Monday, May 11, 2009


One of the most beneficial things I've learned this semester was to look at urban education in a different light. I still believe that many inner-city schools have serious problems like violence, under-funding and high dropout rates. The politics and bureaucracy involved in urban schools, and in public education as a whole, are certainly major drawbacks. But I've also come to realize that a lot of good can come out of seemingly adverse environments. A certain school district might be in shambles, but it doesn't mean the kids are a reflection of it. I've seen that making a positive impact on children is an attainable goal.

While conducting research for my community inquiry project, I was forced out of my comfort zone and into an inner city school. I consider myself fortunate to have visited a school where the teachers are caring and the sense of community is strong. For me, experiencing this has opened doors in my professional life. I know that when I become a teacher, working in a suburban school is not the only option for me. Sure, working in a struggling urban school system is sure to be a daunting endeavor. But urban schools now have less of an ominous aspect as I've gotten to know the people who study and teach there.

Teaching is going to involve a lot of trial and error, regardless of where I teach. But for me, I've come to find that urban schools should not be defined by their circumstances, but by their students and teachers. And that gives it all a more humanizing spin.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Community Inquiry Project Abstract and Findings


The English-Spanish Language Barrier and its Implications for Classroom Learning

With the steadily growing Spanish-speaking population in the United States, the nation’s public schools are now adapting to great numbers of students who do not speak English as their first language and are classified as Limited English Proficiency (LEP) learners. My goal of this project was to understand the dynamic between students and teachers in the case where the English-Spanish language barrier is present. Research took me to Memorial High School in West New York, NJ, where almost 85% of the student population speaks Spanish and another 17.8% is classified as LEP learners. I attempted to find the implications this language barrier has on classroom learning and the stress it places on the teachers. Personal interviews with one student, two English as a Second Language teachers and one English teacher at Memorial High School revealed that the ability to speak Spanish and relate to students facilitates the learning process. Ultimately, being able to realize that students come from diverse – and sometimes difficult – backgrounds is crucial when teaching to a student population where many have a limited English proficiency.

What I've Learned:

My visit to Memorial High School, overall, was a positive experience. While certainly louder and livelier than many suburban school’s I’ve visited, Memorial High lacks the scary, institutional feel that most are accustomed to seeing in the media’s portrayal of urban schools.

The teachers that I spoke to were optimistic about their students and positive when they spoke about their professional teaching experiences. Garcia and Del Rio, as immigrants to the United States, understand on a deeply personal level the difficulties that their students face in school and in the real world. While they keep a positive outlook regarding their teaching jobs, they do admit to the limitations of teaching so many students with English language difficulties and the implications for the school.

Memorial High School is ranked 282 out of all 316 New Jersey public schools and is far from acclaimed. (New Jersey Monthly, 2008) The reality is that while many of these English language learners are hard-working and dedicated, an equal amount of them are not. As mentioned before, many of them fall back on the fact that in a Latino community like West New York, they simply don’t need to speak English. At the same time, yet another group of students lack the basic schooling skills needed to succeed in public institutions. These students, who are not exempt from taking nationally mandated standardized tests, contribute to the low test scores and, ultimately, the low ranking of the school.

In Language Barrier as an educational problem of Spanish-speaking Children, William R. Holland (1960) makes the judgment that many Spanish-speaking students are “handicapped in later life” because of public school learning experiences and teaching practices. (pg. 42) Whether this is particularly true in the case of West New York, it’s clear that students – whether Spanish-speaking or other – are essentially the product of their home environment and culture. Socio-economic status, language spoken at home and attitude toward learning in general all play a major role in forming a student. In suggesting solutions to language barrier issues, Holland identifies “the utilization of cultural information [as] indispensible for understanding the educational problems of Spanish-speaking children.” (pg. 42) The learning experience for native Spanish-speaking students is different from their English-language counterparts in both methods of teaching and expectations. (Holland, 1960, pg.42)

I interviewed Mrs. DeKranis, the English teacher, in the shop room of the school’s basement. While there, I commented to another nearby teacher that the room was very interesting and that my former high school had nothing of the sort. The teacher, whose name I did not catch, shrugged her shoulders and said to me, “well, they’ve got to have a trade.” In saying this, she implied that many Memorial students would need a specialized trade if they could not fall back on their academic skills.

