Learning how to speak ‘American’

October 21, 2010

By Staff

ELL classes at Mount Si High School hope to ease the transition between students home cultures and lilfe in America, as well as help them learn a new language. Contributed

They are teenagers in mind, body and attitude. But they struggle with their teachers’ request as if they were just starting their schooling.

Sharp, aware and studious, they speak one, two, sometimes even three languages other than English.

Since classes are in English, they sometimes earn grades that differ from their actual ability, which makes it harder for them to graduate on time.

They dress American; they act American. They live in America, but sometimes they can’t speak American English well and that makes a big difference.

Karen Schotzko, a teacher in Mount Si High School’s program for English language learners, said these students’ struggles go beyond the classroom sometimes.

Students have to overcome cultural stigmas attached to an English language learners’ program, Schotzko said.

“Some cultures are very proud and they see having to attend programs like this as a sign of weakness,” she said. “For the most part, parents and children are very receptive to the services.”

Despite the fact that 26 languages are represented in the school district, only 19 students older than sixth-grade age are enrolled in an English language learner program, Schotzko said. One hundred and eleven students are enrolled in the program, less than 3 percent of the student population of the district.

Plus, they have to struggle with being an English language learner in a place like the Valley, where minorities don’t abound. Nine out of 10 people in the Valley are white according to the U.S. Census.

“I am sure that’s no easy thing,” Schotzko said. “I know things are going on and that makes me sad. But they can’t tell you. There’s a stigma of being a tattletale.”

Still, some children manage to thrive, no small thanks to the funneling of children to teachers who know strategies for dealing with English language learners.

That way, Schotzko said, the students exit class not with just a grade but with some knowledge.

One strategy is called SIOP, which stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol.

The Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., described the protocol as an aid for teachers to teach academic content and language skills at the same time.

Developed at California State University at Long Beach, the protocol offers students opportunities to interact and discuss, and teachers the chance to use activities that integrate all language skills.

Sometimes, this is easier said than done.

“A lot of them are very frustrated,” Schotzko said of the students. “Not frustrated with our program but with learning a new language.”

The older the child gets, the more the frustration increases, she said. As high school students, they are expected to perform at a much higher level, and when they can’t, frustration arises.

They can perform at that level, Schotzko said. Many students have the tools and in many cases, parental support.

“They can have a great deal of success,” she said. “Whether they are white, black, brown, green, yellow or pink.”

Sebastian Moraga: 392-6434, ext. 221, or smoraga@snovalleystar.com. Comment at www.snovalleystar.com.

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