Saturday, October 4, 2008

My Three Name Tags

I've now been teaching long enough at my school to have accumulated three name tags--all different in their job titles.

Although all are for teaching roles, one is for MATH, one COMPUTER SCIENCE, and one is for ELL (English Language Learners--formerly called ESL).

Each one of those name tags is special to me, and I still wear them all--not at once, though.

Teaching computer science is the most recent role of the three. Still, my background teaching math is clearly on display when I have students writing code. Recently we've been having fun with the classic number theory problem "Getting Down to One." Also, my programming classes have a large number of ELL students in them. My graduate research was specifically aimed at teaching ELL students to learn programming languages. During the research, though, I was able to calmly calculate and plan various tactics and strategies for supporting ELL students in my programming classes.

That was the plan. Now, the reality is a little different.

Even though I have filled quite a toolbox of ELL techniques through the years, I'm still amazed at how challenging it can be to shelter instruction properly for ELL students to have the same chance at success as mainstream students.

Case in point: Mayra (not her real name). Mayra's English level is clearly lower than her peers. She's at level 2 in our school, which means she's just starting to use conversational English at a basic level. Her academic English level, however, is much lower. Still, she has a great attitude and never complains.

Still, it ain't easy. Python is one of the easiest languages to learn, and yet syntax errors are so much more numerous for Mayra and my other ELL students. Then, Mayra had a little bad luck of sorts. Although she had virtually the same code as the students next to her (they were programming in pairs), Mayra's code wouldn't run. It was driving her nuts and I couldn't figure out the problem either, as all her code looked fine. Then, I realized that she must have named her program the same name as a built-in module in Python that she was importing in the code itself. This makes Python import the program itself, rather than the module she was trying to import. A simple change of name for the program fixed the problem, but it was unfortunate that it had to happen to Mayra, when syntactical errors are tough enough without a little bad luck thrown in.

Teaching ELL students at the high school level can be really tough. As much as you love the students, you realize that they are somewhat caught between worlds. Their literacy skills in both English and their native language (usually Spanish in our school) are often low. Their thinking skills may be advanced, but literacy problems often trip them up. They have so much to say, they just have a tougher time saying it.

So I guess in many ways I'm most proud of my ELL teacher name tag. I may not feel successful as often with my ELL students, but that's only because the challenge is so much more difficult. The successes we do share, we share in our hearts and our minds.

[This post's image is a GIMP original.]

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