Teachers at a loss for words

Communication fallout between teacher and student goes beyond the generation gap. Census figures confirm that in many suburban schools, the language barrier is the biggest hurdle.

For those who believe numbers are a universal language, math teacher Ryan Beidler has an eye-opening lesson.

Try getting across a new concept to a group of students in which at least four languages are represented.

Beidler, who has taught in Naperville’s Indian Prairie Unit District 204 for three years, sometimes finds himself literally at a loss for words when dealing with the multiplicity of languages teachers in the increasingly diverse suburbs are facing.

“Sometimes I can’t get the point across even when I show them. Sometimes you end up doing the problem for them.”

Welcome to education in the melting pot suburbs, where students from warring countries such as Croatia and Bosnia can be classmates and where teachers would benefit from degrees in linguistics and world history.

Beidler often counts on other teachers – those who specialize in English as Second Language – to help students comprehend math equations he can’t.

“It’s tough not being able to speak their language,” said Beidler, who has taught students from Vietnam, Mexico and Kosovo alongside American-born class-mates.

“I just don’t have the words. It’s as frustrating for us as it is for them.”

Cultural awareness

Teachers with ESL and bilingual education certification are equipped to handle the growing diversity of today’s classrooms, but the majority of educators, like Beidler, simply don’t have the training.

Those teachers face not only the language barriers but also cultural issues that arise in such a diverse atmosphere.

Of the state’s more than 124,000 full-time teachers, only 2,145 are bilingual-certified. Another 614 have enough classes behind them to teach English as a Second Language, meaning they teach classes comprised of immigrants from throughout the world. There are about 120,000 students in bilingual classes in Illinois’ public schools, out of a total of nearly 2 million students.

In some schools, such as North Elementary School in Des Plaines, more than 30 different languages are spoken.

In response to those trends, diversity and cultural awareness workshops are becoming a mainstay in some suburban schools. There also is a push to require more professional development, especially for teachers of students who are learning English as a second language.

The focus has increased within the last five or six years, educators say. And with new census figures showing a rise in minorities and young people in the country, equipping all teachers to handle the changes is more crucial than ever.

The population of people younger than 18 in Illinois grew by 10 percent since 1990 to 300,000. Some counties, such as McHenry and Will, saw growth as much as 47 percent and 42 percent, respectively, in the last decade.

That includes increases in minorities. The suburban census data mirrors the country, especially with the influx of Hispanic people. The Hispanic population in the Northwest suburbs, for instance, increased 120 percent from a decade ago. Today, Hispanic people comprise about 13 percent of the population. Throughout DuPage, Lake and Kane counties, communities also saw steady growth in the Asian, black and American Indian population.

Demographers say the growth will mean more emphasis on services, especially classes that teach English in schools.

“The decade of the ’90s had the greatest influx of immigrants into this country and the most diverse,” said Dave Turner, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.

Majority need training

Recognizing that language diversity is here to stay, more and more regular education teachers are seeking ESL certification. Unlike bilingual education – which is taught in both English and the student’s native language – ESL teachers learn to teach to students of various backgrounds. Earning an ESL endorsement requires 18 hours of education classes.

Classes in ESL instruction for teachers are booked across the state, said officials at the Illinois Resource Center in Des Plaines, which provides consulting services to schools about cultural issues.

Local school districts also are trying to help teachers cope with increased cultural diversity in the classroom.

For example, through cultural sensitivity training, teachers are learning that instead of vocalizing answers, some Indian children will shake their head in the shape of a figure-eight to indicate the answer yes, although that head movement more closely resembles a shake indicating no to Americans.

They learn that Hispanic parents are more likely to want to bring ex-tended family to a meeting intended just for the parents and teacher.

Teachers also have to be prepared, for example, to step in and explain to students who may be teasing a peer for wearing a turban why that is tradition for the Sikh religion. Or to re-emphasize to parents that school will be closed on certain days to observe holidays they don’t celebrate.

And they must learn to understand that some students may not have the same points of reference such as grocery stores because their family may buy from a specialty shop, rather than Jewel or Osco. Sometimes they have to team-teach with an instructor who can help translate.

