Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

The Hallway: Teaching Spaces and Success for ELLs
Margo DelliCarpini

When I started as an ESL teacher, I taught in a hallway. It was a rare treat to be able to use a classroom with four walls and a door that closed. I worked mainly with students who had interrupted formal education in their native countries, primarily due to issues of access or civil strife. Some of these students had never held a pencil before and had no knowledge of concepts of print, the alphabet, or anything to do with the types of literacy practices we value in U.S. schools. My job was not to just teach communicative language skills, but to develop foundational skills that would help these students along the path of literacy development. Teaching adolescent students to read for the first time requires not only pedagogical skills, but, also sensitivity since young people are embarrassed by their inability to read or write. Building foundational skills, therefore, is best done in quiet settings that help both students and teachers maintain focus, and that preserve the students’ pride. Hallways, tables in another teacher’s space, or a corner of a busy school library, all fail to meet learning needs. We frequently lose these students, either through their dropping out of school or through their “checking out” and being in attendance in name only. My days of hallway teaching have been over for a while now, but I fear that not everyone’s are.

As a college supervisor of student teachers and teaching interns (those who are currently certified in a subject and seeking additional ESL certification, or those who hold temporary certificates), I visit many schools. Unfortunately, although many years have passed since I first started teaching in that hallway, I am still visiting student teachers and interns who teach in places to which the word classroom could never be applied. During the spring 2008 semester I visited an ESL teaching intern (Ms. C) who was teaching in the hallway. This was in a public middle school in New York City, a system that includes about 14% ESL students (out of approximately 1.1 million students overall). The hallway was loud and busy. The teacher was at the end of the hall with two small student tables, a file cabinet, a shelf for materials, and white newsprint and markers for a “board.” There were signs that had been made by Ms. C asking people to please not touch, move, or take any of the materials on the shelf or in the file cabinet. On one side of the space was a door to a classroom that had many people entering and exiting. On the other side was the stairwell door—a high-traffic area with teachers, staff, and students constantly coming and going. Surprisingly, none of the passersby, including other teachers, lowered their voices when passing this little teaching space. The lesson I observed included activities that would improve the students’ chance for success on the upcoming New York State English as a Second Language Assessment Test (NYSESLAT), the annual high- stakes, mandated assessment for ELLs in New York State. Schools are evaluated on students making adequate Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) on all standardized assessments—including the NYSESLAT. In addition, this test determines whether a student continues in ESL or is exited out of the program. As I observed Ms. C working with her students, I wondered how effective her preparation could be in such a loud, distracting, and public forum. She was working on important skills . . . not test preparation in a teach to the test way, but on understanding directions, the format the test would take, and how to use the answer key. I was pleased to see how she approached this, since research has shown that when students are familiar with the format of standardized tests, are confident in their abilities, have knowledge of test-taking strategies, and are able to use their time effectively, their success on such assessments increases (Borger et al., 1996). This is ethically accomplished, according to Mehrens and Kaminski (1989) by “giving general instruction on district objectives without referring to the objectives that the standardized test measures.” This is what Ms. C was trying to accomplish in her hallway space. The students did their best to concentrate, and Ms. C did her best to teach, but the level of distraction was equivalent to holding class in the middle of an intersection. As a knowledgeable, experienced observer, I didn’t think that a great deal of what happened during that session would make its way into the students’ knowledge base.

The other thought I had was that my mathematics, science, social studies, and English colleagues at the college would probably never have a similar experience. In other words, the professor who supervises the mathematics interns and student teachers would never observe his student’s Integrated Algebra or Geometry class regularly taking place in a busy hallway. I have yet to have a report from a mainstream teacher that he or she has no classroom and must teach math, biology, literature, or global studies in the hallway, in the boys’ locker room, under a stairwell, or in a corner of another teacher’s classroom while that teacher’s class is in session. This is a common report, however, on the part of ESL teachers. In fact, during the writing of this column I “polled the audience” and asked 60 of my graduate student in-service ESL teachers, “Who has a classroom?” Eighteen students raised their hand; the rest shared tales of being shuffled around the school and placed in odd spaces.

