(NPT Reports) Teaching out of the Box: Algebra for ESL Students

Robert Drake teaches Algebra 2 to a classroom full of English Language Learners at Smyrna High School, and he knows it will take more than chalkboards and calculators. He jumps, waves and moves around the classroom while animatedly explaining math concepts.  When his students still look puzzled about a lesson on factoring, Drake turns to his secret weapon: the I-Pod docked near his desk.

Music begins to play the song “I Like to Move It” from the movie “Madagascar.” Drake starts singing and dancing, trying to get the students to join in, before turning to the chalkboard to demonstrate the algebra concept of moving numbers from one side of the equation to the other.

“I use a lot of music; I use movement with hands,” says Drake. “They don’t necessarily have to know the song. But it’s so surprising how much it will resonate and they’ll remember it with songs. “

Drake admits that  he’s a very physical math teacher—no matter who are his students. But when he began teaching ELL students a few years ago, Drake realized his teaching style could help bridge the language and cultural gap. That was especially important as Smyrna High School faced a sudden influx during the last 4 years of refugee students from Burma— a population known as the Karen.  The students spoke little if any English, and most had not attended school until being resettled in the United States.

“Some of these people can do the math concept. Some of these are struggling because they haven’t been in school since 4th grade. They’ve lived in a refugee camp,” explains Drake. “Some, when they get here, never held a calculator. Math that (U.S.) students have done since 5th grade, they may have not seen– adding, subtracting.”

The arrival of Karen students prompted Smyrna High officials to re-think its English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Before, the challenge had been simply teaching English to students who speak a different language—but who had schooling in their native language. That isn’t usually the case with the Karen, according to Collin Olsen, an ESL teacher at Smyrna High.

“Almost all of the students—over 90% of our students—were born in refugee camps. Until they came to Smyrna, they never participated in an economy. They don’t understand what a king is or president or congress,” explains Olsen. “ If they’re 15, they go straight into 9th grade. Because even if they have the educational background of a first-grader, we can’t place a 15-year- old in the first grade.”

Smyrna High decided to try something different: it placed the Karen students in so-called “sheltered” classes, which group together students who are learning English and have little formal education—especially in core subjects that are required for graduation.

“We don’t want them to go to the standard classrooms and just fail,” says Olsen. “So I think we feel that this is the best way with the large number of students that we have to give them the best education that they can get.

“We’ve either found teachers who are willing to try something different and maybe accept poor test scores—which are somewhat inevitable– or we’ve gone and gotten the [certifications] ourselves.”

And that’s how Robert Drake, the algebra teacher, volunteered to become Drake, the ESL algebra teacher.

“I enjoy teaching those that are a little bit different. I taught special ed. And then as the Karen students started coming about 5 years ago, I had some of those first few and some of them did real well. They’re very hard workers. Most of them understand the opportunity they have here and they will work.



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