By: Adrienne Nolt
The Elizabethtown Area High School’s ESL (English as a Second Language) program is, as defined by the district, comprised of students who “a) have acquired a language other than English as their first language; b) come from a home where a language other than English is spoken and/or c) speak with family and peers in a language other than English.” Many Elizabethtown students are entirely unaware of the variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences of the English Learners (ELs). While there are physical, cultural, and language barriers, ignoring an important part of the student body, for any reason, is a missed opportunity. Mrs. Christina Oscsodal, the high school ESL teacher, believes the ELs in her program have valuable lessons to teach their peers, and the classroom and educational methods (called “scaffolds”) used in this program could benefit other students as well.
Classes for English Learners need to provide rigor and maintain the content of the curriculum, while creating methods to help them learn in a language at which they are not proficient. Oscsodal says the challenge arises in the fact that “a lot of them understand, their receptive language skills are really good, but their productive skills lag behind. Their thought process is excellent,” but they don’t know how to express that, and thus need to be given tools to help them communicate in other ways.
An important way to address these issues is through a classroom environment of peer encouragement, non-judgement, shared teacher-peer responsibilities, and mixed language use. This type of learning environment helps to undo the effects of the “affective filter, [which] says that when you feel nervous and uptight, you actually can’t learn or engage in the way that you have to risk in language. So building relationships is a way of bringing down the guard and letting them know it's safe to take risks,” says Oscsodal. Improving the environment alone does not fix the difficulties of providing attainable challenges, but it allows students to put more effort into their work without getting frustrated. First language translations for newcomers (students who moved to the US recently), video learning, and other adaptations can also make education more fairly accessible. The success of this more open class structure suggests that the removal of competition and judgement from the classroom helps provide a better education for any student.
Much can be learned from the life experiences of English Learners. In our high school, students come from places as far away as Japan and the Congo. Some are refugees who can give a firsthand account of war, an experience “quite different than just reading it from a textbook,” says Oscsodal. Not only do EL students offer broader perspectives to our community, they also have lessons to teach their peers. Oscsodal says that “a lot of students could learn from the amount of perseverance and hard work it takes just for [ELs] to succeed in a way that other students may take for granted.” It takes 5-7 years to learn a language at an academic level, but the need to learn English is immediate for high school newcomers, and it is difficult to condense these 5 years of education. Additionally, Oscsodal points out that “other students could learn from the amount of risks these students take. [For them], just raising their hand in class and giving an answer can be an incredible risk.” When newcomer students first raise their hand and try to participate in English during ESL classes, their classmates clap to show them that they understand the effort. At the end of class, they even thank their teacher, not only as a sign of respect, but as a recognition of the sincere gratitude they have for their teachers and the opportunities they are being given. When asked what her favorite part of her job is, Oscsodal said, without any hesitation, “The students.”
The goal of any school is to keep students engaged in their work, allowing them to appreciate the privileges and opportunities they have been given while providing tools to help them build proficiency in academic skills. In many ways, the ESL classroom embodies this. It allows for the individual success of its students, and also provides crucial opportunities for our school as a whole. Daniel Tema, a freshman who moved here from Zimbabwe in 2016, says, “It’s just amazing. I just love America. I do miss my country, but I’m having fun here.” Much of his excitement can be accredited to the success of the ESL program here at the Elizabethtown Area High School.