Math for ELL – The patriotic thing to do

A couple weeks ago I was listening to a radio interview with Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of The Future of Power, when he recalled a conversation with a Singapore government official.  The Singapore official told Dr. Nye that the US economy will thrive in coming years when compared to the Chinese economy because China pulls from a domestic workforce of 1.3 billion people while the US is able to pull from a worldwide workforce of 7 billion people.

Though I had never heard the argument for a smart immigration policy raised in just this way, it made me consider my last blog entry in which I quoted an Intel executive saying that they will set up shop “where the smart people are.”  If education is a primary driver of economic growth and security through the preparation of future generations, then so is recruiting the best and brightest from other parts of this world.

What does that mean for us as educators?  Does it lessen our obligation because we can rely on the free agent market to supplement our own farm system?  Or, does it increase the obligation of our school system because the children of these “smart immigrants” will be in our classrooms, many of whom will be learning English as well as math, science, and social studies?  It is my contention that to succeed in luring over the needed engineers, scientists, and doctors from other countries requires an educational system that serves the ELL population well.  It is our schools that will entice folks with families to jobs in the US, and it is our schools that will provide the “stickiness” needed to keep them here.

What does a classroom look like that provides for its ELL population equally well as its native speakers?

Stephen Krashen said it best:

To acquire language, we need to understand what is said, not how it is said. The best language lessons are therefore interesting conversations, good books, films, and activities that are fun and engaging. A variety of situations in which we are absorbed in the meaning of what is said to us or what we read. Given messages we understand, or comprehensible input, language acquisition is nearly inevitable, our brains cannot help but acquire language (Krashen, 1988).

This means a math lesson must engage students in ways where meaning and understanding are accessible through mediums beyond language.  Figures, tables, graphs, data-collection, technology, context, and models are all needed to communicate the lesson’s objective in a manner that can supplant language to someone who has not yet grasped the expected vocabulary.  The access points that we allow students into the material must vary beyond spoken and written words.  It is through these other access points that our ELL students will put meaning to the vocabulary in front of them.

A great example of a lesson in which students are given context and a manipulable representations is available at Dan Meyer’s blog.  It is in classrooms such as this that we  see all students succeed, including those who are struggling to learn English as well as algebra.


About Jim Ryan

Jim Ryan no longer works with Key Curriculum Press. His posts and biography have been preserved for the archives. -- I began teaching math at Carlmont High School in the early 90s in the Academy program (read, high-risk students); after 5 years of teaching I moved next door to the San Mateo Union High School District to be an administrator. In 2002 I joined Apple to work on their PowerSchool software. And now, I’ve been with Key for over 6 years. During that time I’ve been the Textbook Product Manager, Professional Development Director, Director of Marketing and now Vice President of Marketing. Yet, when I am asked to evaluate an educational service or product, the first question I ask myself is: How would this help my Academy students learn math?
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2 Responses to Math for ELL – The patriotic thing to do

  1. avatar danny says:

    After the Krashen quote, I skipped the rest of the article (no fault to Krashen).

    Competition and market forces have repeatedly rectified poor policies and decisions made at various levels.

    I’m with Intel and Dr. Nye, If we let US-based, -owned businesses seek out their own employees (wherever they find them), then positive effects will trickle down (as long as we do not artificially attempt to re-engineer something we don’t understand). And we don’t understand learning enough (and never will) to say, “THIS is the solution for all of America’s students.” (But then I’m a pretty radical libertarian.)

  2. avatar Jim Ryan says:

    It is my opinion that one of the tragedies of the US school system is the scarcity of immersion schools where students are absorbed in a language other than English. Students who participate in these programs not only exit as bilingual, but also shown positive results on standardized exams given in English ( I look forward to a time where all students and parents have the choice of enrolling in dual immersion schools.

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