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Jill Van Ness, an ESL teacher, honored by LUSD for work with her students

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Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2008 10:00 pm

Jill Van Ness, an English-language development teacher at Lodi High, will tell you that she teaches English to high school students.

What she won't tell you - at least not freely - is how far she'll go to do her job.

Her students are invited to her house for dinner. She takes them to visit colleges. And if they don't have a plan after high school, she piles them in her van and takes them to enroll at San Joaquin Delta College.

And suddenly, students who were concentrating on just finishing high school are signing up for four-year colleges.

Bill Atterberry, principal at Lodi High, said that in the past five years Academic Performance Scores for Hispanics at the school have gone up 152 points while white students' scores have gone up 52 points.

"While other schools are talking about (closing the achievement gap), we're actually doing it," Atterberry said.

He credits a large part of that success to Van Ness, the staff she's built and the culture of achievement she's created.

This year, Van Ness' efforts earned her the distinction of being the district's Teacher of the Year.

News Sentinel staff writer Amanda Dyer talked with Van Ness about the difficulties of learning another language.

Q: How did you get to be an English-language development teacher?

A: I was a foreign exchange student in high school. I set out to teach ELD.

I lived in Germany for my senior year in high school, I taught for a year in Costa Rica, second-language learners there.

I have a degree in English, but some people just wanted to teach English. I always wanted to teach ESL (English as a second language).

I got my first job in West Sacramento. … I remember walking into my first day of school. I was 22 years old, straight from Costa Rica. And I had 40 kids from 13 different countries and no curriculum.

Thank goodness for mentor teachers around me. …

Q: What's the best way to learn another language?

A: I think really immersing yourself in the country.

It's a little more difficult here in California for our Spanish-speaking students, because they can pretty much function without knowing any English. For them, it's not as much immersion. They go home; they speak Spanish. They speak Spanish at school.

It's a little bit harder for them. Really, the only English they get is what comes from the classroom.

Q: What words do non-English speakers have difficulty saying?

A: Well, I don't know about words specifically, but they wouldn't understand idioms. Like if we said, "It rained cats and dogs."

They wouldn't understand because, you know. And we have so many more than you think. And words that have dual meanings often present a problem.

Q: How long does it take to learn another language?

A: Academic English, they would say, takes seven to 10 years. The state kind of expects that kids move here and boom, "Why aren't your test scores high?"

Well, academic English. And to not be immersed in it?

They aren't immersed in it, and they're just coming to school.

And many of them who come at the high school level haven't had much schooling before.

To treat them like they're from Germany, a foreign exchange student, is silly because for many of them their education levels aren't at the level you would think of for this age.

Q: Is it harder to teacher older kids English?

A: It comes down to their prior education.

But they do say to learn English with native-like proficiency, that it's almost impossible to learn it after the age of 13.

Native-like. I mean, even our governor. You hear a strong accent. He's educated. He'll make grammar mistakes sometimes.

It's very hard to learn it to native-like proficiency after the age of 13.

Q: What's the most gratifying part of your job?

A: I think working with the students.

They don't have much of a voice in society at this point. They're immigrants.

Their parents, mostly - I don't want to sound like I'm stereotyping all of them, but they've come to work in the fields. To take that population and to get them into college and get them to think about a different kind of future for themselves is very, very rewarding.

Q: Do students know the bad words by the time they get to you?

A: I think there are some that they just pick up on.

I've heard lately, going "Hell, yes!" It's not really a bad word. They just hear it all around them. But I always point out that those aren't really good words.

And like saying, "ain't" and stuff like that. They wouldn't know that that's not grammatically correct unless somebody tells them.

Q: Who are you rooting for on American Idol?

A: I really like Brooke (White), but she's gone now. So, I think David Cook or David Archuleta.

Q: David Cook doesn't creep you out at all?

A: A little bit. He creeps me out looks-wise, but if I close my eyes I like his voice.

But just the way he is. But therefore, that's why I would say David Archuleta.

But then, he's so young. Is he ready to be an idol? All that.

Brooke was really my favorite one. I liked her Carly Simon look.

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4 comments:

  • posted at 3:13 pm on Sat, May 10, 2008.

    Posts:

    This story had the potential to be so much more. What about some questions regarding her dinners with the students (how often, how many, etc.); how many students have actually graduated from a 4-year college and/or how many are enrolled; how does she see the LUSD handling or supporting her for the future, etc. Instead, we're left with American Idol questions! It's too bad, Jill deserved a better interview than that!

     
  • posted at 10:06 am on Fri, May 9, 2008.

    Posts:

    Jill, you are such an inspiration and role model for everyone in LUSD and well deserve your accolade. Keep up the good work and bringing nothing but positives to LUSD.

     
  • posted at 3:25 am on Fri, May 9, 2008.

    Posts:

    Very, god story. Looks like she stiing on a rickety swing though

     
  • posted at 3:07 am on Fri, May 9, 2008.

    Posts:

    Jill is an inspiration to students and teachers alike. In times when it seems one person can't make a difference, Jill is proof that one person's passion, dedication and wisdom can guide young people to a better place in life. Merci, Jill!

     

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