Stamford teachers train in tongues
“Wilkomen,” she said. “OK. Sprechen sie Deutsch?”
Ferraro, a Southern Connecticut State University educational consultant, was checking for ringers. Two educators raised their hands, indicating they speak some German.
An easel detailed the morning’s lesson: “die wissenschaftliche Methode” — the scientific method. Educators were about to get a crash course in something 2,000 Stamford students experience every day: trying to learn a lesson taught in a language they don’t speak.
Ferraro, a language specialist, is part of a team that, for four years, has been training Stamford educators in how to serve students classified as English Language Learners. Speaking entirely in German, she ran the educators through a simple experiment using the scientific method: which everyday objects will float in a tub of water?
Her hour-long class came right before lunch during an all-day training in ELL strategies.
The training is part of an overhaul of the district’s ELL program mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2012, after a four-year justice department investigation, the program was found to be in violation of the Equal Education Opportunities Act. The government found the district employed inadequately trained or uncertified ELL teachers, and underfunded the program.
In 2014, the federal government agreed not to pursue legal action if the school district agreed to beef up training. Under the terms, all teachers and building administrators are required to go through 20 hours of training, 10 in the classroom and 10 alongside a coach.
Assistant Superintendent Tamu Lucero, who has been managing compliance with the settlement, said this week the district is on track to have educators trained by the government’s June 2016 deadline.
The district then will submit a final report to the justice department, which will check on progress during the 2016-17 school year.
Meanwhile, Lucero said, the district will continue to train new hires.
In Ferrarro’s class, educators sat in groups of six or less, reading a few paragraphs in German on the subject of buoyancy. At first, they were asked to read and watch. Then, slowly, Ferraro introduced the items they would test for flotation, naming each while holding it up.
Her questions, at first, were either/or: is this the bottle cap or is this the pencil? As her students gained confidence, the questions became open-ended with one-word answers: will this float or sink — “schwimmen oder sinken?”
When Ferraro called on individuals, they could answer in English, but Ferraro spoke only in German.
During a particularly complex back and forth, Donna Gardner, assistant principal of Scofield Magnet Middle School, leaned over to Melinda Mandics, a sixth-grade math teacher who admitted to knowing a small amount of German. Mandics willingly translated.
Hearing that, another math teacher, Heather Jones, turned to Mandics.
“How do you say ‘flat?’ ” she whispered.
“Flach,” Mandics whispered back.
After 30 minutes, educators were making attempts at sentences in German.
When the hour was over, Ferraro and her colleague, Lorrie Verplaetse, wanted to know how the lesson made educators feel.
Hands shot up.
“Stupid,” said one teacher.
“Frustrated,” answered another.
“If I stopped listening for a second, I got lost,” said a third.
But educators said they understood much more than they did before the lesson began.
“What made it work?” Ferraro asked.
Verplaetse explained several strategies. Questions often were accompanied by gestures. Ferraro’s repeated question, “Was denken sie?” — What do you think? — was accompanied by a shrug and a point to her head.
The repetition was a strategy, Ferraro pointed out: use the same language for the same concept, repeatedly.
Another strategy is to allow students to make mistakes.
“One of the reasons you felt confident to speak (in German) is because she never once corrected your language,” Verplaetse said.
“While you were using English, were you making nasty jokes about the teacher?” she asked.
“No,” they all responded.
“Were you telling sassy stories about some other students?” she continued.
A few teachers laughed.
“Were you working your butt off to try to figure out what was going on?”
“You used your (first language) as a really, really important learning tool, didn’t you?” she said.
With that, class was dismissed.
email@example.com; (203) 964-2215