When I asked Mrs. DeKranis about her students’ aspirations for after high school she remarked, “When you ask them who’s going to college, they all raise their hands. And I want to be Miss America. Just because you want to, doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen.”

We also spoke about the importance of the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) tests to the majority of Memorial High students. Esther Rodriguez, the eleventh grade student I spoke to, detailed to me her dedicated study habits in order to pass the exam. DeKranis told me that many of the students shared Rodriguez’s fixation. She said that the HSPAs were to Memorial High what the Scholastic Aptitude Tests would be to other schools. She told me her daughter, who attends a suburban high school in her town of Paramus, never once expressed a preoccupation for the HSPA exam. In fact, her obsession was obtaining adequate scores for the SATs and getting in to a good college.

Although many graduates of Memorial High do go on to study at good colleges around the country, this preoccupation with the HSPA shows a lessened concern for higher education and more of a motivation to just graduate high school.

While the teachers I interviewed acknowledged a real preoccupation for the academic welfare of their students, not one that I talked to would change their jobs for the world. Their seemingly limitless positivity comes not only from a love for what they do, but also a loving compassion for their students. What seems necessary for a teacher in this type of urban environment is an understanding nature, an ability to relate to students and, most of all, a love for one’s job.

For me, Memorial High School has shed a new light on urban schools. Yes, there are serious, stereotypically ‘urban’ obstacles when teaching to students who have diverse socioeconomic statuses, backgrounds and overall motivation to learn. But then again, in what schooling situation will these issues not be a factor? I’ve found that it’s crucial to make a concerted effort to understand where students are coming from. This is inevitably what will dictate student behavior. Understanding, in combination with patience, persistence, and trial and error will serve to help the most when teaching students with English language difficulties. It’s something that teachers at Memorial High certainly can appreciate.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Summary of Project Findings

The community in question for my project has been West New York, NJ. I was led by the following:

How does the English-Spanish language barrier affect student-teacher relationships, particularly with Spanish-speaking students who do not speak English as their first language? What are the implications for classroom learning?

As I've surveyed the city and the high school, many findings of interest have come about. First off, West New York is a vibrant, urban environment with an unequivocal hispanic flare. That's no shock; its population is about 80% hispanic. In walking just one block through the city, this fact becomes unmistakably apparent. Signs, restaurants and billboards all boast writing in Spanish (and sometimes leave out English altogether). I found it interesting that posted on one store window was a notice with versions in English and Spanish. The Spanish one was placed above the one written in English, signifying a greater need for customers to read the sign in Spanish. Examples of this were abundant throughout the city.

It's clear that Spanish is immensely important to the population of West New York. It's only natural that I found the school environment to be a reflection of the community. As I toured the building of Memorial High School, I heard just as much Spanish spoken as English. The students, the staff and the teachers all seemed to have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish, if they were not completely fluent.

While I interviewed Mariluz Garcia and Nila del Rio, both English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, they effortlessly switched from speaking to me in English at one moment and speaking in Spanish to students and parents in another.

As both teachers came to the United States as immigrants from Cuba, they have an understanding of what some of the Memorial High students go through. Mariluz Garcia told me that many of her students come from poor Central American countries. Added to the fact that they have the pressures of school to think about, some have gone through hell to come to the U.S. Garcia told me that it's important to understand that many of her students have struggled through experiences many Americans couldn't even dream of. It's incredibly important to keep things like these in mind when teaching to these particular students.

So, what inherent qualities does a teacher need to possess in order to teach these types of students effectively? Kathy DeKranis, the English teacher I interviewed, said she doesn't know how to speak Spanish. But that doesn't stop her from trying her best when teaching her classes. While she sometimes has to threaten her students with extra work if they don't stop speaking in Spanish during class, she knows that these students can't help being who they are. Although DeKranis faces many difficulties with the language barrier in the classroom, she still loves her job and comes to accept the good with the bad.

