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


John Spencer

John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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