Summer ESL Academy gives students intensive language instruction

Summer ESL Academy-UMMA

By Tara Cavanaugh

Imagine you’re a student having a busy day in a bustling school: classroom group activities, lunchtime and recess all provide countless interactions with students and staff. Now imagine doing all of that in a different language –– not your native one.

This is the reality for many Ann Arbor Public Schools students. They could be recent immigrants to the U.S., their families might not speak English, or they could still be developing their English skills. These are the students who can benefit from the Summer ESL Academy.

The Academy is held for three weeks every summer and is formed by a partnership between the University of Michigan School of Education and the district. The School of Ed already partners with Mitchell Elementary and Scarlett Middle School, sending university student interns in to both learn and enhance AAPS students’ academic experience. The Summer ESL Academy reaches even more schools: Allen Elementary, Pittsfield Elementary, Carpenter Elementary, Burns Park Elementary as well as Mitchell and Scarlett.

Around 70 students going into grades four through eight received intensive language instruction this summer from five AAPS mentor teachers and nine U-M teaching interns who are earning their ESL instruction certification. The low student-to-teacher ratio meant that each classroom had four or five instructors.

“We were able to do guided reading and individualized instruction really meaningfully,” said U-M intern Madeline Parthum, who is already a certified teacher and is now earning her ESL teaching certificate. “It’s been really great. I wish I could teach with four teachers all the time!”

“What was the most fascinating was that you could really determine progress even after one week,” said mentor teacher Karen Gilbert, who is an ESL teacher at Bach Elementary during the regular school year.

“There is a high degree of interaction between the professors and interns, because we also work there on the site,” said Debi Khasnabis, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Education at the School of Ed. “We are literally in the same space as the interns, watching them as they’re teaching and meeting with them every afternoon in class or in planning time. So it’s a clinical setting where all participants are collaborating –– kids, teachers, professors.”


AAPS teacher Candy Justina and U-M professor Debi Khasnabis talk with families about the success of the Summer ESL Academy at the University of Michigan Art Museum on July 25, 2013.
AAPS teacher Candy Justina and U-M professor Debi Khasnabis talk with families about the success of the Summer ESL Academy at the University of Michigan Art Museum on July 25, 2013.

The U-M interns spend part of the three weeks teaching, and they also take classes  focused on English language learning assessment and culturally responsive teaching.

“We are really approaching the teaching of ESL as the teaching of both language and academic content,” said Dr. Cathy Reischl, a U-M clinical associate professor of education and the coordinator of the Mitchell-Scarlett Teaching and Learning Collaborative. “We’re not just sitting around learning verbs. We’re learning really interesting and engaging content and also the language that goes with that content.

“They call that an additive approach to ESL education. You can be a learner of really interesting conceptual knowledge and we’ll add on English as well.”

This year’s curriculum focused on representing their ideas and experiences through art: students created poetry, personal narratives, information graphics and videos that were inspired by memories from their own lives and pieces they saw during field trips to U-M’s Museum of Art.

“The kind of writing that they did is actually very academically demanding,” Dr. Reischl said. “They were writing in multiple genres and creating informational texts and poetry and video texts that both interpreted information and their own response to the art. That’s complex thinking.”

The curriculum also encouraged students to think about their identities as English language learners. They created art and wrote about their lives, families and histories, and then shared their work with their parents during a special event at UMMA on July 25.

In addition to the UMMA event, the interns conducted home visits, organized a family orientation night, and created a homework assignment that involved students talking with their families.

The push to encourage students to collaborate with their families is a new feature of the three-year-old Academy, said Khasnabis. “We were really trying to help our interns learn that kids have resources and knowledge bases in their homes. We have to work really hard to learn about that so we know what to draw upon and so we know how to help students develop pride in their family and their culture.”

Language has the potential to make children feel alienated from their families, Khasnabis added. “When they come to America and they’re learning English and their families are often not speaking English, families can struggle to feel connected because the language divide can intensify over the years. That’s a significant problem that we believe schools ought to be working against. We ought to be doing a lot to help kids communicate with their families and help families understand what we are doing in schools, how it is that we value them, and how we can collaborate.”

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