In the case of urban communities similar to West New York, I'm learning that its a definite advantage if one knows how to speak Spanish. But this is not the end-all to becoming a successful teacher to students with limited English abilities. Above all, the ability to relate to your students is the most important factor.

Each teacher I spoke to knew where there students were coming from. The difficulties that stem from the language barrier - like poor standardized test scores and low school rankings - can definitely be discouraging to any teacher in this environment. However, my interviewees preached patience and, above all, a real understanding of one's students to facilitate classroom learning.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Online Class Assignment 4/13

1. Review the families in Unequal Childhoods, and see if you can create a chart that reflects the following demographic and cultural information.

See chart.

2. Turn to the NJRCL report and pay specific attention to the information provided about Essex County, and the concerns, challenges, and recommendations in the report. Review the six families in Unequal Childhoods, and make connections between the NJRCL report and the realities these families might face if they lived in Essex County, NJ.

Considering the annual self-sufficiency wage in Essex County, NJ is between $39,299 and $40,413, only four of the families described in Unequal Childhoods would be able to live comfortably: the Tallingers, the Williams, the Handlons and the Marshalls. The rest of the families described make significantly less than this amount and would face formidable economic constraints if they were to live in Essex County.

The Williams family could survive comfortably in certain suburban neighborhoods of Essex County. Likewise, the Marshalls and the Tallingers, who make about $100,000 annually, would fit in well with many suburban Essex communities. Although with the prices in some communities, even they could find money constraints to complain about.

Families like the Yanellis, who cannot afford health insurance of roughly $339 per month, would certainly be struggling daily to make ends meet. While the NJRCL factors in childcare in its calculations, families like the McAllisters or the Taylors would probably have to forego this expense altogether. For transportation, these families would be limited on where in Essex County they could live. The suburban communities, which tend to have the better school systems, lack adequate bussing and train systems. Most of their residents own cars. Because the cost of owning and maintaining a car is so expensive, families like these are really limited to living in city environments.

The cost of living inevitably goes up with more children, so families like the McAllisters with four or more children, would ultimately fall into poverty in Essex County.

3. Look at the two reports from the LSNJ on living in poverty. What further information can you glean from the reports regarding the struggles the poor families in Unequal Childhoods might face if they lived in NJ?

Health care, transportation, food and home maintenance are all daily issues that families like the Taylors, Brindles, McAllisters, Drivers and Yanellis struggle with on a daily basis. Although the federal poverty level is $17,600 per year, the self-sufficiency wage in Essex County is between $39,299 and $40,413.

The Taylors, who have only one source of income from the mother, would have an extremely difficult time making ends meet in any community of Essex County. Although both parents are working and bringing in money, would have to face significant cutbacks if they were to settle in Essex County. Food, while in ample supply in the community they live in, might become more expensive. Their three-story home may need to be swapped for another living arrangement that is only half as nice as the one they live in. Because they don’t have any vehicles, the Taylors would have to rely on public transportation and would almost certainly be limited to living in a city environment.

The Drivers, whose family income is about $40,000 annually, would also have to cut back on expenses. Although they are within the annual self-sufficiency wage for Essex County, they would still have to sacrifice many “luxuries” like extra-curricular activities and creature comforts to make ends meet. Although life family already faces economic constraints, they would face even greater difficulties if they chose to live in Essex County.

4. Finally, turn inward and think about who you are as a budding urban educator. In what ways is this information useful (or not) for you? In terms of better understanding a community? What do you need to learn, or what skills and dispositions (frames of mind) do you need to develop related to demographics and economics to be a successful urban educator?

As an urban educator the most important thing to keep in the back of my mind would be the realization that each and every student comes from a different background. It is difficult to really know the hardships that all students’ families may face on a day-to-day basis. Because of that fact, it’s impertinent that I maintain a certain degree of understanding and compassion for where my students may be coming from.

