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Shock Language Provides a Jolt of Learning at Ephesus Elementary

Fifth grade students at Ephesus Elementary School (EES) experienced an hour of powerful and provocative learning on the morning of December 10, when they stepped across the threshold of a familiar classroom to encounter an unfamiliar “Shock Language” space. Two classes at a time, they lined up to enter Fifth Grade Teacher, Sheila Singh’s room, slowed by the requirement to pass through “customs,” receive passports and be assigned numbers and for many, new names, before they took their seats and looked toward teacher Kirsten Venema, who stood at the front of the room.

Venema has taught English Language Learners (ELL) at EES for many years, and the shock language activity is one she has used numerous times with students, as well as in volunteer training workshops. In a 2000 “TESOL Journal” article Venema wrote with several colleagues, she explains the concept. “What is shock language? Shock language provides participants with a firsthand simulated experience of being in a classroom where the language of instruction is not comprehensible.”

EES shock language Rangel The students knew something was up, even as they waited for their entry documents, because their “immigration officials,” DL/ESL Lead Teacher, Kat Rangel and ELL Teacher, Rita Dealy, spoke only in Spanish. Some children were kept waiting a bit longer than other students as the “officials” searched through pages for names. “Michael? Oh, here we have you - Miguel…” Students came in wearing tags with names like Marisol, Esmeralda and Osvin. A few children expressed befuddlement before they had even found their seats. “What is going on?” one boy called out.

The goal of the shock language activity is to raise native English-speaking peers’ awareness of the linguistic, cultural, and academic challenges that English Learners experience everyday, and to promote peer collaboration across a classroom.

As one of the three CHCCS elementary schools teaching French as their FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) language , a clear number of students knew no Spanish at all. However, scattered through the room were six Spanish-speaking students who had agreed to serve (secretly) as “co-instructors” to make the activity even more authentic.

Once everyone had a seat, Venema pointed to the lesson on the board and launched into a flurry of Spanish instructions and questions. “Wait! What?” a boy said loudly.

Venema asked for volunteers to read the Spanish slides projected on the screen, and six hands went up eagerly. As if nothing was unusual, Venema continued to point to each slide, comment in Spanish and then ask for “volunteers” to answer more questions. “This isn’t fair,” one girl murmured to her neighbor.

EES Shock Language helpers The Spanish speaking assistants had practiced their readings with Venema before the day of the event, and they reflected confidence and ease as they answered questions and passed out Spanish materials to their classmates. “When I first came into the class today, I was nervous,” one student said, “but then it got easier.”

After 15 or 20 minutes, which may have felt much longer to some of the students, Venema said to the class, “Welcome back to the United States,” and several children whooped “Yay!” Venema instructed them all to form a circle for a reflective debrief with Savanah Ebron, the social work intern at EES.

Marne Meredith, EES school social worker, said, “Processing the shock language activity using restorative circles helped students make sense of their experience and connect it to their current human migration unit. It gives them an experience to put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant, to help develop empathy.”

Through the years, Venema has consulted with the school social worker or counselor when she’s produced another shock language event, because the aspects of social-emotional learning embedded in the lesson need a team approach to make it as successful as possible. In 2017, she added a reflective circle component to follow the classroom simulation, and she worked with Meredith and School Counselor Ashley Sherman to create a list of questions for the students.

The first question asked was “How did you feel when you realized the class was in Spanish. One student said, “I was pretty bewildered, and I was thinking people who knew what was going on were very, very lucky.” Many students simply said, “I felt confused.”

Another question, “How would you feel if you didn’t understand anything everyday?” elicited energized replies: “I’d feel left out,” and “I’d be depressed,” and “I would feel forgotten.”

At the end of the circle time, students were asked what they learned from the experience. “That it’s really hard being an immigrant,” said a student quietly. 

EES Shock Language circle As the lesson concluded, Venema asked, “How does this activity connect to our unit on immigration?”  Children answered, “If I was an immigrant I would feel awful and left out,” and “I think being in someone else’s shoes and I’d be thinking in class, what the heck is going on?”

Rangel said, "It is hard for anyone to be empathetic if you have never experienced something similar. It's important for all students to be able to make connections in order to build empathy for others. This was a great lesson that ties to both social studies standards and social-emotional learning, with the circle used to debrief the experience. It was a wonderful collaboration by Ms. Venema, the fifth grade team and the school social worker!"

As Venema and her colleagues wrote in their article, “Whereas school teachers and staff often have professional development opportunities to learn how to best serve ELLs, rarely do mainstream peers have direct learning experiences that enable them to understand various challenges that ELLs face and to collaborate with them. Shock language is one way to provide such an educational experience to mainstream peers.”

The article continued, “Students connected with feelings like loneliness, frustration, confusion, feeling left out, etc. when not knowing the language. They problem solved how to support someone who may be new, is learning English or feeling left out.” In those ways, the fifth grade students experienced interactive learning at its best, while wrapping in a deeper understanding of the concepts tied to immigration for their social studies unit. Not bad, for an hour of Shock Learning.