New teacher, new approach to English as a second language


Like many of the students he teaches, Ruben Alvarez knows what it’s like to move around.

As the child of migrant workers Alvarez’s family moved back and forth from Texas to Minnesota, year after year, following the sugar beet crop. It wasn’t until he was in the 10th grade that Alvarez’s family settled down for good, and Minnesota became his permanent home.

And it was in Minnesota schools that Alvarez found his true home. is a journalism web site covering stories about Northfield and Rice County, Minnesota — and the ways that this region connects to the state, country and world. It is created by students at Carleton College.

After attending Concordia and St. Olaf for college, Alvarez was inspired by his mother, who learned English as a Second Language (ESL) in high school, and got his Spanish teaching license. Last year, Alvarez was hired to become one of two new ESL teachers at the Northfield Middle School.

When Alvarez was hired, Northfield’s ESL program was on the verge of facing sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act, due to students’ failing test scores.

Now, just a year later, Alvarez reports marked improvement in initial test results with his ESL students, although the results of standardized tests, which determine funding levels under No Child Left Behind Act, have yet to be released.

Still Alvarez’s approach to the ESL program seems to be working.

In the middle school, Alvarez helped start a new program, called “co-teaching” or the “push-in” method, which aims to partially integrate ESL students into regular classes with non-ESL students.

While subjects like reading and writing are still separate, sixth through eighth grade ESL students take math and science classes along with native English speakers. Alvarez helps co-teach these “push-in” classes with the school’s normal subject teacher, making small modifications in the curriculum along the way to help his students grasp the main concepts.

Alvarez says the goal is not to “water down” the subject but instead to distill “the essential learning and most important elements” of the class.

Alvarez thinks this method has marked a change not only in his students but in the rest of the Northfield Middle School’s understanding of the ESL program as well.

“I feel like teachers didn’t know what ESL did,” Alvarez explains.

But now with the “co-teaching” method both students and teachers more fully understand the ESL program. Alvarez says much credit for the apparent success of the new method goes to  non-ESL teachers who have been “open-minded” in modifying their classes, and also to the students and parents of non- ESL learners who have supported the integrated class model.

Though some critics say the “push-in” method is unfair to non-ESL students, and leads to a lower academic standard for native speakers, Alvarez says he has seen no objection from parents to his program at the Middle School.

Alvarez hopes the Middle School’s success can now stand as an example for the rest of the school district. He would like to see district-wide immersion and “more education for teachers on language acquisition and empathy to see what kids go through.”

Alvarez feels strongly about spreading his knowledge about the ESL program because he believes that ESL teaching is “not just teaching but advocating for a group of kids that otherwise would not have a voice in this community.”