A Soft Landing

The BHS Mission is to challenge all students to achieve at their highest levels. We build on the diverse cultures, experiences and interests of our students and community to support learning and foster intellectual growth. We partner with parents and the community at large to help our students develop the skills to become independent, self-directed, and life-long learners who contribute responsibly to our world.

We are Suzy King and Beth Evans, two teachers in the English Language Learning department at Burlington High School. This year, we are working toward creating and simultaneously teaching a new course in our department to meet the needs of students who are relatively new to the U.S. educational system. We refer to them as the “deer in headlights” students: the ones who struggle to follow directions in classes, simply because they don’t understand what is going on around them.

We want to make life better.

Here’s what it says in our brochure:

Excell (Excellence for English Language Learners) is a language development program for high-school aged students. The idea is to provide a “soft landing” orientation course for students to show what they know (allowing for more accurate initial class placement) and for ELL teachers to help prepare students to enter the U.S. educational system, which may be vastly different from their own.

Excell will give students a safe place to become acclimated. If there has been interrupted formal education, teachers will be better equipped to provide foundational instruction to support success. Teachers will work on survival skills, interspersed with skills and language needed in U.S. classrooms.

An essential part of the curriculum will be field trips to introduce students to their own neighborhoods. Content will emphasize involvement in the community and in school.

ExcELL is a gamified course. It has 11 badges (read this as “units”) that students must master. Once they’ve done that, we move them into the regular ELL curriculum.

This class is an experiment to see how we can help these students move forward quickly and efficiently, and to try to fill holes that students may come with. There is no place in high school that teachers alphabet, numbers, money and weather. Mainstream teachers expect students to have this language, but if no one has explicitly taught it, they may not know.

So how’s it going?

We see students who normally would progress faster becoming leaders in the classroom. And we push them out into other classes so less-fluent students do not end up relying on them for translation.

But we’re not sure that students understand that once they get it, they will get out.

We’re not quite sure that students know why they are with us. And despite using liaisons who speak students’ native languages, the best comprehensible input in English that we can muster, and talking to parents during home visits, we’re not quite sure that students are getting the message.

We want to build the fire. We want them to want to leave our course.

We know they are having fun, and we know they are learning. But do they really get it?

This is something that Suzy recognized was a problem last year when she tried proficiency-based learning in science classes. How do teachers tell them what we want them to do? How do we let them know what “meeting proficiency” means?

We could make an example and they can copy it, or we could send them back after seeing products that aren’t up to snuff, but how do we get them to that last piece: “help our students develop the skills to become independent, self-directed, and life-long learners.” 

We have seen that students who grew up educated in systems similar to our Western educational system are self-directed, independent learners. But conveying this to students who have severely interrupted schooling or to students who learn primarily by rote processes is a different story.

So that’s our struggle.

Any ideas would be warmly welcomed.

One innovative element we have implemented in our course is the use of the Flynn Teaching Artist program. The artist working with us is Lida Winfield, a dancer and storyteller. She is helping us to use movement, dance and repetition to foster learning. And it’s cool. It’s fun. And students laugh. We will be building a website to talk about our progress.

We’re so excited about bringing this to the high school. Elementary schools have been the target of their program till now. Look here to get a glimpse of what we do with Lida. 

Thanks for taking a look! And please be in touch with Amy Dickson if you have ideas, feedback or just want to say hello.

3 Responses to “A Soft Landing”

  1. Karen Freudenberger

    If you can think of a way to build Pine Island Farm into your program, we’d love to partner with you. I’m thinking, for example, about the possibility of building a basic math curriculum around farm tasks. Another way of tying academic skills to community. You gals rock!


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