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Iraq War, Federal Rules Are Hot Topics at TESOL Conference

The war in Iraq touched off emotional discussions among the 6,000 educators who gathered here March 25-29 for the annual national conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL.

The issue generated so much interest, in fact, that an impromptu meeting was called by members of TESOL to discuss the war.

In that session, the teachers of English as a second language from the United States, most of whom appeared to be against the war, debated whether it was wise to share their personal opinions about the conflict with their students, many of whom come from war- ravaged countries.

Barbara Harvey, an ESL teacher at a middle school in Chapel Hill, N.C., said she's a pacifist and believes in expressing her opposition to the war to her students. "I believe in preserving life, and I tell those kids that every day," she said. "And I will not stop, even if it means leaving the profession."

That drew a quick response from Carole Adams, who teaches ESL to students ages 16 and older in the Rochester, N.Y., school district.

"I wouldn't like my child in your class," she countered.

"I would," chimed in Jeffrey Morgan, a Vietnam veteran who is against the war and who teaches ESL in a Seattle elementary school.

When his superintendent asked teachers to remove anti-war signs in their classrooms, Mr. Morgan complied. But he also asked his union to look into his right to free speech in the classroom.

"I'm at a quandary of what I should do as a teacher—whether I buck what the central administration is saying," he said at the ad hoc meeting.

Earlier in the conference, thousands of participants gave a standing ovation to a speaker who questioned the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Various individuals scattered throughout the audience, however, stayed seated.

In his keynote speech about defending the civil rights of minorities in the United States, Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala., said several times that the nation was facing "dark times."

Mr. Dees said that he is patriotic and wants the American troops fighting in Iraq to come home safely. But he added: "We first have to have fairness and justice in this nation so we set an example for all of the world."

On Jan. 27, the board of directors of the Alexandria, Va.- based TESOL wrote to President Bush and asked him to resist calls for unilateral action against Iraq. The letter said: "Your present approach to problem-solving in Iraq is in conflict with our goals as educators."

Educators also jumped at opportunities during the conference to let U.S. Department of Education officials know what aspects of the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 school people find confusing or frustrating.

Lois B. Wions, the supervisor of English-for-speakers-of-other- languages instruction for Montgomery County schools in Maryland, told officials from the department's office of English-language learners that teachers cringe as they watch their students who have no command of English struggle to take state tests in English.

The federal law requires all English-language learners—including those who have just set foot in the country—to take state academic tests, though only the test scores of students who have been in the United States for at least one year are used for accountability purposes.

Ms. Wions said it wouldn't be practical for her 139,000-student district to take advantage of a provision in the law that permits schools to provide alternative tests in students' native languages. The county's English-language learners speak 124 languages, she said.

"Do you foresee a change in the policy for those students at the very low levels?" Ms. Wions asked.

Maria Hernandez Ferrier

Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the director of the office of English-language learners, offered sympathy but no solution. "You represent a lot of teachers," she said. "We are listening to you, but we do not write the law."

One educator asked how she could comply with a requirement to test all English- language learners in cases where parents refuse to let their children be tested.

Ms. Ferrier responded that the school system should do what parents request, since they have the legal right to refuse testing. She added that her office was trying to work out a way for schools to say in their reports that certain children were not tested upon parental request.

Several sessions at the conference dealt with how states and schools can better serve English-language learners who have disabilities.

Martha Thurlow and Jane Minnema, two researchers from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, released findings from a survey of states' policies for including such students in large-scale testing.

The No Child Left Behind law requires that both English-language learners and students with disabilities be included in a state's standardized testing.

Most states, the researchers found, have separate policies for each group, but not one for students who fall under both categories. Only Texas, they said, has a policy that specifically addresses the testing of English-language learners with disabilities.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Page 14

Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as Reporter's Notebook
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