Special Report
Equity & Diversity

For English-Learners, a Positive Side to Peer Pressure

By Corey Mitchell — October 17, 2017 6 min read
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As a veteran theater professor, Andrew Kahn knows a great acting job when he sees one.

During his twice-a-week visits to Lafayette International High School in Buffalo, N.Y., there’s a newly arrived student from the Congo who pretends to struggle with his locker combination. The student knows the numbers to his combination, Kahn said, but he seizes any opportunity to connect one-on-one with someone in the school.

“He likes the presence of someone who’s going to be with him for five minutes,” said Kahn, a theater professor at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York.

For students who are still learning English and those who are immigrants, forging even small connections with educators and their classmates—as simple as a hallway conversation—can be crucial to keeping those students coming to school and motivated to persevere, both educators and researchers say.

With students who hail from dozens of countries and speak a wealth of languages, Kahn and the staff at Lafayette International are teaming up to do just that: create a communal experience for these newcomers, focusing less on differences and more on how they’re alike—their shared struggle of learning a new language.

“The kids get it because they’re from [places] where ‘we before me’ is part of their DNA,” said Kahn, who directs the Anne Frank Project, an initiative that uses storytelling as a tool to help students explore their identities and build connections.

Setting a Positive Tone

Boosting literacy for English-learners and ensuring a greater share of such students reach proficiency in speaking, reading, writing, and understanding the English language is a growing concern in the nation’s K-12 schools.

As more English-learners land in the nation’s classrooms, more researchers and educators are exploring the role peers play in determining how quickly students learn the language and how they stay connected to school.

Kahn and John Starkey, the principal at Lafayette International, think they’ve found a formula that works. Led by the Anne Frank Project staff, the students draw up “village rules” that are translated into each language, all 45 of them spoken at the school, and post the rules around the building.

“It creates parameters and rules for our engagement with each other that really helps set a positive tone in the classroom and the school,” Starkey said.

Charlene Liu, a Utah educator, uses similar strategies to get English-learners in her school district connected to and vested in their learning.

“Even though we might be from different cultural backgrounds or speak different languages, we look to create opportunities for us to explore and find out how we’re so similar in so many ways,” said Liu, the director of educational equity for the Granite school district in Utah’s Salt Lake County.

“We can find those commonalities and similarities and overcome some of those obstacles.”

Combining Strengths

Some research has questioned the effects of grit—one’s perseverance toward goals—on students and their academic performance, specifically for first- and second-generation English-learners.

A study led by Colleen O’Neal, an assistant professor of school psychology in the University of Maryland’s college of education, found that the perseverance of a student’s peers was twice as influential as individual grit in predicting literacy growth.

The Internationals Network for Public Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit that focuses on serving immigrant students, rely heavily on project-based work that encourages students to work together.

That could pave the way for students adept in a subject, such as math or science, to team up with classmates who may have a greater grasp of English. Those sorts of pairings afford students opportunities to shore up their weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths.

“It allows students of different strengths to combine those into something that’s even stronger,” said Joseph Luft, the executive director of the Internationals Network.

Starkey, the principal at Lafayette International, has seen English-learner students relying on each other for years as he’s transitioned from an English-as-a-second-language teacher in the Bronx to an administrator in New York City and Buffalo.

Lafayette’s academy for newcomers is based on a model developed by the Internationals Network.

Early on, it remains important for students to sit and form bonds with people who are most like them, often students who speak the same native language, Starkey said.

Over time, the school pushes students out of their comfort zone. Starkey’s school, which serves English-language learners almost exclusively, has relied on the Anne Frank Project.

“Not only was their English strengthened,” Kahn said, “but their confidence was strengthened [along with] their ability to look us in the eyes and converse and be proud of what they had learned and process what they had learned.”

In her district and across Utah, Liu said the students and families that public schools serve have become more diverse, but the state’s teaching corps hasn’t changed at the same rate.

In her position, Liu helps teachers to confront their potential biases or misconceptions that may make it more difficult for educators to connect with students.

“It’s not so much curriculum that we’re looking at,” Liu said. “It’s the attitude of our teachers.”

At the start of O’Neal’s study, students completed an eight-question survey to measure grit as well as reading-performance tasks to gauge English proficiency.

The students then repeated the process twice more during a four-month period to measure progress on literacy achievement. The research team calculated peer-grit scores by using the average of the class scores.

The study’s 142 participants—mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos—were 3rd to 5th graders from a suburban elementary school where 95 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals.

Since almost all the participants had “strikingly low” literacy levels, O’Neal cautioned that the research did not take into account the wide variation of language development among English-learners.

‘Our Communities’

Ha Yeon Kim, an associate director of the Global TIES for Children Center at New York University, has explored how students’ relationships with their peers and teachers, shape their academic motivation and self-concept—who the children think they are and what they aspire to be.

Kim’s research on classroom experiences for Hispanic English-learners at the elementary level found that advanced English-language proficiency allowed for deeper engagement in the school experience.

The research explored the role that teacher-student relationships and peer connections play in social and academic adjustment.

Peer connections can hold particular importance for Latino students, Kim’s research found, because values such as helping others and building positive relationships are often ingrained in their culture.

In the study, students who struggled with picking up the language became increasingly disengaged over time.

Liu estimates that a third of the 60,000 students in Granite are current or former English-learners.

It’s a striking contrast from the start of her teaching career four decades ago when there were so few students tagged as ELLs in the state, the education department didn’t track data on them.

“We need to make them feel comfortable,” Liu said. “These are our little communities.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as For English-Learners, Peer Pressure Can Be a Good Thing

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