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Helping English Language Learners: From Idealism to Action

By Bill Madigan, AVID Staff Developer

Recently, as I walked down the hall at UCSD Medical Center troubling over my Achilles tendon, a doctor walked out of a door near me, clad in his blue and green surgeon’s outfit. He strode confidently by me. As he did, he glanced at my AVID staff shirt. Gesturing intensely, he pointed at his chest and heartily declared, “I was in AVID…I was in AVID!!!” Sharing wide smiles, we faced each other for a moment, and then he continued on his way. I stood stunned. His grin and passion lit me up.

As I walked outside, tears welled up. I went from worrying that my foot would never get better to a sense of deep abiding pride and love of my work, being with AVID for over 25 years. I recalled many of the kids’ faces who I struggled to liberate and heal—kids who started with little hope, but are now doctors, nurses, teachers, psychologists, and scientists, who still stay in touch thanks to Facebook and other social media platforms. I forgot about my foot. I thought about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

For the next days at school, I spoke with child after child about focused effort and learning from mistakes. I told the surgeon story over and over. At the end of the week, from across the quad, the shortest boy in my English class shouted to me, “Father Madigan, I’m gonna be a surgeon!”

This is the why—why we do this work. This is what sustains our efforts, and by extension, the efforts that children expend because of our inspiration. The how matters, too. It’s not enough that my students are inspired; they must also have a path to follow.

Carol Dweck’s latest work emphasizes not only effort, but also the right process. I can hear my mentor, Sacha Bennett, whispering in my ear: “Passion and love alone don’t give kids academic language and literacy, Billy!”

One way that AVID is bringing the why and how together is AVID Excel. AVID Excel changes the trajectory of long-term English language learners by accelerating language acquisition, developing literacy, and placing AVID Excel students on the path to high school AVID and college-preparatory coursework.

Excel’s intentional expectation is that teachers take the leap towards a dynamic rethinking of their practice. This new approach is complex, but try to imagine a predesigned structure, like a traditional lesson plan, with many built-in academic language routines and scaffolds. Imagine further that this seemingly solid structure can be differentiated or altered depending on the organic, moment-to-moment diagnosis of student needs and performance. In all of these possible pathways, there are sets of interlocking scaffolds, such as sentence frames, word walls, and academic scripts. Once these tools are mastered by the teacher, they create a near-seamless pathway for students to speak, write, and read academic English, without shame or fear of failure.

Wait, did I say speak? Yes, continuous spoken practice with rigorous academic words and academic logical structures (language functions: Cause and Effect; Comparison and Contrast, etc.) occurs individually, with partners, and within various teams.

Indeed, one of my participants at a recent training confessed that when she arrived in America from Peru, her schooling experience comprised “the darkest years” of her life. At the end of the training, she said that she wished she had been taught this way: “Excel makes it impossible to fail,” and students “would learn so much without the pain.” She added, “Like when you hike to Machu Picchu, the path goes back and forth at an easier angle. After a while, you look down the steep cliff and wonder how you got there.” For her, schooling was going straight up the cliff. She still managed to succeed, but for too many students, the experience can limit opportunities.

AVID Excel is the putty that prevents English learners from falling through the cracks in our education system.

Years ago, when Michelle Mullen (now an AVID Executive Vice President) began the work to build AVID Excel, her determination and the inspiration of AVID’s original mission were all idealism. As Mary Catherine Swanson did in creating AVID in the first place, Michelle refused the low-achieving status quo of too many low-performing students, long-term English learners. Gradually, her idealistic passion took concrete shape through the findings of grant work and wide-ranging research. Other AVID heroes of this work, such as Steve Elia, Sacha Bennett, and Jennifer Nagle, have continued to make explicit, deliberate, and intentional the best way of teaching that I have ever witnessed in 30 years of my career.

Now, AVID Excel is growing and fulfilling the enthusiastic declarations of children: “I’m gonna be a surgeon!” …Just like the one I met at UCSD Medical Center.

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