September 6, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 4
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Hub teacher breaking language barriers

Michelle Sedaca

EAST LONDON, South Africa — Speaking rapidly in Spanish, Glenda Colón emphasized the importance of a balanced diet.

“To be healthy, you should drink milk and eat lots of fruits and vegetables each day,” said the 26-year-old fourth-grade Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) teacher.

The class stared back blankly.

Colón repeated the sentence. This time, though, she enunciated her words in a slower cadence, pointing to a colorful image of fruits and vegetables.

“Does anyone understand what I just said?” she asked in English.

Several people nodded their heads and offered their interpretation. Although they didn’t fluently translate the piece, they got the gist.

Perhaps more important, Colón’s “students” — a group of about 25 South African teachers filling a classroom at A.W. Barnes Primary School, an under-resourced elementary school in East London, South Africa — got a taste for what it feels like to be students that don’t understand the language in which they are being taught.

The educators gathered at A.W. Barnes to learn basic strategies for teaching English learners that speak primarily isiXhosa and Afrikaans. Colón, who for the past three years has taught at the Orchard Garden Pilot School in Roxbury, led a two-hour workshop displaying techniques that have proven successful in her own classroom.

Colón traveled to South Africa this past summer for a two-week trip organized by South Africa Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that facilitates health and education partnerships between the U.S. and South Africa. Joined by 14 other U.S. educators, the group visited formerly officially segregated schools to learn about the country’s education system.

When Geoffrey Gamiet, principal of A.W. Barnes, expressed a need for a training session focused on English language learners, Colón happily volunteered.

Colón’s specialty, SEI, is an approach to teaching that looks to help English learners in developing their academic skills and increasing their language proficiency. SEI teachers use clear, simple English and a number of educational strategies to communicate with students, allowing them to adapt their instruction to students’ English ability without sacrificing the learning that English-speaking students at the same grade level receive.

According to A.W. Barnes fifth-grade teacher Michelle Rothmann, who attended Colón’s workshop, students’ grasp of the English language varies.

“It is difficult to work with those learners that cannot read or speak in English, while challenging the strong learners when you have 45 learners and they all need your attention,” Rothmann wrote in an e-mail.

Similar to the students at A.W. Barnes, Colón’s students at Orchard Garden do not speak English as their first language. As a non-native speaker herself, Colón empathizes with her students. She remembers her own struggles when she first moved to Boston from Puerto Rico at the age of 8.

“I wish we had SEI. The only person in the entire school that spoke Spanish was my sister,” Colón recalled. “I always try to go back and remember what it was like to learn the English language. I wanted the teachers to see what it was like to be English language learners again.”

Colón’s rapid-fire Spanish lesson reminded teachers of the struggle many of their students experience every day.

“The [activity] that left the biggest impact was when [Colón] spoke Spanish and asked us to tell her what she said. We tend to forget what it’s like not to understand what others are saying,” Rothmann wrote.

Currently enrolled in a master’s degree program at Lesley University that focuses on integrating the arts into curricula, Colón’s teaching techniques incorporate kinesthetic teaching — a style in which students learn by actually carrying out physical activities, rather than simply listening or watching — and visual activities.

Although an established curriculum exists in the Boston Public Schools system, Colón said there’s still some room for creativity.

“The arts are completely universal to every language,” Colón said. “Every ethnic and cultural group has music and dance.” Through drawing projects like creating a comic strip, she tries to both foster students’ artistic ability and facilitate their learning English.

Influenced by the radical Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire, Colón values dialogue as a crucial part of her approach.

“Freire believes that in order for there to be learning, there should be dialogue between students and teachers,” Colón said. “That’s exactly how I run my classroom.

“It’s probably the noisiest [classroom in the school],” she added, with a laugh.

During the training, Colón demonstrated her most effective techniques. First, she introduced a “Know, Want, Learn” (KWL) chart that encouraged the teachers to share strategies that have worked well for them. Then she discussed what they would like to gain from the workshop.

To help students along, Colón suggested labeling objects in the classroom; for example, putting the word “trash” on the classroom trash can. “Word walls,” which place the alphabet on the wall to spell out common words or words from a story the class is reading, represent another helpful method, according to Colón.

“If something is up on the wall for [students] to use as a tool, they don’t need to ask and they don’t need to look like the student who doesn’t know something,” she explained.

Another helpful tool is the creation of cooperative groups, in which students become leaders and assist peers who may need extra guidance. In the groups, students new to English are paired with students that are more familiar with the language.

“Kids know that they aren’t trying to dominate or exceed another student’s grade,” Colón said. “They are all working to help each other.”

The workshop culminated with an art project, in which the teachers transformed brown paper bags into cultural identity books. Modeling her own book, Colón displayed a page with a picture of her native Puerto Rico.

“In South Africa, there are a limited number of books about their culture,” she said. “Not only does the [student] have to worry about the language while reading, but also trying to make connections to what [he or she] is reading. With the cultural identity book, kids can create a story about their life or about their country.”

Glenda Colón teaches a group of about 25 South African teachers filling a classroom at A.W. Barnes Primary School, an elementary school in East London, South Africa. (Michelle Sedaca photo)

The educators gathered to learn basic strategies for teaching English learners that speak primarily isiXhosa and Afrikaans. Colón (right) values dialogue between students and teachers as a crucial part of her approach. (Michelle Sedaca photo)

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