Andrew W. Habana Hafner, Ed.D. and Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero, Ed.D. Retelling It! Critical Spaces in Mandated Courses for Pre-Service Teachers of English Language Learners in Massachusetts

Education Professors Andrew W. Habana Hafner and Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero combined their shared expertise of English Language Learners (ELL) to critically investigate the experiences of instructors
and students in the pilot year of implementing the new Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) course in the Education Department at Westfield State University. The SEI course is part of the RETELL: Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners initiative, and is a state-mandated requirement to obtain and maintain a teaching license in Massachusetts.

The one semester SEI course covers a wide range of themes and issues related to a sociocultural framework for ELL education, second language theory, and pedagogical strategies for supporting ELLs. The professors’ research looks at shifts in student thinking about ELLs, teaching practices, as well as “ self’, a result of taking the SEI course. Dr. Ortiz-Marrero, the new Coordinator for ELL Education at WSU, explains, “This research project has given us the opportunity to incorporate critical multicultural perspectives to help pre-service teachers think more critically when designing and implementing SEI Strategies for ELLs as they use a sociocultural lens to differentiate instruction.”

Hafner adds, “Part of this relates to better understanding and empathizing with what immigrant, refugee, and second language learners experience in U.S. schools, especially in the age of standardization.”

The SEI course also provides an opportunity for the researchers to look critically at the new policy for ELL education, which was implemented in response to a 2011 federal Department of Justice report that required specific training for educators, amongst other educational changes for ELLs. The RETELL policy is another attempt to address educational inequities for ELLs, especially since bilingual education was eliminated in Massachusetts in 2002.

“A critical analysis of language policy and our response to educational programming and practice related to ELLs is important also as we consider our current national debate and conflicts around immigration,” says Hafner.

Their findings indicated themes reflective of a sociocultural perspective of language learning. The
data from students attested to their new awareness of resources ELLs bring into the classroom. It also deepened student teachers’ understanding of self, increased their confidence and a sense of responsibility and advocacy. As one student put it, “[I am] more able to put myself in their (ELLs’) shoes.” However, Professors Ortiz-Marrero & Hafner’s findings recently presented at American Educational Research Association’s 2015 Annual Meeting also point to contradictions in pursuing justice-oriented work, where our goals and hopes for social transformation can obscure the accompanying reproduction of inequities in the same process.

Professor Ortiz-Marrero accentuates, “this research is an inquiry tool for critical reflection not only about the content of this course and the shifts of students’ ideas about ELLs, but also about our own teaching
as facilitators of a specific content”. “Critical reflective practice is at the heart of good teaching, which we feel is also the critical awareness we hope to infuse in our approach to the SEI course,” says Hafner. “It is a deeper understanding of the ‘self and other’ dynamic that is inherent in ELL education in many ways.”