Our high school is made up almost entirely of newcomer immigrant English Language Learners. Every May we give students a required test that measures English proficiency.
The test includes a a 15 minute speaking portion, which is delivered 1:1 by a teacher. The speaking test starts with a simple Warm Up: “A. What is your favorite animal? B. What do you like to do at school? C. Tell me about your favorite foods.” The teacher then asks the student a longer series of questions from a booklet. Topics range from doctors to telescopes.
In our school, we enlist all teachers to administer the speaking test: physical education teachers, art teachers, math teachers, everyone. In other schools, sometimes only English as a Second Language teachers administer the test, but in our school because we have so many English Language Learners, we have all hands on deck. Teachers are assigned students, and often, these are not students the teachers normally teach.
Here is the miracle of the speaking test: a child gets an adult’s full, undivided attention for 15 minutes.
Yesterday, I saw a 12th grade teacher lead a quiet 9th grade boy from a classroom to do the speaking test. The teacher shook the student’s hand and they chatted as they walked to an office. “How do I say your name?” asked the teacher.
“Jin, nice to meet you. How long have you lived in the United States?”
A thought. “Um, since 8th grade.”
“Wow, you’ve already learned a lot of English since then.”
The student smiled.
The interaction was simple, and so sweet.
For a full 15 minutes, each student is listened to, even if what they are talking about is the use of a telescope or random question about athletes. Sometimes, students are so new to English that they can’t answer any of the questions. However, even in those moments, they have an adult’s full attention. Those moments are equally special.
Last year, a math teacher told me about giving the speaking test to a 12th grade student named Marcos who she had never taught before. She hadn’t known much about Marcos: he had arrived in the country in 11th grade from Dominican Republic, played baseball and was lukewarm about his love of school.
When the teacher asked the Warm Up question about his favorite food, Marcos came alive. He told her about his passion for eating eggs. He spoke about overall health, his workout goals and how eggs helped to build muscle. He went into detail into how he cooked the eggs. The teacher was mesmerized.
After the test, there would be no reason for Marcos and teacher to interact much beyond a “hello” or smile of recognition. Yet that moment with Marcos was unique, and something the teacher never forgot. She had probably entered school that day thinking her main job was to teach math and at some point, administer a speaking test for compliance reasons. It turned out that her job included much more: giving her full, undivided attention to Marcos and experiencing his passion for eggs.
*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.