IEPIS Newsletter - August 2014 (Plain Text Version)

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In this issue:
Leadership Updates
Community News



Interview with Madeleine Golda, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT, USA

Please tell us about yourself. Where do you work?

I have been director of the English Language Institute (ELI) at Sacred Heart for 5 years; prior to that I was an adjunct at Fairfield University. I spent many years at home raising my kids and teaching and studying at night. I’m a native of Ireland and I’ve lived in the US for 20 years.

What are your current teaching and/or research interests?

I’m very interested in awareness and advocacy for learning disabilities (LD) in ESL teaching and learning. My son has dyslexia, and my brother has a handicap called Prader-Willi, so I was aware of these issues growing up as a kid. What I’ve learned over the years is that you can rely on teachers to detect them. Teachers definitely know and they feel it in their gut if a student isn’t processing what the other students are processing at a normal standard rate. All of the students that I’ve become aware of have been referred by teachers. Teachers shouldn’t worry about distinguishing between an ESL (language) challenge and an LD; they have more intuitiveness than they give themselves credit for, and I’ve learned to trust them. Twenty to thirty percent of students in K–12 have a learning disability and of course they don’t outgrow them. We’re naïve if we think the problem isn’t there or will go away. I’ve done professional development for ESL instructors in a few different schools in Connecticut, so doing that and talking this through with teachers is an important way to advocate and provide materials for these students.

         Madeleine Golda

Still, it may be hard for teachers to advocate for a few reasons. First, they have enough on their plates as it is. Second, there are many advocacy issues related to immigration, and third, what can teachers do, anyway? These three components are demotivating. Teachers may want to help but there aren’t many resources available. There are no books about teaching English language learners with LDs. My answers to these concerns are, first and foremost, to never give up. Also, we have success stories that remind us how important this is.I have a student who was identified by us as having an LD. The student's sponsor took her for formal evaluation by a psychologist in the student's first language. We read the report and the student was put on a course of instruction. If you can help one student per year, it’s absolutely worth it. I’ve had two successful students, out of hundreds, but it’s worth it. Don’t ever give up.

How did you become interested in teaching?

I studied French, German, Latin, and Spanish in Ireland in a traditional and rigid way, so I couldn’t talk to anyone or even order a coffee. When I moved abroad to France, I fell into the language. I realized that language was a culture, a love, a people, and a food, and this was an emotional experience. I had just spent 10 years learning language and not realizing there were people behind it. I knew I’d always be a teacher but that’s when I fell in love with language.

However, my interest in LDs had never appeared in my work as a director until a teacher came to me 4 to 5 years ago with concerns about a student. Because of my personal experiences, I realized the extent of the problem and wanted to address it in the best possible way. I wish more people were reading and learning about these issues. I’ve talked to learning disability centers in Connecticut and they don’t have time to attend to L2 learners. Adults don’t get the benefits of special education as K–12 students do. Adults have to self-disclose, but most of them will not and, instead, use masking techniques and keep quiet. They are good at hiding it. There is one center for adults in our county, but they are overwhelmed. Also, the assumption there is that if an adult comes in and speaks Spanish as a first language, the center will say that the adult needs ESL, not special education. Many universities have disability resource centers, but at Sacred Heart, they don’t tutor ESL students. They have to come to the ESL center first, and they can go to the disability center only if they have English skills. So we’re stuck between a rock and hard place. The couple of adult centers I’m aware of in Connecticut have job search services but don’t evaluate adult learning disabilities. Those are great services but what does it do for LD? As teachers, we need to talk to students if we suspect they are struggling, but this has to be done with tact. You want to bring it up and then give students concrete resources (e.g., websites, reading materials, or spoken recordings if they have trouble reading e-mails). Still, initially establishing contact is very hard.

What are some pressing issues right now in your IEP?

We’re a full-time IEP, and we were recently awarded CEA accreditation. Managing our environment is a learning curve, but we’re enjoying it. We’re also coping with an influx of students; we get a lot every semester and our students get tested when they arrive. We’re always surprised who arrives. Still, I believe that these issues are typical of other IEPs—students arriving last minute, not knowing students’ levels, cultural differences (i.e., not being familiar with classroom norms and culture), all of those things. ESL teachers have an incredibly challenging but rewarding job.

We also have a large population of speakers of the same L1 (Arabic), but I don’t consider this a challenge. Every ESL teacher should be able to walk into a classroom with either 13 or 2 students of the same first language and be equally prepared for either scenario. Teachers should be prepared for any mix of languages in their classroom.

Could you tell us about something interesting that you’ve learned recently or a lesson that has worked well?

I teach Gaelic, and last summer I taught an ESL class. I’ve learned that students are tech-savvy right now. They love seeing videos and pictures of themselves. One of the tricks that we’ve brought into IEP is to have students do homework orally on camera and post it on YouTube. The whole class can look at a 1-minute video of a student reading or doing another activity. We’re tapping into the habits and likes and desires of students by teaching them in a way that’ll connect with what they love to do. They all love blogs, smartphones, stories about themselves, and iPhones, so it’s a narcissistic constructivism where the process of video recording has turned around a few classes. Students love to help other students.

Also, we started holding focus groups with students and interviewed 15 students in a focus group. We had made assumptions about what students like and don’t like and gathered other information through teaching evaluations. What I learned from these focus groups was that students enjoy having nonnative speakers as their teachers because they felt these teachers were able to explain nuances of quirky English better than a native speaker. I wasn’t prepared for this finding and never would have guessed, so that was interesting. We now do focus groups every 6 months. We include lunch and ask questions, but we let the conversation roll and don’t control it. We record it and it’s worth doing. We had a mix of ages, levels, and languages present, and it’s something we’ll continue to do. It’s most rewarding to get feedback from students. At the end, we had a 20-page report that detailed students’ wishes, hopes, and complaints. And it was the best thing we did. The report was anonymous and we protected students’ privacy. I was the only one who read it.

Would you like to mention anything else?

We have a Facebook page, which gives everyone a sense of what our program is like. We have been updating it for the past 6 to 10 months. I love our students and teachers, and we use Facebook to advertise and spread the word about our program. We invite IEP members to check it out!

Thank you very much for your time, Madeleine, and for sharing your thoughts with us! We look forward to bringing you more IEPIS member stories in the future.

Ilka Kostka is a faculty member in the American Language and Global Pathways Programs at Northeastern University and secretary of the IEP Interest Section. Her research interests include textual borrowing and academic writing instruction.