Communicating The Inability to Communicate - The Jose Vilson

Communicating The Inability to Communicate

May 7, 2009

Ill Communication

Ill Communication

Today, I proctored the listening portion of a state exam that determines whether or not a child knows the English language or not. My first instinct with this particular statewide test is that, through my own informal observations, students can pass the regular state exam but when it comes to this particular exam, some never pass it and stay with the ELL designation until they’re finished with school … whenever that may be.

Usually, when I proctor, I’m working with my own students whose language proficiencies I know rather well. Yet, today, I walked into a room where we had a mix of 7th graders, some who I knew, some who I wish I didn’t know, and some who I’d never met until that day. I’m never nervous around students I barely know, but this time it was different. This time, I knew something just didn’t feel right. But sometimes that’s just a case of indigestion.

I start reading them a few preparatory instructions to see what I’m working with in the room. I particularly focused on 2 girls who seemed really quiet for no reason. 7th graders aren’t normally so quiet you can hardly tell they’re there. So I ask them, “Do you need me to repeat myself?”

One of the other students, who’d been mouthing off the whole morning says, “Mr. Vilson, they can’t speak English! They’re gonna fail this test! Why are they even taking this?!”

I secretly agreed with him, but I had to keep appearances … whatever that’s worth.

So I turn to the girls and say in Spanish, “So wait, you don’t understand a word of English?”

She shakes her head.

I wonder why they even make these girls take the test. People really think that 366 days is enough time for kids to be accurately assessed on an exam that relatively few teachers are prepared to prepare them for. And it’s unlike every other state exam they’ve gotta take because in this one, there is less of a guess factor. Either you completely understood what the lady on the tape said or you didn’t. Either you don’t know the English language enough to answer the multiple-choice and essay response questions or you do. Either you’re going to find a way to eradicate that ELL label from your reports or you’re not.

But why make a big deal out of this test while the other half of the school that already “knew” the language doesn’t have to take it, further ostracizing them from their fellow students? Why even talk about it when we’re stuffing kids who we know won’t do well at all on the exam, thus helping degrade their already low self-esteem academically?

As I grow, I’m trying to not be as cynical, but when I went through the test with the kids, seeing how they needed me to take long pauses during the test, and point to where we were in the test because the recorder went too fast, I couldn’t help but think:

“This is one hell of a way to communicate.”

Jose, who will have a good weekend … or else …

This post was written by...

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

For more about me, read here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

MFS May 8, 2009 at 11:10 am

I had to take this exam in high school. It was ironic that after over 12 years of schooling in the English language, at the transitional point before university, I was required to take this exam. From what I understand, identifying as a native Spanish speaker was enough to qualify for the exam regardless of proficiency in the English language. As I sat there with my classmates, I looked around the room and noted that very few of them even spoke Spanish anymore, let alone understand it.

Needless to say, I missed one question for a perfect score– all because the tape went too fast.

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Mamita Mala May 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm

The ELL system in NYC is so fucked. I am not an licensed teacher, but I am a parent of a public school child who was put in the ELL program for speaking Spanish, not because she didn’t speak English. Also I have volunteered my time and been paid to work with ELL students and my sense of it is that they have to have certain numbers of ELL students to receive certain funding but then those same students in a year are expected to become English geniuses. Not to mention that most ELL programs are pull out programs (at the elementary level anyway) and no allowances or extra time is given for students to make up, catch up, or learn what they missed.

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