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New Teacher Diaries

Don’t tell me my ELL students can’t achieve

New York Teacher

Do not tell me my kids cannot do math — and don’t let me tell myself that, either.

I am a first-year math teacher and a New York City Teaching Fellow at a new-arrivals high school where almost every student is classified as an English language learner with less than four years in the United States. Every lesson requires what feels like an endless amount of planning, scaffolding, differentiating and even differentiation of the scaffolding!

The difficulty of my job — and of the job of all teachers — is enormous. Thousands of our students come to us with interrupted formal education, deficits in everything from language to basic academic skills, a range of socioeconomic and family issues, and the distractions of contemporary life.

I will be the first to admit that the challenge of providing these students with a good lesson can sometimes be too much and I find myself paralyzed, hovering over an unfinished lesson plan, my desk littered with empty energy drink bottles, unable to push forward and thinking of just calling it quits.

Then I remind myself: I’m working too hard, and my students are working too hard, for me to give up.

I have been told that I work too much for my students; that, with their backgrounds, my students are lucky enough to just pass the algebra Regents exam before aging out of the public school system, and any advanced math class is just a time-filler.

In the five months or so that I’ve been teaching in the South Bronx, however, my students have both surprised and inspired me with what they’re capable of. It is absolutely true that when my lessons are weak, so is their math performance. But when my lesson is strong, so, it turns out, are my students.

For me to hold my students accountable, I have found I need to do two things. First, I need to hold myself accountable. Lesson planning cannot be rushed. Anchor charts and reference sheets need to be made and distributed. I cannot be lazy with my language supports or rush my worksheets. Making a spelling error or, even worse, a math error on a guided notes sheet opens up a bevy of misconceptions with ELLs who may or may not understand that it is just a typo.

Second, I need to make my class rigorous. I cannot expect my students to do great math if I do not give them great math to do! Sometimes I hear my fellow teachers saying in the break room, “The curriculum calls for this specific task that I know for a fact these kids could never do.”

I may be just a first-year teacher, but I cannot believe that. If my students need to be able to dissect a complex math essay to answer the six-point question on the geometry Regents, then I am going to find a way to get them there!

The first week of the second semester, I assigned my geometry students that exact six-point Regents question from a recent exam. They failed to make headway, and I spent much of the day lamenting that they had struggled so much. I felt like an awful teacher. I even found myself whispering in the break room that maybe it was just too difficult for my students.

The next day, two of my students who have very little English proficiency came up to me before class and handed me that six-point problem complete with the correct answer.

They had gone home, used the reference sheets I had made with them to pull apart the problem and had then struggled with — and overcome — the difficulty of the math. On their own initiative, these two students had solved the problem. Any scorer would have awarded them all six points.

Don’t tell me my kids can’t do math — and don’t let me tell myself that, either.