This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Rebekah Burkowitz, the ESOL Teacher for Lake Jessup High School and Marrian Middle School. Mrs. Burkowitz has been an English teacher for over thirty years and, while she is retiring in the spring, plans to continue teaching English to adult learners in her free time for as long as she can. Mrs. Burkowitz had a lot to say about English education in LJHS, and I was happy to listen. Lake Jessup High School offers mainstreamed content classes for their English Language Learners, with the option of taking one class period a day of an ESOL Class and an additional class period of ESOL Academic Support. These resources help students to acquire English without being isolated from the rest of the school environment.
The ESOL Class is a smaller class of new English speakers, and is focused around building academic skills in English like grammar, writing, reading, research skills, and academic skills like writing a bibliography. In this class, Mrs. Burkowitz’s moto is “stick to the SIOP method. Just stick to SIOP,” and she means it! Her lessons are meticulously crafted, and she adjusts her plans every year to ensure that she is carrying out the best possible instruction to meet her content and language-learning goals. Much of the explicit English instruction her class takes place in the form of vocabulary lessons at the beginning of class, during which she allows students to generate their own examples of words in order to tap into their existing backgrounds and utilize the backgrounds of their peers. During instruction, she says she goes “slow and steady” with her explanations of material, to ensure that everyone has the chance to learn and nobody gets left behind the rest of the class. She focuses a lot on building research and problem-solving strategies for her students. “I always try to reinforce good study practices,” she says. “I want them to succeed in all their classes and have the skills to advocate for themselves when they’re out of my class.” This approach to instruction - making sure students are well-prepared not only for her class but for school and life in general - is an admirable quality of Mrs. Burkowitz and an indicator of her dedication to her students’ success. Utilizing assignments like a research paper (with extra instruction in how to find sources and write a bibliography) and class presentations about the cultures and languages in a country of their choice, Mrs. Burkowitz takes a culturally relevant approach to teaching that validates students' identities and the places from which they come. By incorporating students’ own histories and heritage into their English assignments, this SIOP-structured ESOL class supports students’ English language learning “successfully and individually” for all learners.
The larger ESOL class, Academic Support, is structured quite differently and is used to support emergent multilingual students in their content-area classes. Mrs. Burkowitz has “no shortage of MSU students, I am so so lucky,” and she utilizes them thoroughly as a resource to ensure every student gets individualized academic support. While Mrs. Burkowitz describes the hour as “basically just tutoring,” it’s valuable for the students to receive patient, individualized instruction in areas where they don’t get English language support in class. She describes this system as “challenging” because “they’re all taking such different classes! Some of these kids are in AP science and AP math, it’s hard to tutor content you don’t know very well,” but the students appreciate the extra support anyway. This hour also serves as a time for students to take tests and quizzes from content area classes that they need English language support for. “You basically just read the questions to them, read the answer options if there are any,” describes Mrs. Burkowitz. “If there’s a word they don’t understand that’s an English word, not a science word, it’s fine to define that for them.” This kind of support levels the proverbial playing field for English language learners, removing the added stress of reading a new language or misunderstanding directions from the already-difficult task of mastering class content.
One thing I found interesting and disappointing about the ESOL program at Lake Jessup High School was that no type of bilingual education is utilized. Instruction is all in English, with native languages only being used socially between peers during free work time, and even then only sparingly. When I asked Mrs. Burkowitz about this, the explanation she gave was simple and finite. “There are just too many languages in this room,” she said, citing the need to prioritize efficient content instruction and completion of class tasks over the desire to incorporate students’ home languages.
Mrs. Burkowitz's class, though it does not utilize the bilingual education practices that we have researched so far, is full of research-backed instructional methods to support students in their learning of both English and other classroom content. It was a privilege to get to speak with her about her classroom practices.