The perils of academic vocabulary in a bilingual or special education class

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The following is taken from Wikipedia:

In statistics, a population is a complete set of items that share at least one property in common that is the subject of a statistical analysis. For example, the population of German people share a common geographic origin, language, literature, and genetic heritage, among other traits, that distinguish them from people of different nationalities. As another example, the Milky Way galaxy comprises a star population. In contrast, a statistical sample is a subset drawn from the population to represent the population in a statistical analysis. If a sample is chosen properly, characteristics of the entire population that the sample is drawn from can be inferred from corresponding characteristics of the sample.

This is the academic definition for the word “population,” a necessary statistical term. Why am I writing about this? I want to further underscore my problems with the current coaching and evaluative system. Yesterday, I looked at a coaches evaluation sheet on what she had observed earlier this year. This sheet was scored 1, 2, 3, and 4 in various categories and subcategories, aligning to the Charlotte Danielson rubric used for formal and summative teacher evaluations. My district required a 2.72 to pass evaluations this year and I refer readers to a March 28th post about a first year, special education colleague who received a 2.70 and lost her position as a result.

My coach had given me a “2” for student use of academic vocabulary. I haven’t checked the formal evaluation numbers, but I recall Lord Vader criticizing me for not using more academic vocabulary during one class. I’d like to observe that pictures of my walls show work on academic vocabulary on all four sides, with word walls and individual word projects. Here’s a sample:


Did we do academic vocabulary? I’d be a travesty of a bilingual teacher if we hadn’t. But that does not mean that my students would be willing to use that vocabulary in front of a virtual stranger. My students are already self-conscious about the deficits in their English-language vocabulary. Research also documents that a silent period commonly occurs in students learning another language. During this time, students may understand a great deal of English but be unwilling to expose their still halting pronunciation and grammar. Looking at the picture above, a student might understand every one of those words and still feel too uncertain or self-conscious to use those words in front of other students, let alone the teacher or a mystery observer.

My reflection on that “2” is simply this: Even without an outside observer, at the pace we were going, with all the new vocabulary we were introducing, my classroom was seldom going to get above a “2” in the use of academic vocabulary category. Even when my students “knew” the right words, they were likely to duck attempts to use their new vocabulary in public. Middle school students hate to be embarrassed. We all do, but that trauma may be at its most piercing in early adolescence.

I want to use the paragraph on top to demonstrate part of the problem. Let’s eliminate words that might be difficult for bilingual seventh graders to understand or USE in earliest encounters. I’ll put question marks by words that stronger students will understand and might be able to use. By now, I have a pretty good feel for what I can expect.

In statistics, a population is a … of … that share at least one … in common(?) that is the subject(?) of a statistical …. For example, the population of German people share a common(?) …, language, literature, and …, among(?) other …, that … them from people of different …. As another example, the Milky Way galaxy … a star population. In contrast(?), a statistical sample(?) is a subset(?) … from the population to represent(?) the population in a statistical…. If a sample(?) is chosen …, characteristics(?) of the … population that the sample(?) is … from can be … from … characteristics(?) of the sample.(?)

Obviously, my dots and question marks are hypothetical. I am assuming the class knows “sample” and “characteristics” because, by this point in statistics, I better have taught those ideas. They should know “corresponding” and “inferred” as well, but I pulled those words because I don’t think I have ever heard them used in the classroom unless I forced their use. As I noted, bilingual students frequently understand words that they are too afraid to try to say. Sometimes this fear stems from pronunciation questions. More often, they don’t trust their understanding of usages enough to venture out of their linguistic comfort zone.

My students had done little statistics — I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d done none — in their past. A lot of new words attacked them at once when we reached this topic. The above words are the words I would expect them to use in asking and answering questions during the beginning or middle of our statistics section. The blanked or (?) words are the words we would have been tackling as we worked through the section. At the end, some students would have been brave enough to speak at least some of the blanked words aloud.

But unless an observer came in at the end, my class would be academic-vocabulary light. I view this situation as another of the no-wins. In an ideal world, language deficits would be taken into account when assessing student academic vocabulary usage. I did not see that happen. I can only assume special education teachers have encountered similar problems.

Eduhonesty: There’s an easy solution, of course. Don’t teach bilingual classes. Don’t teach special education. If evaluators are going to assign numbers to you based on observations, without considering students’ baselines, then the smart move has to be to find students who are likely to be able to use academic vocabulary well. This argues for abandoning academically-disadvantaged schools for their stronger counterparts. Among other considerations, those stronger schools usually pay better. They even have copy paper, I’ve been told.

(For new readers, my district ran out of paper somewhere around the end of April, leaving teachers to buy their own paper for over a month.)