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Mastering English through project-based learning

New York Teacher

Students at Flushing International HS get some pointers during a math lesson with teacher Maria Eloisa Villanueva.

Flushing International HS teacher Jordan Wolf (right) embeds English vocabulary in a lesson on plant structure for students while Chapter Leader Schweta Ratra looks on.

How many Americans say they took umpteen years of Spanish or French and cannot speak a word of it?

Teachers in New York City’s International High Schools, a dozen schools serving English language learners, would tell you that’s because for most Americans, their education did not hinge on mastering that second language. But non-English speakers entering city high schools don’t have a choice. They must rapidly acquire English to keep up with their subjects.

The way to do that, the teachers say, is for students to talk.

In a class of 25 students, in a 50-minute period, each student would speak for two minutes at most if the teacher never opened his or her mouth, notes Claire Sylvan, the executive director of the Internationals Network that oversees the schools. Over seven periods, that would add up to 14 minutes of talking a day.

“We don’t think that’s going to cut it,” Sylvan said. “All of our teachers learn how to create collaborative projects so the kids are doing most of the talking most of the time.”

 

Studying hydroponics

On a recent morning, the approach was in evidence in a science classroom at Flushing International HS, a school where students speak Spanish, Mandarin, Bengali, Uzbek, Nepali, Tagalog and Korean. At one of the five tables of five were three Spanish-speaking students and a pair of Mandarin speakers, all with different levels of English proficiency. The only language that the five students had in common was English.

The seating arrangements were deliberate. The school groups students so that a table has only English in common, while two or three students share a native language. The class was studying plant hydroponics, and each student had a spindly green bean shoot in a small cup of soil.

Teacher Jordan Wolf introduced the word “structure,” having students define it in Spanish, Mandarin and English. Then, the students set about learning plant structure. They helped each other label drawings with leaves, stems, nodes and soil, all in English. Several pulled their plants out of the dirt to measure the roots.

They were often tongue-tied when Wolf called on them to address the whole class, but the room buzzed with conversation as the students worked in their small groups. Later in the year, said fellow science teacher and chapter leader Schweta Ratra, the students will be far more talkative in a large group as their English skills grow.

“We used to teach vocabulary separately, but now we embed it,” said Ratra, who has taught at the school for eight years. “We have evolved as teachers.”

Down the hall, math teacher Maria Eloisa Villanueva was presiding over more tables of five with deliberately mixed languages. The students were creating a farming business upstate, and the day’s lesson was using quadratic functions to design animal pens. Heterogeneous grouping is a core principle of the International High Schools, which mix students by language, grade and proficiency. Students who have already learned quadratic equations in their home country, Villanueva explained, apply the math to real-world problems, learn the English words and teach others.

Math and science teachers together developed the hydroponics and the farm curricula, in part to lighten the vocabulary load across disciplines. Groups of about 75 students stay together for two years in instructional teams, while their teachers are organized in interdisciplinary teams and small advisory groups.

 

Language as a means to learn

Language is not a separate class. It isn’t an end but a means to learn at these schools. Students speak with each other in English, or if need be in their native language, to do their work. Teachers instruct in English if that is the only common language in the classroom, but if they are fluent in another language, they might speak it to help communicate a tough concept or speak one-on-one to a student.

The model is neither immersion nor bilingual nor ESL exactly, said Flushing Assistant Principal Kevin Hesseltine. It’s language acquisition driven by project-based learning.

“The war about bilingual education versus ESL doesn’t include pedagogy when you get down to it,” said Sylvan, who was chapter leader at International HS at LaGuardia Community College, where the model was created. “Pedagogically, our model is not teacher lecture; it is project-based. And we strongly support bilingualism and biculturalism.”

To make it work, teacher interdisciplinary teams meet two to three times a week, and departments meet once a week. The school uses professional development time, Circular 6 and per-session time to ensure that staff can collaborate.

The outcomes confirm their efforts. The average four-year graduation rate for the International High Schools, about 60 percent, is close to the citywide rate and far above the 38 percent rate for all ELL students. The six-year graduation rate is close to 80 percent. Attendance is high and dropout rates are very low.

“Their instructional team is everything,” said Hesseltine. “That’s what keeps these kids in school.”