For teachers, a new lesson in diversity

No wonder teachers come flocking for help.

Many of them across Kansas City and the Midwest have found themselves where Amy Teeple was just a few years ago: Looking out at the faces of 25 kindergartners, as many as 20 of them unable to speak English.

“They were well behaved,” she recalled. “They’re sitting there staring at me and I’m looking at them.

“I had no idea how to help them.”

Too many teachers still don’t.

Teeple is one of 14 Kansas City Public Schools teachers and coaches taking night classes at Webster University with the aid of a federal grant to get training and certification to teach classes with English language learners.

More teachers will follow them during the course of the five-year, $1.9 million grant, and other districts are eager to team up on grants. The North Kansas City School District recently completed a cycle of training with the University of Missouri-Kansas City that earned 59 certifications over five years.

But schools are not keeping up.

There are more than 5 million English language learners in U.S. schools — a number that rose 57 percent over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. More than one out of every five U.S. students speak a language other than English at home.

But only 29.5 percent of the teachers with English language learners in their class have training to teach them effectively, the department reports. And barely a quarter of them received training through staff development programs.

“The country has a lot of progress to make,” said John Segota, who directs public policy for TESOL, the international association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“New teachers entering classrooms, no matter what specialty, need to know how to teach in a diverse classroom,” he said.

Laura Lukens, who coordinates North Kansas City’s English learner programs, was startled by how difficult it was to find adequately prepared teachers when she arrived from California six years ago.

Most of the veteran teachers and those coming out of college had learned some theory, she said, “but couldn’t make practical applications.”

It’s not that teachers were doing anything “wrong,” or neglecting their non-English-speaking students, said Wendy McNitt, principal of Rogers Elementary School in Kansas City.

But their strategies were limited, she said.

Teachers were earnestly trying to get the new students to repeat back everything the teacher said. It was well-meaning, McNitt said, “but it could make them anxious. It was intimidating.”

McNitt’s school is 60 percent English language learners. Eight of the first 14 Kansas City teachers in the Webster University class, including Teeple, are from Rogers.

Look at Teeple’s class today.

After some large-group instruction on reading and phonics, she split her children by fours across six learning stations, including computers, drawing tables, puzzle stations, worksheets and clay shaping.

Some of the students repeat back words and sounds. Some don’t. But that’s OK. New students who don’t speak English typically go through a “silent period,” she said.

She knows now not to compel a child to speak, but instead surround them in explanatory words and pictures and let them “soak it in.”

Her kindergarten colleague, Debbie Brock, who also is taking the night courses, has her students cycling through similar learning stations in her classroom.

They pair students strategically, they said. Native English speakers and other strong speakers are paired with language learners. A child still in the silent period is paired with a student they know will eagerly help point out pictures and words.

One group in Brock’s classroom sat at a jellybean-shaped table with the teacher, who was leading them through a large picture book.

One of the girls in the group, 5-year-old Amairany Gaitin, was still in her silent period.

“Do you see a rollercoaster?” the teacher asked. The children were trying to spot things that start with R. Brock pointed at a picture and made the sounds of the ride as her finger climbed up the track and then over the hill.

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch — wheeeeeeeeee.”

Amairany peeked up at her teacher and smiled.

The stakes are high.

National data reported by the Department of Education show that English language learners’ scores in math and reading in the eighth grade are less than half the scores of students who speak English.

They lag 20 points behind in graduation rates nationwide.

“I want to help my kids,” Teeple said. “Any teacher wants to do what’s best for her kids.”

So they go to evening classes weekly, learning about how to ease culture shock.

Or how to manage a child’s “affective filter” — the psychological screen a child may use to retreat under stress and anxiety, or to flourish under growing self-esteem and confidence.

Or how to interject lessons with sounds and pictures so the message in the words comes clear.

As for Amairany, Brock thinks she’s about ready to burst out of her silent period.

The little girl had been offering up tiny waves of her hand in return to her teacher’s first greeting of the day.

“But today,” Brock said, “she told me, ‘Good morning.’ ”