For example, teachers regularly deal with students who do not do their homework. Many times the student is just being lazy. Other times parents allow their children to skip doing their work. Yet in other circumstances, homework may be the least of some children’s concerns. Unstable parent relationships, a lack of a clean or safe home, and even the absence of food could all force schoolwork to the back burner. It’s important to truly understand why or why not a student is not achieving academically as they should. I’ll really have to get to the root of any classroom related issue and understand the reasons

Another important – and often forgotten – fact is that students, just like teachers, do have lives outside of school. Children have numerous after-school activities, family functions and religious obligations to attend to in addition to their schoolwork. Pressures from school officials, parents and community leaders ultimately fall on these students, sometimes making the goal of “success” a stressful and difficult one to reach. Teachers in an urban environment, as in any schooling environment, must be wary of these dynamics and take them into consideration with their own students.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Inquiry Project Introduction

As the Hispanic population of the United States continues to rise, issues regarding language differences and consequent conflicts are also becoming a major concern. As of July 1, 2006, the number of Hispanics living in the United States totaled 44.3 million, making up 14.8% of the entire population. It’s only reasonable to assume that as the demographics of many American communities are changing, so are the environments of their public schools. (United States Embassy, 2007)

This project focuses on the city of West New York, New Jersey, where 79.1% of its residents are Hispanic and another 79.3% speak a language other than English. As a hopeful future teacher, I aim to find how this staggering majority of Spanish-speaking individuals has affected the city’s public schools. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006)

In gathering data for this project, I was guided by the following questions:

How does the English-Spanish language barrier affect student-teacher relationships, particularly with Spanish-speaking students who do not speak English as their first language? What are the implications for classroom learning?

A city like West New York, which is a Hispanic enclave, was an ideal environment to try to understand it’s lingering effects on the city’s schools. I hoped to discover more in-depth information about where exactly these students are coming from.

My research took me to West New York’s Memorial High School, where I was able to interview a student, Esther Rodriguez, and three teachers with more than 30 years experience at the school: Mariluz Garcia, an ESL teacher; Nila del Rio, an ESL teacher; and Kathy DeKranis, an English teacher. Through their stories and experiences I was able to gain a great deal of insight into teaching in a school where the majority of the student body speaks Spanish.

Through last year’s school report card narrative from the New Jersey Department of Education, Memorial High School principal Robert Sanchez addressed the school’s need to accommodate “the individual needs of our diverse, urban student population.” While recognizing the varied needs of the students, Sanchez also touched upon the “alternative programs for our at risk population [like the] English as a Second Language students, who have had limited formal education.”

As I gather more information about these programs, the students, their backgrounds and the teaching atmosphere, it will shed light into the type of work and effort needed of a teacher in this environment. Urban issues like poverty and crime inevitably come into play, but with the added stress of a language barrier, it will be interesting to find out what sort of strains are being placed on public school teachers.

This project aims to discover what is required of a teacher to successfully teach in this type of environment and ultimately ascertain the implications of the English-Spanish language barrier.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Community Inquiry Project Details

Community Inquiry Project Question:

How does the English-Spanish language barrier affect student-teacher relationships, particularly with Spanish-speaking students who do not speak English as their first language? What are the implications for classroom learning?

Subsequent Questions:

  • How do language barriers inhibit classroom learning?
    o How does parental involvement (or lack thereof) affect reading, literacy and English language acquisition?
    o What sort of strains do these language barriers place on teachers? (Interviews with ESL and English/History teachers) Within the constraints of NCLB? School-directed objectives?
    o How do these outside factors impact NCLB restrictions?
    o What sort of issues do language barriers place on these students when they are not in their ESL classes and in the general student population?
    Ø Information from Annotated Bibliography
    Ø Interviews with Teachers:

English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher(s) Interview Questions

  • Where do the majority of your students come from?
    o What are the basic student demographics?
  • What is the student-to-teacher ratio?
  • What is their level of English prior to coming to Memorial High School?
    o What is their reading/writing ability in English and Spanish?
  • What is their level of English after attending ESL classes?
  • What sorts of difficulties do your students have in their classes within the general student population?
    o Do they have difficulties in their classes that are taught entirely in English?
    o In which subjects do they have the most difficulty?
    o In what way does the ESL program here supplement those classes?
  • How many of your students are enrolled in the Bilingual program here at Memorial?
    o Can you tell me more about the program?
    o How many students are enrolled in this program?
  • Can you tell me about other ESL/language acquisition programs here at Memorial?
  • How much involvement do you see from the parents of students in the ESL programs?
  • How much involvement do you have with the parents of students in the ESL programs?
    o Are they responsive to the program?
  • Has the ESL program at Memorial been successful?
  • How long does it take a student to pass through the ESL program completely?
    o Do students who have passed through still receive supplemental ESL education?
  • In the last NCLB results, Memorial High School was recognized as one that has not made Adequate Yearly Progress. It has also been classified as “in need of improvement.”
    o To what do you attribute these results?
    o Does the fact that many of the students have Spanish as a prominent language in their lives have anything to do with this?
  • Has Memorial High School faced any NCLB sanctions?
    o Do you think they are due in part to the language barrier?

