Friday, December 7, 2012

Improving ESL Engagement

As I look at the numerous things our ESL Department is doing to improve student engagement I can't help but think that we're on the right track in getting reticent ESL students to "buy in" to their own learning.  As I've stated in previous posts, our ESL department has adopted a Learning Outcomes based assessment format, using rubrics to show each student where he or she lies on their journey to becoming fluent in English.  But the changes have gone further than that and what I'm seeing in our ESL 1 and 2 classes is exciting in that it incorporates three of my favourite professional development interests, assessment for learning, technology integration and the general "rethinking" of how we do things (okay, that last one is kind of broad!); here's what's happening.

Students in Ms. Sullivan's class were assigned a project that was very different from past years.  In the past consciously or not, the focus of ESL Social Studies classes has been on telling 'our' story (i.e. the story of Canada) to the students and hoping that through this the students would learn English, and learn about their new country.  But teachers were finding that this approach didn't appeal to many new immigrants, particularly young men, who were ambivalent at best about being brought to a new country with a completely foreign culture.  So, rather than tell them our story, Ms. Sullivan has asked them to tell us their stories, in the form of a project about their hometowns.  Some are doing posters, but most are using either Prezi or Glogster to showcase the stories of where they've come from.  All the students seem interested, engaged and even excited about sharing a part of their 'old' lives with their 'new' classmates.  I've been invited to sit in on their final presentations next week (I look forward to it) but in the meantime, the students have presented draft versions of their projects to students in other ESL classes and have been incorporating suggestions from their peers' feedback into the final product.

My feeling is that if we truly want students to engage, then where practicable we have to give them as much opportunity as possible to choose their own topic/material/curriculum.  Of course this isn't news to anyone who has been following research into education and learning for the past decade, but this story provides just one small example of how rethinking delivery and letting go of little control can make a huge difference in student engagement.