Why English language instruction in Arizona needs to change

This post was originally published here.

Students in my school speak everything from English to Spanish to Vietnamese. There are those who converse in Mandarin and others in Arabic. Regardless of their background or first language, they’re all enthusiastic and eager to learn.

As a teacher of English language learners in a high poverty area, I see these youth struggle daily with a variety of issues most of us can’t understand. Many lack access to healthy food – or any food at all – outside of school. Some have parents who are incarcerated or live in fear of deportation. Many live in homes with scarce financial resources. In addition to these and other challenges, my students face an additional adversity in the classroom as a result of our state’s current English language learner (ELL) requirements.

ELL students are placed together in the same classroom for the full instructional day. And their teachers are mandated to provide a four-hour block of English language instruction. It’s a structure that is extremely limiting for educators, who must navigate scheduling the required English language instruction around other subjects, such as math, science and social studies. Not to mention the fact that it leaves little time to create well-rounded students who are also exposed to art and other specialties.

Getting our youth on the track to speak, read and write English is an essential focus, but the four-hour block isn’t always in the students’ best interest. For instance, in mainstream classrooms, a teacher would allow students time to read a passage or short book, after which the pupils would write about their reading. Practicing these skills together is an important part of the learning process. But because the current ELL guidelines stipulate that each aspect of language instruction must be taught in 60 minute increments, I teach reading in isolation from writing and other related work. When you add to that that our students’ days also include lunch, recess, and specials, many teachers like myself are forced to teach reading in the morning and writing in the afternoon, removing our ability to connect the related disciplines.

Beyond that, my students get 30 to 45 minutes of math instruction in a day, where a mainstream classroom receives closer to 90 minutes. The same goes for other ancillary subjects, so it’s no wonder that ELL youth graduate in far fewer numbers than their English proficient counterparts. It’s creating a sharp disadvantage for students who are already challenged in myriad ways.

Few of my students speak English in the home, which means that when they come to school, this is their only exposure to the language. With an average classroom size of 30 or more students, it is insufficient for one teacher to be the only proper model of the language. When I ask my youth to practice a particular skill with each other, I can’t be there to correct every single student every time. Nor do they have anyone to give them immediate feedback, which they might otherwise gain in conversing with a proficient peer.

I’m encouraged by the new law (House Bill 2435) being considered by the Arizona legislature, which will allow educators more flexibility to meet the unique needs of our students. How we deliver our education is so important to how students learn – and this change will remove the four-hour block requirement that has stymied many educators. Rather, it will allow districts to adopt research-based models and

reduce ELL learning time, as appropriate. It is also important to have teachers at the table to be part of the conversation and decision-making process to implement policies and programs that help all students succeed.

Every child should have access to a quality education, regardless of where they come from or what language they speak. If we can pair this ELL change with professional development for teachers, students will benefit and so will our communities. Teacher training programs are invaluable, but being in front of a classroom every day is an entirely different and challenging experience. Having the pedagogy to effectively impart learning is a critical component to success as an educator, but unfortunately it’s something that many teachers today lack.

I’m teaching today in the same school district where I grew up. I’m proud to be back where I can relate so well to my students as a native Spanish speaker and product of the schools. Becoming a teacher wasn’t in my plan, but I had great mentors along my way and I love preparing my students for life in the 21st century.

Anthony Pérez is a 2nd grade SEI teacher in the Cartwright School District in Phoenix. He is part of the Arizona Hope Street Group Fellowship, a group of teachers who are working to advocate for students and educators. Perez holds a master’s degree and has been awarded numerous teaching prizes, including the Rookie Teacher of the Year award, a Rodel Promising Teacher and the Superintendent’s Award of Excellence.

Note: This bill has passed out of the House and the Senate Education committee. It now moves to Rules and then Senate floor. Take action: contact your elected officials and tell them you support this bill:

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