seems to be becoming more of an immigrant-based city,” said Ron Hamelin, the district’s ESL coordinator. “But it’s slow. It’s not exploding.”
They come from all over, from Guyana in South America to Pakistan and China. There’s also a growing group of Puerto Ricans, who arrive at school speaking only Spanish.
For two decades, the district has sent almost all English-learners to three elementary schools: Paige, Van Corlaer and Pleasant Valley. There, experienced teachers are trained to teach students who can’t understand what they’re saying. The magnet schools and Zoller Elementary School also provide English-learner programs to a smaller number of students.
The three main elementary schools have developed into English-learner centers, where every class is taught with the assumption that someone will have difficulty understanding it.
Time and energy
“It’s a supportive culture throughout the school for rephrasing, using visual cues, hand gestures — vocabulary goes right over their heads,” Hamelin said. “It takes longer to get through to all the children. It just takes more time. It takes more work, more time, more energy.”
Amid children who are already reading, new English-learners stand out. Many have never seen a book — even in their native language.
“There’s no such thing as a child’s book in Pashto,” said Susan Cromer, who teaches special classes for English-learners at Paige. “They don’t exist. The only thing you can get is Pashto is the Koran. A lot of the Pakistani and Afghani kids get nothing.”
Two of the school’s first-graders this year arrived without any written language training at all, even in their native language. That put them at a preschool level — years behind the other students.
“If they know the connection between sounds and words, we don’t have to start at the very, very beginning,” Cromer said. “If the child has not made that leap between the sound, the letter and the word, it takes a long, long time.”
They rely heavily on pictures to follow stories and class lectures. They learn to guess what certain words mean based on body language, context and images. But sometimes their guesses are wildly inaccurate.
Cromer read aloud a book in which a weaver said she would need a long time to finish her work because her fingers were “stiff.”
Alina Asy, a third-grader, had no idea what the word meant.
She studied the picture of the elderly woman and eagerly announced, “It means your fingers are mushy and you can’t do stuff, because there’s no bones in there.”
Appearances are deceptive. Alina knows enough English to follow a conversation and answer questions with correct grammar. But kindergartners just entering school know hundreds of words that she still doesn’t understand in third grade.
That vocabulary constantly trips up the intermediate-level English-learners, who know just enough to fake understanding everything.
Cromer teaches English by going over the same story again and again, trying to make connections between new vocabulary and words the students already know.
It’s not easy.
Cromer spent five minutes trying to describe “fuzzy” to a group of first-graders.
Taha Khan listened carefully and asked, “It means soft?”
Cromer tried again, pointing to another boy’s hair.
“Don’s hair is kind of fuzzy. It’s not a bad thing. It’s soft and kind of curly and squishy,” she said.
The boy in question patted his head in confusion. Taha reached over and touched his hair. Neither of them got it.
But much later, when they again went over the story, Don cried out, “Fuzzy! Like my head!”
He had made a connection. But there are thousands of words to go.
Cromer works with each regular-class teacher at Paige, organizing her English classes so they focus on what the students are learning in their classroom. She has also taught the teachers to explain new words.
Eye on the prize
Fourth-grade teacher Kate Hamlin said the changes didn’t just help the English-learners. Comprehension rose among native English-speakers, too.
“It’s helped all my kids,” she said. “I’ve really emphasized vocabulary and making connections.”
Despite the extra work, she said she wants English-learners in her class.
“I love the diversity. I love what it does for the room,” Hamlin said. “We have four major religions in this room. It makes for very interesting discussions when you’re talking, for instance, about creation myths of the Iroquois.”
It’s not always easy, and tolerance ends up being a major lesson, she said. “But it’s the real world,” she said. “I want to be part of letting people know human beings are human beings.”
And that means not just letting them founder quietly in a corner of the room.
Third-grade teacher Maria Rodriguez became a teacher because she hated the way she was taught as a Spanish-speaking child in an English-speaking classroom.
“They just put you in a room and you have to fend for yourself,” she said of her experiences. “The teacher’s mouth is moving and I didn’t understand what she was saying.”
Because she remembers that vividly, she uses images, repeats words and explains unusual vocabulary to help her English-learners understand her.
It takes a long, long time. But after six years, almost every English-learner who entered the school district before sixth grade is fluent, Hamelin said. Those who don’t pass the fluency test after six years are generally special education students.
Those who enter at age 12 or older also usually don’t reach fluency before they graduate, Hamelin said.
But for most students, the district’s program works.
“It’s pretty incredible to see. It’s amazing to see them acquire language,” he said. “They soak it up like sponges.”