How a journalism course in Compton improves students’ English skills – EdSource | Region & Cash

Photo courtesy of Kendra Hatchett

Adrian, 10, interviews his summer school teacher at Compton Unified.

The elementary school students in Kendra Hatchett’s summer school class at Compton are used to adults asking them questions. Teachers ask them questions in class and on tests; Principals ask them questions in the office and in the hall.

But this summer, the tables were turned. The students interviewed teachers and coaches and even the principal.

“As we interviewed people, it felt like now we were the bigger person and they were the smaller person,” said 10-year-old Camilla.

This was especially important as Camilla has not always felt confident enough to speak publicly in the past.

“Sometimes I get put down because I can’t really talk to people. I’m getting nervous,” she said.

The Journalism Course for English Learners is a creative approach Los Angeles County’s Compton Unified School District is taking to help students master English faster. The district started the program about six years ago as an after-school journalism club based on a curriculum developed by Loyola Marymount University specifically for English language learners.

“One of the areas that English learners struggle with is reading and writing,” said Jennifer Graziano, director of services for English learners at Compton Unified. “Rather than having the same type of interventions where they practice skills, we wanted to do something more innovative.”

Graziano said the district has seen an increase in writing and other language skills among students who have participated in the program in recent years. The program received a 2019 Golden Bell Award from the California School Board. Last school year, the district was unable to offer the program after school due to staffing issues, Graziano said. Instead, they offer a six-week summer program to about 130 students.

Camilla and all the other students in her summer journalism class speak Spanish at home and are working towards becoming fully bilingual. All of the students in the program are in third through fifth grade, and most of them have been in school since kindergarten, but they still don’t speak English well enough to pass the state English test. So you still need to take additional English language development courses.

“We really don’t want them to leave elementary school and go into middle school and still need so much support from this department,” said Hatchett, one of two teachers in this summer’s journalism program for English learners in Compton.

Research shows that most students who speak a language other than English at home become proficient in English within about six years. But some students take longer. Students who have been in US schools for at least six years but are not yet fluent in English and have not made progress on the English proficiency test in two years are considered long-term English learners in California.

About 200,000 of the 1.1 million English learners in the state are long-term English learners. About 130,000 other students are considered “at risk” of becoming long-term English learners because they have been enrolled in US schools for four or five years and score at or below intermediate level on the English proficiency test.

These students are at risk of missing out on academic content in middle and high school classes if they do not receive additional support. They can fall behind in academics and be excluded from electives because they still have to take English classes.

During the school year, Hatchett teaches fifth grade, and she sees that many of her students who are learning English are having trouble speaking and participating in class.

“Even those who are fluent, you know, often switch off and just don’t really want to try even though they have the ability,” Hatchett said.

Experts have urged school districts to do more in the years leading up to middle school to help students master English earlier so they don’t become long-term learners. At the same time, experts say districts need to ensure they give English learners access to quality content in addition to the English language.

Journalism class offers both and is a particularly useful subject for English language learners. To be a journalist, you need to hone skills like listening, public speaking, clear communication, reading and summarizing, and writing—the same skills you need to learn a language.

Photo courtesy of Kendra Hatchett

Alison, 10, interviews members of Team Kids, a nonprofit that visits schools to “empower kids to change the world.”

“Plus, the students enjoy learning,” said Hatchett. “So it feels funny. They don’t feel like, ‘Oh man, we’re doing work.’”

The summer journalism courses are small, with groups of eight children each, which helps Hatchett give each student more attention and feel more comfortable and confident speaking in front of others.

“That’s the first thing. You don’t have that many students to take chances with,” Hatchett said. “Second, I really challenge you more than probably the average teacher who has 34 students and seven subjects to teach.”

In large classes, Hatchett says, “If the quiet ones don’t talk, they just don’t talk. In my case, everyone has to interview at least one person. And I make speaking a big part of the class.”

First, Hatchett brought some local newspapers, both in Spanish and English, including La Opinión and the Los Angeles Times, for the students to read.

She then focused on practicing the language by teaching students the basic journalistic skill of interviewing.

“I taught them listening comprehension. That’s number one,” Hatchett said. “That was a big deal, to get them to take notes and listen to what I’m saying. You have to keep up with me because I’m fast.”

The students decided together who they wanted to interview. This summer, students interviewed teachers, a principal, a coach, and a group called Team Kids, a nonprofit that visits schools to “empower kids to change the world,” according to its website.

Hatchett gave the students examples of questions they could ask a source, and then the students worked with their peers to develop their own questions. Then Hatchett went through the questions with the students to really get into the grammar. Having her read her own questions out loud, she asked, “Well, how did that sound? Did this question sound clear to you? Do you think you conveyed what you wanted to ask? No? Okay, let’s fix it together.”

Before sending her for interviews, Hatchett had her rehearse. She would pretend to be the person they wanted to interview and they had to practice asking her their questions.

“One of the hardest things for everyone was framing your question about whether or not they were a heavy reader because of the confidence,” Hatchett said.

Overcoming the fear of speaking in front of other people – having more confidence – is of great importance for students learning English. Being told year after year that they haven’t studied English can undermine a student’s confidence. Many of these students are learning to be quiet and stay under the radar. Sometimes these students are overlooked in large classes and don’t get the attention they need.

Hatchett’s students said they were nervous before conducting the interviews.

“It was new to me because I’ve never interviewed anyone before. So I was nervous about interviewing people and this is my first time interviewing people,” said Alison, 10.

Adrian, 10, said it was difficult because the room was so quiet.

“All that silence made me kind of nervous because I’m used to loud noises,” he said.

After completing their interviews, they wrote articles about the people they interviewed and published them in an online newspaper. They also recorded a video newscast.

The students said they loved the classes and learned a lot, especially in English.

“I’ve learned to overcome my fear of speaking to anyone on camera,” Alison said. “I’ve learned more about how to speak properly… and I’ve learned how to write better and more engagingly.”

“I’ve learned how to type fast and come up with new ideas every day,” said Ayleen, 10. “I stuttered a lot and now that I’m interviewing I feel very confident and better at using my words . ”

“My English was kind of terrible, but now that we’re typing a lot of stuff and talking about a lot of stuff and interviewing people, I’ve learned how to fit more vocabulary into my English,” Camilla said.

Hatchett’s students say they will be applying these skills in fifth grade this fall. In the future they dream of becoming teachers, lawyers, doctors or managers of a large company. Adrian said there’s a 60 percent chance he’ll even become a journalist.

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