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At the ESL Academy.

Olmec Reflections 10-9-05

By October Vanegas Rios
Posted from Decatur, Arkansas

I signed up for the ESL (English as a Second Language) Academy as a type of professional development. Yes, I was curious, but I was also skeptical. I did not know anyone personally who had already attended and could tell me what to expect, but I hoped that at the very least it would be interesting and would not require too much homework.

Teaching English Language Learners
To Master Grade-Level Content.

My academy met in the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Springdale, Arkansas, in June of 2005. (Five other academies met in different places throughout the state.) My first impression was definitely positive when I arrived on a warm Thursday morning. I arrived early and was able to choose a seat at any of the nine tables. Everyone had to sign in and take a name tag. Books at each table listed the agenda and included notes from the speakers who would be presenting during the next 12 days.

I will not go into more detail about the arrangements of the Academy because I know that each is unique. I want to focus instead on the purpose, the process, and the project.

The purpose of the ESL Academy, in my own words, is to teach educators about the importance of communicating with English Language Learners in order for them to master grade-level content, concepts, and language.

In Search of Proper Methodology.

Every state in the USA has chosen its own methods about how to handle the education of students who do not speak English. Arkansas has opted against bilingual education and against full immersion schools that would educate students in languages other than English. Arkansas' decision leaves every teacher with the challenge of communicating content knowledge in K-12 to students who are not fluent in English, who may speak English but do not read or write the language, or who do not even speak English at all.

Teachers are at a loss as to how to go about that task. The Academy provides advice and practical solutions for teachers to consider and then adapt to their own classroom setting.

Four Themes: Language Acquisition, Methodology, Assessment, Culture.

The ESL Academy provides teachers with essential information about how to implement successful English language instruction through grade-level content. The program is organized into four thematic domains: methodology, language acquisition, assessment, and culture. Teachers attending the Academy earn 12 hours of college course credit (3 hours for each domain).

During the 12 intensive days of academy instruction, the four themes are not taught separately, but rather are integrated into the total program. Speakers from throughout the United States and some foreign countries impart their experiences and classroom practices in a fascinating series of lessons.

Those lessons and my reflections are now stored in a thick binder of notes, handouts, and articles. To restate all that I learned is well beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to mention one of the most memorable presentations, that of Lynda Franco.

Practical Ideas for Communicating
Content and Assessing Mastery.

Linda's experience in teaching in Spain as well as the USA is well suited to ESL teaching goals and practices. She offered practical ideas for communicating content to students and assessing student mastery of that content -- even if the students are zero-level English speakers who have just arrived to the US and do not speak or understand the language at all.

Linda also spoke about the process of acquiring a first language as well as the enriching experience of acquiring a second or third language. Her intimately personal presentation was very insightful, offering techniques that a teacher can apply in any classroom K-12.

The lack of success in teaching Spanish, French, German, or any other foreign language to our students is equivalent to our lack of success in teaching English language learners, Linda observed. A language is a language is a language. The same principles she applies to the ESL classrooms are also excellent tools for teaching Spanish, French, German, and other languages.

Finding Inspiration and Focus
In a Fast-Paced Environment.

Naturally, different speakers inspired varied reactions from my fellow ESL Academy classmates, but each of us found our champions. The fast-paced schedule served to break any real sense of monotony — and, thank goodness, there was not a heavy load of homework. It was enough just to stay focused in the fast paced environment.

In my class alone, there were 73 participants from the Northwest Arkansas region. Teachers from just about every discipline attended, including pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Also present were special education professionals, speech therapists, and even a band instructor. I only wish there had been a school administrator or board member involved as well. In order to keep the group "mixing," seating was changed every two-to-three days by way of a numbering system.

Occasionally speakers would "put us in the shoes" of our language learners. We were challenged to understand a math lesson in Spanish, or to read and answer questions on a short selection in Vietnamese. The only thing I am truly sure we all understood about that assignment is that we were given five minutes to answer the seven questions. What a truly clear picture of the desperation many of our ESL students feel in the English-language classroom!

The Project.

I mentioned we didn't have much homework. The lack of it certainly didn't diminish the effectiveness of the teaching because each of us has to deal with "the project." This one assignment is a long term task that for most participants needs to be submitted by December. Our group is an exception to that in that we do not have to submit our completed project until April 2, 2006.

Each of us was aware that completion of the ESL Academy would earn us an ESL endorsement. That endorsement is awarded on the basis of perfect attendance during the 12-day academy and successful completion of the project. As it turns out, the project was not clearly defined by a long list of requirements. Instead, it could be almost anything related to ESL.

The key to creating a successful project is thorough, literate documentation of one's personal application of the theories and practices introduced by Academy instructors and guest speakers, especially in reference to the four thematic domains of methodology, assessment, language acquisition, and culture. The final product has to be in printed form as opposed to a video recording.

To Think and to Adapt.

The project is a wonderfully versatile concept. I think it is a particularly appropriate requirement for academy participants because it demands thought and adaptation of ESL principles to each educator's content area. I'm certain that many of the principles I learn and express through my project will also help me as I teach content to my students. I am now aware of the struggles they face in a variety of unique circumstances.

This short article gives only a glimpse of the ESL Academy program. I hope it leaves you with an idea of the value of participating in the Academy. For more information, I urge you to contact André Guerrero in the Arkansas state department of education (501-682-5014 / ). Normally, applications are filed and processed in March.

The End

October Vanegas Rios

E D I T O R ' S   N O T E :   Guest writer October Vanegas Rios teaches at Decatur High School in northwest Arkansas. She writes:

"I am a teacher in Northwest Arkansas. I never imagined I would be, but I'm now well into my second year of teaching Spanish to high-schoolers and English to minority language students in grades seven through twelve. My background in language began in junior high when I started taking Spanish. I continued to pursue various degrees of study in French, including one year in an all-French school in Quebec and two trips to Cote d'Ivoire. I'm also a student of German, Swahili, Hmong, Hebrew, and Japanese.

"My original goal focused on Bible translation, which led me to a degree in Applied Linguistics through Moody Bible Institute. As is often the case, I was sidetracked — and here I am today, teaching in a small Arkansas town.'

Thanks, October! You're the first guest writer for Planet Gnosis. We eagerly await the next contribution from the Planet Gnosis cyber community.

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