Partnership offers future teachers experience with English language learners

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new partnership between Penn State’s College of Education and an organization in the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is helping improve education for English language learners (ELLs). By joining together with the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP), a community-based effort that seeks to unite the people of many different cultures in Hazleton, the College of Education is helping to better prepare future teachers and support K-12 students who are struggling academically.

As part of the partnership, College of Education assistant professor Megan Hopkins developed a two-week immersion program for Penn State students offered as a Maymester course in Hazleton. Hopkins said that this course aims to provide Penn State education students with hands-on experience working with ELLs and to prepare them to work with this population.

“This type of preparation is increasingly important as demographics are shifting across the U.S., and research shows that teachers are vastly underprepared to work with ELLs,” said Hopkins.

The course, titled “Introduction to Teaching English Language Learners,” is a state-mandated course that all education majors have to take before graduating. Although the state does not require a field experience in the course, Hopkins said that research has shown the benefits of such experience for pre-service teachers’ development of positive attitudes toward ELLs and knowledge of how to teach them effectively.

“Because many Penn State undergraduates have had little experience in diverse educational settings, I found it essential that we begin to facilitate experiences with ELLs so that they can apply the course content in practice,” said Hopkins. “We wanted to provide fun and meaningful learning experiences that support the language development and academic achievement of Hazleton students.”

Hazleton is an ideal site for this work, according to Hopkins, who added that the city has the fastest-growing Latino population in the state. Additionally, a large proportion of the district's students are designated as ELLs.

psu student tutoring

Penn State students spend time online with their students during a virtual tutoring session.

Image: Penn State

Bob Curry, one of the founders of HIP, said there are several challenges facing Hazleton's student ELLs.

“First, and very likely the greatest challenge, is with the bilingual children who have already mastered basic English,” said Curry. “Because they speak relatively well, there is often an assumption that these children are on equal footing with other students for whom English is their native tongue. This perception is misleading.”

ELLs can also face challenges learning other subjects, such as comprehending key science terms that are necessary to fully grasp the topic, said Curry.

He added that the lack of bilingual teachers in Hazleton is a major issue for ELLs.

“Progress for these students is generally painfully slow, and the short ‘window of opportunity’ to reach these children closes too quickly,” said Curry.

While in Hazleton, 17 Penn State undergraduates spent eight days in the local schools, observing and working directly with ELLs in kindergarten to eighth grade. After school, the Penn State students worked one-on-one with students at the Hazleton One Community Center, where they worked on a literacy project. The school children wrote poems and stories about themselves.

In addition to supporting education in Hazleton, the Penn State students participated in community service projects. The Penn State students helped paint and decorate the Hazleton One Community Center. They also took part in Hazleton’s first Unity Walk, an event designed to allow community members to support community throughout Hazleton.

Another component of the partnership was an eight-week virtual tutoring program where College of Education students work with one or two Hazleton students via Skype for one hour each week.

HAzleton students tutoring

Students at the Hazleton One Community Center interact with Penn State students online.

Image: Penn State

“Our students began the tutoring program by getting to know their student(s), their interests and academic needs,” said Hopkins. “Then, they designed activities and lessons around those interests and needs.”

Anne Zimmerman, a Penn State student who participated in the virtual tutoring program, said she enjoyed working with her student, and the course provided excellent career experience.

“It opened my eyes to a new world and line of work that I have come to find is something I might choose to spend my life doing,” said Zimmerman.

The tutoring program was modeled after the college’s successful online tutoring program with Sheppard Elementary School, which offers tutoring to the Philadelphia school in the same fashion.

The Hazleton students also came to Penn State to visit. The College of Education’s Office of Multicultural Programs, led by Assistant Dean Maria Schmidt, arranged and financed the visit.

“We went to the dining hall and the All-Sports Museum. A student gave them a dorm tour, and we went to the Berkey Creamery,” said Hopkins.

According to Hopkins, the Penn State students responded very well to both the virtual tutoring and the Maymester course.

“They learned quite a bit about ELLs, and their previous biases and assumptions about culturally and linguistically diverse learners were challenged,” said Hopkins.

Curry added that due to the Maymester course, they saw several of their students improve their grades and exhibit a far more positive attitude about education in general.

“The Maymester program also had a dramatic effect on some of our children who speak very little English,” said Curry. “The student-teachers from Penn State brought their own vitality and enthusiasm every day, and our ELL students responded with new-found dedication.”

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Last Updated July 08, 2014