It’s not easy to teach. It’s even harder to teach teachers who cling to old ways. Throw into the mix students for whom English is well, Greek, and it’s easy to see the challenge at hand for Angela Carrasquillo, Ph.D.
But those are the challenges Carrasquillo, Claudio Aquaviva, S.J., Distinguished Professor of Education at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education, takes on every day.
And she’s not above going straight to the source.
Though her responsibilities include overseeing Fordham’s Bilingual Education Technical Assistance Centers (BETACS) that serve every school in the Bronx and hundreds more in the Lower Hudson Valley, Carrasquillo makes a biweekly pilgrimage from her office in the Lowenstein Center on the Lincoln Center campus to P.S. 192 in Washington Heights.
There, she observes how the 10 bilingual teachers work with English language learners, and then tries to help them use the latest teaching instructional methods.
The classroom experience is invaluable in keeping her grounded in the day-to-day challenges of teaching students who have not yet mastered English, and seeing firsthand some of the struggles teachers face.
“You cannot go [into a school]saying ‘I have all the answers,’” she said. “I always start out saying ‘I’m not here to teach you anything; we are here to reflect.’ So I use a reflective approach with [the teachers], and say ‘You may use this particular strategy that I encourage you to continue using, but let’s try this other strategy so that sometimes you can integrate those strategies into your daily teaching.’”
And if that doesn’t seem to be working? “Once in a while I take over the class just to show them another way of helping them to address English Language Learners academic and linguistic needs,” she said.
Teaching English to students who have little or no knowledge of the language has become an increasingly important issue for school districts around the country. Indeed, New York enrolls the third largest group of public-school students in the United States who speak little to no English, a number that has increased 50 percent since the mid-1990s.
Carrasquillo, who is the co-editor of The Teaching of Reading in Spanish to the Bilingual Student(Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998), and author of Language Minority Students in the Mainstream Classroom (Multilingual Matters Limited, 2002), said that 90 percent of English language learners in the Bronx and the Lower Hudson Valley speak Spanish as their primary language.
A member of the Fordham’s faculty for more than 30 years, Carrasquillo is particularly proud that Fordham is playing an active role in helping bilingual educators in the region through the BETACs, which are part of GSE’s Center for Educational Partnerships.
“We have a very good staff in these programs,” she said. “It’s challenging, but you get a lot of satisfaction because we have been welcomed [in the schools]and in the community.”
It’s no small feat to run an operation that serves 450 schools, but Carrasquillo said she is pleased with the progress that both the Bronx and Hudson Valley centers have made in reaching out to educators since they were established in 2006.
“One of the biggest challenges is that there are a lot of schools, and each school is different, the personality is different,” she said.
In addition to the BETACS, Carrasquillo has since 2004 worked with Chun Zhang, Ph.D., an associate professor in GSE’s Division of Curriculum and Teaching, on a five-year, $700,000 grant project to train regular-education teachers who work in high-need New York City districts.
That project is nearing its completion, but Carrasquillo is already hard at work preparing for another program that will see her working with a small group of Bronx high schools to help history teachers learn ESL teaching strategies.
“The literature says that when you are teaching this particular ELL population of learners, it’s not enough to use just one subject area, you have to teach language across the curriculum,” she said. “Because history and social studies have complex content, concepts and vocabulary, it’s very difficult for the students to really get those skills in isolation. We need to integrate content and knowledge.”
In her role of professor of Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages, she receives international graduate students who come to Fordham to become ESL teachers or professors. For Carrasquillo, what is most gratifying is helping these prospective teachers with international backgrounds take the applied principles back home.
“When I go to the schools and I see [my former graduate students]working and teaching, and we get the compliments from the principal . . . that’s very gratifying,” she said.