Q&A with Jo Gusman

Jo Gusman, the founder of New Horizons in Education, Inc., is a former teacher and nationally-known presenter who specializes in the area of English language learners. She offered a workshop through SERC on October 29, 2008.

You have worked with English language learners for many years. What changes have you seen in this area of education?

When I began my teaching career in 1974, as a bilingual-education instructional assistant in an "enrichment bilingual program," parents in our community would excitedly register their children before the school year even started! Several of the bilingual programs in California were highly valued and seen as an important program model and choice for all parents. Parents from different socio-economic levels, cultures, and primary languages saw the benefits of providing their children with a comprehensive bilingual education program that would give their children an educational and professional advantage in their future. Today, I find that discussions about bilingual education turn into political commentaries, and many times, arguments, instead of people seeing the value of providing children with the opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate citizens who will later participate in a global economy.

When it comes to programs where the goal is to teach K-12 non- or limited-English speaking children only English , there is a huge disparity between the type of services these students receive. Today the lack of consistency between programs, or lack thereof, has lead to a huge achievement gap for English language learners. This is a huge change that I see today, and it is a very big concern for me as a bilingual education educator.

One unique aspect of your workshops is the incorporation of brain research into strategies for teaching students who are learning English. What led you to take this approach?

I received my Bilingual Education Cross Cultural Specialist credential at California State University in Sacramento. We were very well trained in school law, educational philosophy, multicultural education, understanding the socio-political context and implications of decisions made in education, and methodology, specifically developed for bilingual children. In 1981, when I began my work at the Newcomer School in Sacramento, I received a brochure in the mail about a presentation that was based on a book titled Superlearning by Sheila Ostrander. I was intrigued! I attended the seminar and came back to my classroom ready to implement the brain-based ideas that were presented during this short overview presentation.

Although Superlearning was a program created for adults, I tried to figure out how to modify the ideas for first graders. I shared the information with my principal, Mr. Lopez. Mr. Lopez, who was quite a science expert, was very intrigued by the brain research that served as the foundation for this program. From a simple brochure that had come to me in the mail, some of my team teachers and I went on to tailor the Superlearning ideas to fit our multilingual, multicultural refugee student population. It was a great success, to the point that our NBC television affiliate did a five-day news series titled "The New Kids in Town" that featured our brain-based language and literacy program.

In spite of the many similarities between first and second language learning, key differences must be considered in curriculum development. What implications might these key differences have for planning the content of language programs?

The key differences between L1 and L2 hold the key to success when teaching a content area or language and literacy lesson. When creating curriculum, instruction materials and programs for our students, we must make a commitment to understand the student's first language, in order to help us understand how to teach the new language. This curriculum design mindset is based on "parallel architecture." Parallel architecture enables the curriculum developer to identify the essential skill sets needed to ensure explicit and successful transference from L1 to L2. In addition, we must be very clear about our intentions and goals when we identify the content for our language programs.

For example, is our goal the transference of L1 to L2 skill sets or to transition the students "as quickly as possible" to an English only curriculum? Have we identified and assessed the essential skill sets to ensure transfer from L1 to L2, before planning a language and literacy lesson? Is this planning process evident in everyday instruction? Are we using an instructional framework that ensures the transference of L1 to L2 skills? When and how do we explicitly teach the transference of L1 to L2? And how do we as educators assess the successful transference of the essential skill set? The following is a visual framework that I created for fellow teachers, to help them plan language and literacy lessons and to mindfully plan for the relationship between L1 and L2.

How important do you think age is in learning a second language?

Brain researchers have found that human beings have "windows of opportunities" for learning a new language. Obviously, these windows of opportunity are open when children are very young.

I have also seen the power of teaching language and literacy using a brain research base for all K-12 students. When we mindfully orchestrate all of the teaching and learning elements and variables, such as designing a brain-compatible learning environment, using classical music throughout the learning process, creating a visual and performing arts context to better learn content area concepts, and integrating culturally relevant curriculum, I have personally experienced that students of all ages will successfully learn and easily use their new language.

