Voc Ed's Universal Language?

Article excerpt

WHETHER TEACHERS LIKE IT OR NOT, VOCATIONAL CLASSROOMS ARE POPULAR PLACES FOR STUDENTS WITH LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY. ONE EXPERT ARGUES VOCATIONAL EDUCATION IS A "BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE-LEARNING ENVIRONMENT"--AND MANY TIMES A MISSED OPPORTUNITY.

As teachers throughout the United States look out onto their students' faces, they're seeing a conglomeration of nationalities. Hues of brown and olive skin and bright blue and soft almond-shaped eyes create a mosaic of cultures. And more and more, as they hear students chattering in the halls or before class, teachers are noticing that they're not speaking English.

In 1995 there were nearly 2.2 million foreign-born children, ages 5 to 17, in the United States. And about 6.2 million children had at least one first-generation immigrant parent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. Increasingly, it's no longer enough for teachers and administrators to prepare for the average, middle-class, English-proficient student, says Elizabeth Platt, professor of second language education at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Language and cultural barriers put immigrant students at risk for educational failure. Teachers must be prepared to reach these students despite communication problems or risk losing them when they drop out of school due to feelings of helplessness and frustration.

Vocational educators--as workforce preparation professionals--are especially important to the equation.

In 1992 Platt completed an extensive research project, funded through the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, on how English as a Second Language teachers and vocational teachers throughout the nation were jointly contributing to the education of LEP students. After observing six sites for nearly a year, she determined that the most successful vocational LEP students were participating in programs in which there was true collaboration between ESL and vocational teachers.

"The most effective place I saw was where an ESL teacher had given the vocational teacher some staff development" and vice versa, Platt says. "The welding teacher teaches the ESL teacher something about welding, for example. And the ESL teacher was actually teaching the vocational teacher about linguistics, language use and culture ... There was a real exchange of knowledge."

So instead of despairing over their mounting teaching challenges, vocational educators might take the opportunity to become better acquainted with the ESL staff, either at their own school or at the comprehensive high schools they serve. The contextual, hands-on learning methods that vocational educators employ may very well be the universal language all teachers need to engage ESL students.

"I came out being a very strong proponent of the vocational education teacher," Platt says about her study, The Vocational Classroom: A Great Place to Learn English. "We need to know that these vocational environments are a magnificent opportunity."

Communication breakdown

If vocational LEP students are to learn to communicate in English, then vocational and ESL teachers must learn to communicate period. ESL teachers had traditionally been thought of as on the "academic side," says Pat Wilson, who taught fashion design at Los Angeles Trade Technical College for 17 years before becoming an administrator for the Los Angeles Community College District and then retiring in 1996.

"I saw that we had all these students who didn't speak English and weren't able to get jobs," Wilson recalls about the beginnings of what would become a collaborative program between some of Trade Tech's vocational instructors and ESL teachers. Wilson says she often spoke with other vocational teachers who were having trouble reaching the LEP students in their classes.

But "the vocational teachers resented the heck out of these ESL teachers coming into their classrooms and talking over their heads," Wilson adds. …