Revisiting the Introductory Challenge

The idea of “interrupted formal education” refers to a continuum (from limited to extensive). Blong Keng, the Hmong student in the Introductory Challenge was an extreme case. He had almost no formal schooling at all. He was at the extensive end of the SIFE continuum, and he had tremendous gaps in his knowledge and skills.

Many American-born students also have gaps in knowledge and skills, even though they occupy the other end of the continuum. They’ve had a lot of formal schooling—but haven’t benefited much from it. How can that be? Are they bad kids? Are they lazy?

No, it’s something else. Some of their schools don’t provide them with what they need. These same schools are often the ones serving impoverished communities, often populated by African American, Mexican American, or American Indian students. And these same schools often serve students for whom English is a second language. Maybe you work in one of these schools.

If so, you work with the students whose circumstances pose the greatest challenges, yet your school is among those that receive fewer essential resources. Teacher turnover in your school might be high, as it often is in such schools. And class sizes can be large. Sometimes these schools close temporarily because of problems with the buildings or because of funding cuts. Families move into and out of the neighborhoods, so friendships among students form and end. In a way, even if their formal schooling is consistent (the school is always there and students attend it), the education of the students attending these schools is nevertheless interrupted. They don’t get what they deserve. They don’t get the kind of schooling they need. If you work in such a school, what you do can benefit students who otherwise may receive comparatively little from their schooling. Circumstances vary among schools in impoverished communities, of course. But even if you do not work in such a school, you work in a nation that tolerates this situation. All of us participate in this system.

Our point here is that the word “interrupted” covers a lot of territory, and it can be applied, a bit more loosely than intended, to a lot of mono-lingual American students. The interruption is not their fault—something has interrupted what would otherwise be theirs—a schooling experience that contributes meaningfully to their education.

So ELLs—especially those served in the stressed schools we described above—are a lot like everyone else. And a lot of us are a lot like ELLs.

With this perspective in mind think about these questions:

  • What languages did your ancestors speak? How many of those different languages do you speak?
  • Why do speakers of other languages than English threaten so many people?
  • Did you attend a stressed school? If so, what kinds of stressors affected it?
  • Was your education interrupted? Why? What effect did it have on you?
  • Did language have anything to do with that interruption? In what ways?
  • Did other factors play a role? If so, what were those factors? What role did they play?

These are short questions, but they connect to difficult and even controversial dilemmas about how education and schooling connect to our lives and what types of education and schooling we all deserve. If you’re working in a group, the discussion should be lively!