What words of advice would you have for a teacher that feels that students’ basic interpersonal skills (BICS) should not be fostered in the classroom and that the focus should be on their cognitive academic proficiency (CALPS) development only?

My advice is, “Don’t fight it, go with it!" We should not fight the natural process that is wired into our body, mind, and brains for language acquisition. Regardless of which language you want to learn, we will always learn BICS before CALPS. In 1983, I had a huge “Ah-hah!” about why as human beings we learn our BICS before our CALPS! I remember reading about Maslow's Hierarchy of Basic Needs, and realized that the language we acquire is directly related to the needs Maslow identified in his research. As human beings, when we are learning a new language, we need to learn the language of "Basic Human Needs," "Safety Needs," "Love Needs,""Esteem Needs," first, before learning the language of "Self-Actualization" or higher learning/seeking knowledge needs. That is why I say, "Don't fight it, go with it."

What words of advice would you have for a teacher who is relatively new to working with ELLs?

The Internet is your best friend! Go to your favorite search engine and search for ELL education policy, laws, research, practical ideas, standards-based or language proficiency level-based lessons. I am amazed by the plethora of ideas on the Internet that can inspire, inform, guide, and support a teacher.

We created my website to be a supportive place for new and experienced teachers of bilingual students. If you come to my website, www.nhie.net, and select the "Additional Resources" button on the home page, you will see categories of important topics in ELL education. Once you select a category of interest, you will then see a list of website links that I recommend. The websites that I recommend on my website will provide teachers and administrators with the information they need to make effective instructional decisions, and provide them with the most effective, research-based tools to implement immediately in the classrooms.

What words of advice would you have for a teacher who has experience working with ELLs?

"Right when you think you know it, you don't." I went from being trained as a bilingual education teacher, to working at a newcomer school where we could find ourselves in a classroom with 8+ different languages and dialects in one classroom. I knew how to teach in a classroom where there were only two languages and two cultures I truly understood. But, once I started to work in a multilingual and multicultural context, this challenged me to be open to new ideas, and not feel too confident in the knowledge base I had studied for so many years.

Due to policy changes, world changing events such as 9/11, wars, refugee relocation, migrant pattern changes, changes in the world economy, and changes in language and literacy research, these variables will challenge us as teachers of bilingual students to keep up to date with education research and current events around the world, that will no doubt have an impact on our classrooms. We should not feel too confident in our present knowledge base. The dramatic changes happening around the world today will no doubt change education policy, research, and human beings as a whole. That is why we must remain open to new ideas so we can better serve our present and future students.

What are some of your favorite books, for both professional and recreational reading?

These are some of the books that have guided me and created new pathways for me:

  1. Superlearning by Sheila Ostrander, Lynn Schroeder, & Nancy Ostrander, Laurel, 1982. (An updated edition, Superlearning 2000: New Triple Fast Ways You Can Learn, Earn and Succeed in the 21st Century, was published by Dell in 1997.)
  2. Human Brain & Human Learning by Leslie Hart, Books for Educators, 2002.
  3. A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator’s Guide to the Human Brain by Dr. Robert Sylwester, ASCD, 1995.
  4. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by Dr. William Bridges, Da Capo Press, 2004.
  5. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, multiple publishers and editions. (A wonderful children's book with a huge message for us adults.)
  6. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 1989. (Gives us the secret to being a good teacher.)

What interesting things are you reading now?

  1. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, HarperCollins, 2008.
  2. Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet by Ruth Reichl, Modern Library, 2005. (I LOVE to cook, and I love reading cookbooks and anything that has to do with cooking.)

Additional Info

  • Resource Topic: English Language Learners
  • Source: SERC
  • Year of Publication: 2008
  • Resource Type: Article (web page)