Special Populations in GATE: English Language Learners

In my final semester of my masters program, I’m taking the class I’ve been waiting for: Special Populations in Gifted Education. The course is held online, so all conversations take place on BlackBoard.

The fifth reading, “Identifying and enfranchising gifted English language learners” by Brulles, Castellano and Laing, was published in Special Populations in Gifted Education: Understanding our Most Able Students from Diverse Backgrounds (Castellano & Frazier, 2011)My thoughts are below…

The first discussion focused on characteristics of gifted ELLs and we were asked to discuss what we found interesting…

It was interesting for me to see that many of these characteristics are non-verbal traits – such as improvising with everyday objects, high standards, persistence, self-direction, carry responsibilities well, etc. I appreciate that these allow teachers to recognize traits in ELL students without needing to translate or speak their language.

To me, it seems some of these traits are often indicative of a highly motivated students across cultures, not just ELLs. And I wonder why these are traits that may indicate giftedness in an ELL, but when we see (some of) these traits in a student from the dominant culture, we may tend to group them into “teacher pleasers” and overlook them for giftedness. Yet, we see these as potential for giftedness in another population.

Additionally, I was a little concerned by “balances appropriate behavior expected of heritage culture and new culture” as this reads a lot like assimilation behaviors, or what WEB DuBois called double consciousness. And how do we measure such a balance? Does this mean we over look kids who are struggling with their heritage culture and new culture, who struggle to assimilate? I see where many of these traits could be indicators of giftedness, such as interpreting and translating, learning languages at an accelerated pace, etc. but something tells me these students wouldn’t be overlooked for gifted programs because they are excelling in language, even if it isn’t English…yet. And math achievement is easy enough, right, because numbers are numbers in every language. I see there is an attempt in this list ot cover many of the domains, including leadership, as well as non-verbal ways to see critical and analytical thinking, etc. Yet, I’m still bothered a bit by the traits that read more like teacher pleasers and those that indicate a level of assimilation is necessary.

Then we talked about culture and ELLs. Another student noted:

The section references childcare being an obstacle for ELLs being able to attend services after school or away from their home school. This point has been made before, but it is something that I neglect to consider and I feel that there are often some school systems that neglect it too.

I responded:

I found it interesting that you stated that schools neglect to consider that some ELL students may be responsible for younger siblings. Maybe it is due to my experience working in a low-SES school, but in my experience, the school was hyper-aware of students’ responsibilities at home. So much so that RPS hasn’t flipped their high school and elementary schedules like other districts because they recognize that high school siblings are often caring for their younger elementary age siblings, so they have to be dismissed before elementary in order to pick up these siblings from bus stops. I do think schools are more aware when a large population of their student body is low-SES, as opposed to a school like my current one, where many students are from mid- to high-SES families. I feel like it is definitely more of an issue at schools with mixed populations, where poor or ELLs can end up falling through the cracks.

Another student also noted

The teacher in me sometimes wants to argue that education can open the doors to anything that they want to do in life. However, I also acknowledge that academic success is only one form of success. I am always humbled when parents ask about their child’s character, integrity  and respectfulness.

To which I responded

A friend of mine recently made this very point. After meeting with her child’s teacher, she heard all the data about where her kids needed to be to get an “E” or an “M” for math and reading (she is in Iowa). She heard about what the standards are and heard lots of statistics and percentages and numbers. She said what she didn’t hear was whether her kids were well adjusted, kind, helpful, respectful, or enjoying school.

Our professor noted that “parents/families can be excellent resources or tools that teachers can use out of the classroom.” and asked “Which points were made in this section that you were or were not aware of?”

Before reading other’s responses, I wanted to respond with my own thoughts. The first thing that jumped out ot me was the communication section. As language barriers tend to be the one, or maybe biggest, thing keeping us from identifying and serving gifted ELLs, I found this section full of great informaiton that I had never even considered consciously. Obviously, open lines of communication with any family is imperative to a child’s success. The suggestion that “messages should be purposeful, specfic, clear and concise…” as well as “free of education jargon and acronyms” (Brulles, Castellano & Laing, 2011, p. 311) seems obvious, but I would venture to guess that much of the communication from schools does not fit this criteria. Often times when the school, not necessarily individual teachers, are relaying information, it comes as a general form letter. These letters most likely are full of “fluff” and feel good stuff and somewhere in there is buried the message. They are never given letters in different languages, although I believe the county does have a language resource for parents. At a school that has a high percentage of Spanish speaking centers, they probably do send out letters in Spanish. At a school like mine, where the population is not as diverse, and the families of ELL students are East Asian, there are no resources for overcoming language barriers in parent communication. I would like to see more effort on the part of the county to address this and provide resources for teachers to overcome these barriers.

Quotes that stuck out…

“Cultural references embedded in curriculum that go unnoticed by teachers have the possibility of confusing students and masking ability. The confusion may stem from unfamiliarity with cultural references, rather than lack of intelligence or ability” (Brulles, Castellano and Laing, 2011, p. 308).

This is another thing I think teachers probably do not consider when talking to ELL students or teaching, because these cultural references are so embedded in our thinking. In an ELA, the toughest objective for my ELL students to master is idioms, for this exact reason. When you are just learning a language, you don’t understand these types of sayings because a student is more inclined to take it literally. It makes me wonder, how can we as teachers be more cognizant of our own language and the ways in which it creates barriers for some students when it is so embedded into our own language? And how can we support teachers to become more aware?


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