Some teachers say they welcome the diversity, insisting it challenges them as educators.

“When you peel back the layers of a regular classroom, it’s complicated,” said Miriam Gifford, a kindergarten teacher at Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park. “But when you throw in language barriers, it becomes more interesting.”

Gifford’s class has 22 students who speak 12 different languages at home, ranging from Arabic and Chinese to Spanish, Polish and Bengali.

John Braglia, a geography teacher at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, said the ESL students sometimes help him teach their peers.

“Instead of teaching about these exotic places (such as Romania and Czechoslovakia) they have a face in the classroom,” he said. “Sometimes (the ESL students) will tell stories that help bring some validity into what I’m teaching to some suburban kids who were born and raised here.”

But the picture is not always rosy, said David Barker, principal at Maine East High School in Park Ridge.

“It’s one thing to think it’s great. It’s another thing to do it day in and day out,” said Barker, former ESL and bilingual education chairman for Maine Township High School District 207. “It’s exhausting and always a challenge. It’s never an easy route. It’s tough every day.”

That, along with finding teaching styles that students can relate to, are among the issues Barker says many teachers encounter.

In mainstream classes, where some students still have not mastered English, teachers often have to stop during class to define words or use visual aids during instruction. Those breaks in instruction also can hinder the pace of instruction for those who speak English.

“It’s frustrating when you’ve got kids from all over the world and you’re trying to keep them all going and all moving ahead,” Barker said. “There are very few teachers who come in ready to handle it. They are not used to even thinking in that mode.”

Teaching the teachers

As teachers learn to handle diversity, there is a move to better prepare college education majors for the reality of diverse classrooms.

Most education majors must take a multiculturalism class. At Wheaton College, students must complete 30 hours of tutoring a bilingual student at area schools.

“More and more mainstream teachers need to be aware of the issue,” said Robert Orem, a literacy professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

He said colleges across the country are trying to respond.

“Legislators, school districts and the general population are encouraging schools to produce more teachers who can work with these students,” Orem said. “If we don’t prepare these teachers, students are going to suffer.”

The Illinois Education Association agrees that teachers have to be ready for more diverse classrooms, insisting little is being done to prepare them.

“There are cultural awareness programs in many districts,” said George King, director of communication for the teachers union. “But there is no statewide program that trains or facilitates mainstream education teachers to easily enable ESL students to transition into mainstream classes.

“It’s not unlike the early days of special education in mainstreaming, not that you can compare.”

The job for teachers can be particularly tough when those children are expected to keep up with the educational standards of the district and the state, said Jim White, superintendent of Queen Bee Elementary District 16 in Glendale Heights.

That’s where the team-teaching approach that many schools have adopted comes in handy. Often an ESL teacher is paired with a regular education teacher to assist in a classroom.

That’s the way Snjezana Dalamon and Dorothy Bruzan teach U.S. History at Maine East. They say the concept works for them. Themselves immigrants of Croatia and Poland, respectively, they say they can relate to students’ struggles in the class they teach.

The class has eight students from Poland and three from Ukraine. The rest of the students hail from Serbia, Kazakhstan, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, Venezuela, Korea and Hong Kong.

“People need to get used to these changes,” Barker said. “The census data just coming out shows this is not letting up.”

– Daily Herald staff writer Aurora Aguilar contributed to this report.

GRAPHIC: English as a second language on the rise

Nowhere is the suburbs’ growing diversity more evident than in schools. Many, especially in the Northwest suburbs, have more than a dozen different native languages spoken by students. Here’s a sample:

Elk Grove High School, Elk Grove Village: Spanish, Polish and Gujarati, originating from India, are among 16 languages spoken by students. In the district, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, more than 40 languages are represented.

John Muir Elementary School, Schaumburg: 27 languages. In Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, a total of 70 different languages.

Queen Bee Elementary District 16, Glendale Heights: Students speak 23 different languages

Glenbard Township High School District 87, Glen Ellyn: Students speak 27 different languages. Among the most common are Spanish, Gujarati, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Patios, a variation of English.

Elgin U-46, Elgin: Students speak approximately 66 different languages. The most common include Spanish, Lao and Pilipino.

Source: Daily Herald interviews

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