English Teacher(s) Interview Questions

  • Where do the majority of your students come from?
    o What are the basic student demographics?
  • What is the student-to-teacher ratio?
  • How many of your students are Spanish-speaking?
  • How many of your students speak Spanish at home?
  • Do you think that these students (who speak Spanish at home) have more difficulty learning in English than students who only speak English?
    o If yes, how so?
  • How is their reading/writing ability?
    o Do you feel they encounter any difficulties due to a language barrier?
  • How have these difficulties/language barriers made it more difficult to teach?
  • Have they prompted you to change/alter your curriculum in any way?
    o How so?
  • What do these language barriers do to state-mandated testing results?
  • How has the school performed?
    o To what do you attribute these results?
  • In the last NCLB results, Memorial High School was recognized as one that has not made Adequate Yearly Progress. It has also been classified as “in need of improvement.”
    o To what do you attribute these results?
  • Does the fact that many of the students have Spanish as a prominent language in their lives have anything to do with this?
  • Has Memorial High School faced any NCLB sanctions?
    o Do you think they are due in part to the language barrier?
  • Do any students ever have trouble expressing themselves (verbally or in writing) in English?
    o Do you feel this is due to their language limitations?
  • How involved are the parents of your students in the schoolwork of their children?
  • How many students of Hispanic descent plan to graduate and go on to college?
    o What are the main goals of these students?
  • What do the majority of Memorial students do after high school?
    o Do many of them drop out?
    o Do the goals of these students effect how they perform in class? (Are they apathetic/enthusiastic?)

Student Interview Questions

  • How long have you been a student at Memorial High School?
  • What is your ethnicity?
  • In which subjects do you excel? Why?
  • In which subjects do you perform poorly? Why?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Inner-city Teaching and Social Structures

Perhaps the most striking point that comes from reading Unequal Childhoods is that child development comes from the social structures in which children are raised. Their childhood interactions - their ability to organize, their creativity, their views on responsibility, their manner of speech and interaction with authority figures - all help to shape their later-life skills. Economic status (and strain), and thus the opportunities available to them, greatly determines how children will be when they are adults.

Lareau contrasts the upbringings, interactions and extra-curricular activities of children within middle-class, working-class and poor families. Children from middle-class families are taught to interact with adults and to question authority. Because of this, they often cultivate a sense of entitlement. Children from working-class and poor families, however, experience a divide between themselves and authority figures. Much less emphasis is placed on interaction between children and adults. The activities out of school are most likely regarded as mere "child's play," with little importance given to the child's development.

This stark contrast between middle-class families and working-class or poor families is one that I had vague notions about during my own upbringing. Upon reflecting on my middle-class upbringing, I have an understanding of what Lareau details in her book. In my family, much importance was placed on structured extra-curricular activities. My parents oftentimes sacrificed their free time in order to help foster my interests.

Besides touching upon middle-class family life, Lareau also makes a lot of great points about working-class and poor children growing up in urban environments. Many, like the ones mentioned in the book, do face daily difficulties like where to wash clothing or when the next paycheck (or other source of income) will come. It's no wonder that with such economic difficulties, less importance and attention is given to a child's schoolwork. It is understandable that when faced with illness and economic troubles, many families must sacrifice education for mere survival.

This is, perhaps, one fact that is all too prominent in urban schools and one that must never be ignored. As a future teacher, in an urban environment or otherwise, it is critical to remember that students come from vastly different family backgrounds. The experience of teaching in the inner city is as diverse as its students and their cultural structures.