Tonya Gonzalez, an ELL fourth-grade teacher at Phillips Avenue Elementary School, monitors a student who picks up an earthworm from a foam plate at Riley Avenue Elementary School. The fourth-grader places the worm on top of an open glass jar full of soil and watches it burrow into the dirt. About 15 other students are scattered into small groups throughout the classroom, each holding two jars full of soil.
About half the children in the classroom are Guatemalan, and all are first- and second-tier ELL students, categorized as “entering” and “emerging” students who need the most support.
Last month, Ms. Gonzalez, the ELL students and Riverhead teachers partnered with Stony Brook University representatives to study the relationship between earthworms and soybeans.
The worm laboratory program was part of Riverhead’s ELL Enrichment Program, which was held at Riley Avenue Elementary School from July 8-26. More than 120 ELL students in grades K-6 participated.
The enrichment program is free to students through a Title III grant, program director Jeremy Garritano said. Title III is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, created to help ensure that English language learners attain English language proficiency and meet state academic standards.
“The underpinning of the ELL curriculum work was to read, write and speak to understand,” he said. “Everything we did in the science experiments was thematic: It included reading, math, writing … it was very hands-on.”
The worm program, which ran Tuesdays to Thursdays for two hours each day, encouraged students to explore the relationship between the species and its environment, said Erik Flynn, clinical lecturer at Stony Brook University. Students conducted science experiments, calculated the weight of the worms, formulated hypotheses and used the scientific method to test how soybeans impacted the worms’ growth, he said. Each class was led by a different Stony Brook University representative.
“It sounds wonderful, but it was actually better than I thought,” he said, “because each student saw something, learned something different with each professor.”
The curriculum was created this spring by five Stony Brook University staffers: Mr. Flynn; Jeannie Guglielmo, clinical associate professor; Donna Crapanzano, clinical assistant; Carrie-Ann Miller, director of experiential learning programs for STEM smart programs; and Dr. Sharon Pochron, faculty director of ecosystems and human impact and sustainability studies. Dr. Pochron also serves as the lab director of earthworm ecotoxicology and hosts graduate and undergraduate programs using earthworms.
Mr. Flynn, who also teaches the two-week-long Health Careers Academic Readiness and Excellence class at Riverhead High School, said while the language barrier was not something the team anticipated when forming the curriculum, a natural transition occurred with the help of ELL teachers like Ms. Gonzalez.
“They asked [the students] to write something in Spanish, then English, then explain to them what it means. So, if there was a language gap, there was multiple levels of comprehension,” he said. “To me, hands-on cuts across all barriers.”
Students in other grade levels went on science walks, created ecosystem dioramas by reusing plastic lunch containers, researched erosion and its impact on ecosystems and engineered parachutes and took virtual field trips, Mr. Garritano said.
“We invited them in to bridge the gap,” he said. “To give them as much support — vocabulary, language acquisition — so it was really a holistic approach to the most at-risk ELL population.”
Island Harvest provided free lunch and breakfast for all students, and Eastern Suffolk BOCES and Feed the Children distributed free children’s books, backpacks and school supplies. Ms. Gonzalez said the program helped some students “make connections” with their former home.
“Some of the students only recently came here, so having the summer to connect was really great for them,” she said. “Hands-on activities helped them learn … Although a lot of them speak the same language, you start to see a lot of the shy students open up.”
Photo caption: Third- and fourth-grade English language learners work with earthworms during Riverhead school district’s ELL enrichment program at Riley Avenue Elementary School last month. (Courtesy photo)