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Student and Teacher: Asil Yassine

A teacher’s first couple of years in the classroom can be trying, even more so if they are tasked with teaching children who know little English. Master’s candidate Asil Yassine admits this was true for her in her two years teaching grades 6, 11, and 12 in Detroit. “I didn’t really know how to support my own English Language Learner (ELL) population,” she says, even though Yassine herself had struggled to learn English while in elementary school in Plano, Texas.

She enrolled in the Ed School’s Language and Literacy Program hoping to learn how to better support ELL students. “I was interested in what happens to kids who speak a different language at home once they get to school, and how schools support kids with diverse linguistic backgrounds,” she says.

This past fall, in Associate Professor Meredith Rowe’s course From Language to Literacy, Yassine got an idea for how she could study the phenomenon she experienced herself, both as a teacher and as a student. Specifically, she wanted to know how schools in and around Detroit — the city in which she was born and, later, began her teaching career — were cultivating literacy in English while also supporting ELLs to learn grade-level content.

ELL students make up just over 10 percent of Detroit’s total school population, and over 30 percent and 45 percent, respectively, of neighboring communities, Hamtramck and Dearborn, says Yassine. Teachers reported receiving many newcomers last year, including children from Mexico, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Syria, and Yemen. So Yassine traveled to Michigan and observed classrooms in these three communities, interviewing teachers, principals, and district leaders of ELL youth about their performance, resource needs, and professional development.

“It was interesting to see that other teachers had similar questions about how to support their population as well,” she says. “Their needs are varied and are really tied to resources. Even the experienced educators are needing support to address this demographic shift.”

She found that each district had models for supporting ELLs, but not for developing students’ home languages. In addition to funding for ELL students, Michigan has a small program for bilingual education, with the goal of fostering both English and another language, but funding for the program was cut in half a few years ago because the state legislature had other priorities. Because of these funding limitations, says Yassine, “very few districts in the entire state have a model that supports both English and the student’s home language.” In addition, teachers felt strained by the limited resources for ELL education mandated by Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“The number one issue that came up, and that I saw as a teacher as well, is when kids are learning the language, at the same time, they’re also learning the academic content, and that’s really difficult,” says Yassine. She heard of children attempting to read English-language science textbooks just months after arriving in the United States, expected by their schools to figure out both the content and the language.

Now back in Boston to complete her year at HGSE, Asil Yassine is excited to continue to use teachers’ voices to explore what it would take to give all English-language learners the education they deserve.

“I learned about stories that cannot be told through numbers and cannot be conveyed through a single classroom visit,” she says.  “It was a very grounding reminder that my remaining months at HGSE should require me to take the same stance as we learn anything: What’s the story behind these numbers? Who are these students? What is their community like? What do they value?”

Yassine will continue to strive to understand the challenges of both ELL students and those who teach them, and hopes to help to implement supports for both groups in schools in Michigan and beyond.

“There are so many benefits, cognitively, socially, even economically later on, for being literate in more than one language…. When a student comes to school who speaks a language other than English at home, do we see that as an asset or as a deficit? We have a population that deserves to be uplifted and supported, but we are still short on resources for doing that. We need to make sure we are equipping our schools and teachers to do that well.”


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