When challenged, students rise

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Our blog series on The Opportunity Myth continues with 2016 Texas State Teacher of the Year and Texas Aspires Educator Board member Revathi Balakrishnan discussing the importance of grade-appropriate assignments in the classroom.


My English-language-learning (ELL) student from South Korea looked bored. All the myths we were analyzing were Greek and Latin to him. I found a South Korean myth for him (in Korean), and you should have seen him perk up. One would think I gave the world to him, but his look told me that I was valuing his ethnicity while trying to teach him English and the English Langauge Arts and Reading content.

I let him learn how myths explain phenomena…in Korean…and encouraged him to read the story again in English by using a translation program and going back and forth between the two languages.  The student started telling me, in his emerging English, how this myth was a deviation from the actual one told in South Korea. (And I was secretly celebrating because he was exercising one of the highest levels of thinking when he was comparing the two versions.)

I have a consistent strategy to help him move towards reading and communicating in English and eventually switching over to English. But I do not wait for his English to pick up before he starts learning grade-appropriate content.


Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that not knowing English equates to not being able to think or perform at a high level. Let’s not feel so sorry for ELL students that we inadvertently lower our expectations of them. 

I read with interest The Opportunity Myth, especially Hajima’s story. Her parents came to this country to provide her with a good education. But her new school did not offer the higher-level courses that would ready her for college, because, in their opinion, the student makeup of the school did not warrant those courses.

There are many children in our schools in the same situation, whether they are students of color or immigrants. These students need grade-appropriate instruction and assignments, and they need teachers who expect them to perform at a high level. The key here to remember is that for the ELL student, there are two processes going on at the same time; learning the language and learning the content. But, let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that not knowing English equates to not being able to think or perform at a high level. Let’s not feel so sorry for them that we inadvertently lower our expectations of them. 

When students are given rigorous assignments that push their thinking skills beyond what they are normally expected to do, they might stumble a little at first, but frequent exposure to “thinksheets”, not worksheets, exercises and extends the brain. Soon, difficult assignments will be acceptable. This applies to the ELL student as well. They come to school expecting to be challenged both in content and in learning the language. Both must be pursued in parallel, not in linear, paths.

Let’s support our ELL students in their brave attempt to make sense of the English language, but do not lower their expectations of mastery of content. We further their content mastery while we wait for their English mastery to get up to speed. Both must happen in parallel.

During the 1962 speech in Houston when President John F. Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon, Kennedy said, “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept….”

English-language learners come to school expecting to be challenged both in content and in learning the language. Both must be pursued in parallel, not in linear, paths.

We, too, as teachers must challenge our students, and expect them to rise to the occasion. And it is a challenge that will test the best of our energies and one that we should be willing to accept for the sake of our students.

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