“Lyn”, Guillermo asked, “how many students do you think will make the jump? You know, skip a level?”
“Hmmm… I don’t know”, I replied, “Maybe 20-25%? I’m not sure.”
Two semesters ago, my office mate Guillermo Colls, ESL Chair and creator of the accelerated ESL program called Boost! asked me to make this prediction on the first day we were piloting his new program. I really wasn’t sure what to tell him. My name is Dr. Lyn Neylon-Craft, and I am a veteran ESL and English instructor at Cuyamaca of 20+ years. I knew Guillermo wanted an informed opinion, but I just didn’t have one. Well, not yet. You see, I’ve been teaching ESL students a long time. I knew the statistics, and they weren’t great. If a student started at 5 levels below Freshman Composition, s/he only had about a 14% chance of making it through the ESL program and completing Freshman Composition. Thus, our lower level students had a very small chance of ever getting a degree or transferring to achieve their goals. Change had to happen.
Because this was a pilot semester, I was teaching our old curriculum side by side with the new. This really was the perfect scenario to give Guillermo the answer not only to his stated question but also to his unasked question, “Will the new curriculum help our students be more successful?”
That semester, I had two classes of pretty homogeneous students. They either tested into 5 levels below Freshman Composition or they came up from 6 levels below. One class followed the old curriculum and the other followed the Boost! curriculum. Both classes ran approximately 6 hours a week for 16 weeks.
The old curriculum course followed a pretty traditional language acquisition approach of teaching grammar points and then having students use those points verbally and in writing. So during the semester, I used text books that taught present tense sentence and question structure, and then I had students write a college style paragraph using that verb tense. These paragraphs had topic sentence, main ideas, transitions and support. Then I repeated the process using the past tense and the future tense. Overall, students seemed satisfied, and by the end of the class had a solid understanding or the verb tenses and could write a nice 8 sentence paragraph.
My Boost! class was radically different. First of all, it was reading based instead of grammar based, and it focused on student engagement. Let me explain. In Boost!, students read a novel at the 7-8th grade level. In class, we did many hands on, interactive activities to ensure students understood what they were reading and could discuss those ideas first verbally and then in writing. Through the use of activities and modeling, students produced at first an 8 sentence paragraph that utilized a topic sentence, main ideas and transitions, but also used quoted examples from the text for support in MLA [Modern Language Association] style. However, that was just the beginning. We did another such paragraph and put those paragraphs together with introduction and conclusion paragraphs –voila! We had our first essay completed by week 10. For these students, this was their first ever English language essay! Students replicated their out of class assignments during in-class writing exams to ensure comprehension. Then we used a secondary non-fiction text to take the ideas from the novel to create a 5 paragraph essay that focused on a real world issue. By week 16, students completed this 5 paragraph essay and then replicated a similar essay in class for the final exam.
Using the Boost! approach, instead of only producing 3-4 unrelated paragraphs, students were writing college style essays that had a clear point to make. They were excited to be engaged in real discussions of issues they could relate to. One student told me, “This is the first time I really felt like a college student.”
I was shocked to see how much more my students could do, and in the end it really made sense one day as I was watching my son on the soccer field. His name is Parker, and he’s 9 years old. Day one of soccer, the kids did some drills, but then they got to play – run, pass, and try to shoot a goal right from the start. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be for any new soccer player if s/he could only kick the ball with one foot for the first two weeks? What would happen if we required skill mastery before we let them run or try to kick a goal? It would take such a long time before they could ever play a game. Many would give up and think they just weren’t good at soccer! That’s what was happening in our ESL Department. We were so focused on individual skills [learning a specific verb tense or grammar structure], we weren’t letting students show us all they could do. In the new Boost! program, we throw them in the game, knowing that they’ll make many mistakes, but that is OK. We address those mistakes as they come up, and they learn. The end goal is a college level essay, so we play for the goal. They are engaged in reading, discussing and writing. We practice, and then we let them play.
Oh, you might be wondering about that question Guillermo asked me. Let me explain, you see, in the new system, we knew students would be working directly towards that 5 paragraph college style essay. Some students could do it in one semester and others might need two semesters to master the necessary skills. So, classes are labeled 1A and 1B as well as 2A and 2B. Students who acquired mastery in the A class could skip the B class and move up a level sooner. So, instead of the old formula where it took 5 semesters to reach Freshman Composition, now students could do it in 2-4 semesters depending on ability. We were no longer holding capable students back. I remember telling Guillermo maybe 20-25% could make that jump, but I was so very wrong. Out of my 25 students, 23 made the jump. I couldn’t believe it, but the proof was in their writing. I have to tell you, I was a skeptic, but how could I not believe the papers before me? Our basic skills classes should not be barriers to students achieving their goals. They should not hold them back. Clearly, our students have it within them to succeed. All they need is a little Boost!