Ten months after beginning his teaching career, Nathan Horton left the United States and trekked to Kyrgyzstan to teach English as a foreign language. After almost two years of teaching English in central Asia, he returned home to California and began teaching English in a Russian/Armenian/Ukrainian school. In 2013, Horton transitioned to Fairmont Private Schools and has taught English, geography, and United States and world history in the schools’ ELL programs.
“Language acquisition in content courses is tantamount to pairing salty and sweet, or barbecues and the Fourth of July: you appreciate the other so much more because of their convergence,” says Horton as he describes merging English language teaching with other subject areas. Watching students master the geography of Chilean cuisine or the form and function of Europe’s many bridges and waterways is even more incredible when listening to them explain and extrapolate in a second or third language.
In Horton’s classroom, he believes the best method for increasing lower-level student participation is to diversify instruction:
“I love watching students “speak” through taking pictures, drawing mental maps, creating films, and producing “vocal cartographies.” I have found that the more things I am able to present, the more likely it is that some of it sticks and gets a student going in the right direction (geography pun intended).”
In a content-heavy course like U.S. history or geography, students are constantly having to remember and apply (or “rinse and repeat,” as Horton says) vocabulary, syntax, and grammar to material they may already be familiar with, but must now attempt to grasp in English. Horton describes the situation as being akin to a novice freestyle swimmer: relatively new to the activity and being asked to manage the breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly stroke, all the while just trying to remember to stay afloat. Teachers and instructors are obligated to keep ELL students afloat. In the classroom, this means “staying afloat” with vocabulary, while simultaneously adding new “strokes” to form a well-rounded learner. Language acquisition in a content course, much like learning to swim, should not be done alone.
Covering reading, speaking, listening, and writing is a balancing act for both the teacher and the student. Teachers want to see an improvement in a student’s language skills, but, at the same time, want to see and hear him or her wrestle with complex material. Horton stresses ideas and cerebral thought in his content courses, so he strives to frequently give students time to talk in their native language, ensuring that ideas are expressed as clearly as possible.
A common teaching strategy employed by Horton is based on consistency. He begins each class with a reading and writing activity that lead to speaking exercise. In a geography course, Horton displays a “Map of the Day” and students respond to a few topic questions in their notebooks. After formulating some written ideas, students are paired up to discuss or are encouraged to present to the class. Horton states,”I constantly encourage to BE, ASK, and DO: Be at school on time, ask questions every day, and do the work. The students who do these things are the students who reach their own definitions of “success.”
Another interactive activity for geography class, Horton has students create three to five minute silent films that represent an analogy for colonialism, for example. These silent films must include the Six Elements of Story discussed in class, and on viewing day, the class must correctly identify the analogy and the six elements.
“Viewing day is a great day because students want to talk to each other about their films and they are required to do it in English. This particular presentation is a good gauge for me to see English, geography, history, and critical thought working together.”
Horton will also have students teach a fifteen minute history or geography lesson as a teacher of another discipline. For example, if the class is learning about the United State’s involvement in World War II, students will randomly draw disciplines such as science, mathematics, art, and languages. They then assume the role of that teacher and lead a lesson about World War II. A science teacher might teach about the atomic bombs, or an art teacher may focus on the paintings of Norman Rockwell. Seeing the creative intelligence of the students is half of the fun.
“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit” – Wade Davis
Horton believes that our first language is something most of us didn’t learn, but rather had happen to us. Horton attributes language learning to eating and walking. When looking around we don’t judge one another by saying, “He eats better than me,” or “She walks much more effortlessly than me.” Rather, we compare ourselves, and often become self-conscious, about the things we have “learned.” This makes the ELL classroom a special and delicate place. “He speaks better English than me,” or “She writes much more effortlessly in English,” are very real concerns for the ELL student. The more opportunity students have to interact in different activities, the better it is for their confidence. As confidence rises, so does curiosity, which often creates those “manifestations of the human spirit.”