So you might ask, having read this description of my observation of Ms. C., what does this have to do with the overall success of ELLs in the mainstream—especially after I stated that I have never heard of a content teacher being asked to teach on a regular basis in similar situations? The answer is that the message such a placement sends is much more than one about space. It is a message about the value that is placed on the education of ELLs and the professional position of teachers of ELLs. One of our challenges as educators in a country that is increasingly diverse is to deliver instruction in ways that consider the needs of all learners and create opportunities of success for all learners. I’m not sure how this can be done on a regular basis in a hallway. ESL students are working to acquire language and academic skills. Sometimes the concepts of a lesson are lost on them due to a language barrier. As human beings, however, they are able to clearly assess the level of commitment of the school in relation to their success. Putting ELLs in the hallway, while other students get to be in a classroom, gives them the message that they and their teacher, and the acquisition of English, are all unimportant and take a secondary role to the real business of the school. This serves to marginalize both ESL students and their teachers. Putting ELLs and their teachers in less than equal accommodations gives the message that the acquisition of English is less important than other instruction loud and clear. This is indeed strange, given the general unease and dissatisfaction with bilingual education in the United States. It’s a message telling students on the one hand that they must learn English, and that English is the key to all academic and socioeconomic success in this country, but that on the other hand there will not be much support for that process. This is the hidden curriculum, and while many schools do provide the appropriate support for ELLs and their teachers (and I have been lucky enough to teach and observe in these schools, as well), too many still do not—and one is too many. James Banks (n.d.), a prominent researcher in the field of multicultural education, makes the following statement:

“As an idea, multicultural education seeks to create equal educational opportunities for all students, including those from different racial, ethnic, and social-class groups. Multicultural education tries to create equal educational opportunities for all students by changing the total school environment so that it will reflect the diverse cultures and groups within a society and within the nation’s classrooms. Multicultural education is a process because its goals are ideals that teachers and administrators should constantly strive to achieve.”

The key here is equity. Until we place the acquisition of English on an equal footing with the acquisition of content knowledge, our ELLs will continue to be perceived as and treated as remedial learners. To build successful contexts for ELLs, issues of equality must be included. The culture of the school and the hidden curriculum are areas where educational leaders can make a difference. Creating environments where all teachers are responsible for all learners is the first step; allocating resources equitably is another. Creating meaningful professional development opportunities where mainstream and ESL teachers engage in ongoing inquiry, problem solving, implementation of strategies, and reflection enables teachers to identify the needs of ELLs in their own settings and collaboratively develop strategies that foster success in all classrooms where ELLs learn. Finally, collaboration between mainstream and ESL teachers is a critical component to successful educational environments for ELLs. To this end, mainstream and ESL teachers can develop a team approach to teaching ELLs that enhances their experiences both in the ESL classroom and in the content classroom. All of these steps require leadership, and the outcomes for all can be positive if there is commitment and “buy-in” from administrators, teachers, and the community. We can do so much more to move beyond placing teachers and students in hallways.


Banks, J. A. (n.d). Multicultural Education: Goals and dimensions. Center for Multicultural Education. University of Washington. Retrieved July 7, 2008 from:

Borger, S., et al. (1996). Preparing your high school students to take standardized tests. Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees.

Mehrens, W. A., & Kaminski, J. (1989). Methods for improving standardized test scores: Fruitful, fruitless or fraudulent? Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices, 8(1), 14-22.

About the Author

Margo DelliCarpini earned a Ph.D. in Linguistics from SUNY Stony Brook and is an assistant professor of TESOL at Lehman College, CUNY, where she works with TESOL certification candidates. Her ESL teaching experiences include the PreK-12 grade level, adult ESOL, and college-level ESL. DelliCarpini’s research is currently focused on interdisciplinary teacher collaboration and second language literacy development.