Named One of the Best Educational Blogs 2010 by the Washington Post
John Spencer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | August 20, 2012

Language Ghettos


"Mr. Spencer, what is a common assessment?" a student asks.

"It's a test that every student on the grade level has to take," I explain. 

The student furrows his eyebrows and continues, "So, why are we going to put our tests in a tank?" 

"Um . . . I'm not sure I understand," I explain.

"We're going to put our tests in a tank, because we're the low class," the student says. 

I don't ask if he heard it from a teacher or a student, but I'm jarred by that term "low class." In terms of test scores, it's true. They are almost all within the Falls Far Below range. However, they are bright. They are capable. They are learning a second language, adjusting to a new culture and trying to master content at the same time. 

And they are all together. 

A group of "low" kids, isolated into a rigid four hour block by a team that consisted of very few teachers, no students and no linguists. We are told that Kevin Clark's strategies will work the best, but we are given no registered research to prove this point. In an age of data-based decision-making, we are told that ELL students should be rounded up by language, given an hour of grammar, an hour of reading, an hour of writing and an hour of vocabulary/oral conversation. 

The students, the subjects, the language levels are all placed into rigid ghettos, monitored by the state at any given moment. 

So, here I am with a thirty-five page document describing compliance procedures, knowing that my students will get half as much time for math as the rest of the sixth graders. I am hacking the four hour block, sneaking in science and social studies as if it is some kind of dangerous drug.  Maybe it is. I'm trying my best to turn a rigid set of "best practices" into a project-based, inquiry-based, tech-integrated classroom.

On most days it feels like a mediocre compromise, where brilliant artists are told that they can still access a canvas if they promise to paint by numbers. On some days, it feels different; like we've managed to take the crumbling ghetto walls and paint a mural.  

I teach a block away from Indian School, a place where children lost their language, their clothing and their culture in the name of God and country. Kids used to look at me in shock when they learned about assimilation schools in the late nineteenth century. Nobody shudders anymore. Desegregation is over. What was once history is now the present. Any progress from the walkouts has vanished. We've just changed our verbiage from "Mexican" to "language." 

photo credit: Omar Omar via photo pin cc

Related Posts with Thumbnails


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Tina C.

Hi John, what an absolutely accurate depiction of our students' and teachers' daily realities.

Growing up with English as a second language, it was difficult to always have been in the "low reading group," and it was difficult to have been the only ONE that didn't speak English.

But because I WAS the only ONE, I was surrounded by peers that I learned from; peers who were my equal... none of this organized "language ghettos;" I was fortunate.

"Brilliant artists are told that they can still access a canvas if they promise to paint by numbers." How sad but true this statement is, it also speaks to the same reality a teacher faces. Teacher autonomy is almost non-existent these days. As usual John nice work!

John, I love that you've elevated the reality of your students' learning experience. You shame the system so eloquently that no one cannot help but support what you are doing for them.

Even now, I'm still thinking about your phrase, "brilliant artists are told that they can still access a canvas if they promise to paint by numbers". How sad but true that dedicated, talented, capable professionals are not permitted to "bring their best game" to kids. Too often we are bound by a set of regulations that appear to foster mediocrity in our practice and in the students we serve.


Language Ghettos-brillant! We are segregating students in Arizona based on language. Walk on to any campus and you will find "those kids" in "those rooms."
I would love to conduct research that follows the academic progression of the students who have been focusing on language development for their entire elementary career. What might happen when they have the choice to drop out? Perhaps that might be the goal of having "language has the driver" for our students. Our students will drive themselves out of the educational system, leaving...those that are deemed proficient to stay.

Manuel M. Chavez

Hello John,
I have never liked the term "low class". The words make it seem as if the students are second rate citizens. Also, if these same students were assessed in their native language they would score well. A student once told me, "Just because I don't test well, It doesn't mean I can't think." Stay Positive.

Thought provoking-- sounds like a sad reality but I agree with Nancy, keep hacking!

The assimilation schools didn't stop in the 19th century. I just made photocopies of an excerpt from Mary Crow Dog's autobiography called "Civilize them with a Stick" for my juniors. I believe she attended school in the 1960's and most of the idea of demeaning Native culture was still there.

Heartbreaking. Keep hacking.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment