Archive for April, 2016

 

This is a collection of essays that I read for work. Training the regular teachers in how to teach international students is part of my job now, so this book was a good professional development opportunity. It was also a good challenge, because education isn’t my discipline. Nearly all of my training is in literature; then I became a writing instructor, and after six years of that I took a four-week intensive course in teaching English to speakers of other languages. In such a short class, there isn’t much time for research, so even though I’ve been working in education for more than ten years, I still don’t feel like it’s my home. Doing this research is good for me.

As with any collection of writings from multiple authors, the quality is a little uneven. Some of their conclusions don’t make any sense to me at all, and some of them seem to have taken a lot of time and trouble to say very little. As I’ve said, I’m researching outside of my discipline, so it’s logical that I wouldn’t understand the logic. But on the whole, this book is worth reading. It’s been very helpful.

The clearest message that this book sends is that most American teachers feel unprepared to teach international students. We’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of students from other places, even in traditionally homogenous areas like the rural Midwest (all the field work for the book was conducted in Indiana). English language learners are taking over the American education system, but still, almost all the teachers are middle-class white people. We’re most effective with students who are similar to ourselves, so we have to find a way to bridge the gap between cultures, races, and social classes in order to teach effectively.

The best way to do that is, of course, to get involved. I thought the chapter on service learning was especially good: it explains how to help teachers get over their stereotypes and have positive experiences with students they don’t feel comfortable with. The most important factor in student success is their teachers’ belief in their own self-efficacy. A teacher with low confidence is going to have problems teaching because the mental voices say that he’s not any good at it; then, when students perform poorly on tests, he’s going to blame everything but himself and reinforce his low self-confidence. How do we increase confidence? Enacted mastery experiences, which allow him to see that he can succeed; vicarious experiences, where he analyzes the successes of others; social persuasion, when the rest of us encourage him; and attention to his physiological and affective state, because we bring our emotions from home into everything we do. Put your teacher in a good mood, and you’ll get good grades.

I also thought the chapters on approaching standardized math tests and using technology in the classroom were quite well done; their approach is extremely practical, so the advice they give is easy to implement.

In some ways, the thrust of this book is a little quixotic. Their conclusions often point out that teacher training programs need to change, but universities don’t use a standardized curriculum. Yes, we can hope that eventually an English language learner course will become standard in teacher education, but I don’t think that change is going to happen fast enough to meet the needs of students. My experience has been that teachers (including me) tend to blunder on, doing the same thing we’ve always done, no matter what alternatives are presented to us. And changing the universities doesn’t do anything for the teachers who are already working; if we’re expected to do this for twenty or thirty years, it’s going to take a long time to get rid of all the teachers who don’t know what to do with internationals. So we all need to take some refresher courses and make courses in teaching these kids required for everyone, no matter how much tenure they have, because the students can’t wait.

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