By Elsa Villa
A lecturer in computer science at Kean University, Ms. Mayra Bachrach knows first-hand what it means to struggle learning English, especially the technical terms of mathematics and computer science. Having emigrated from Cuba when she was in the 7th grade, Bachrach learned English with the help of caring teachers. Yet, she struggled with the binary technical terms, such as ascending/descending and rows/columns of 2-dimensional arrays. One of her biggest challenges — horizontal/vertical — took her 10 years to sort out! It is for these reasons that Bachrach is sensitive to the struggles of the students she teaches, many of whom are English learners. This informs Bachrach’s teaching stance, as described in the following:
Early in the semester I share my story with students, including that I learned English in a 7th grade classroom and struggled with understanding English words even after becoming fluent at speaking. I often write or draw on the board to clarify the meaning of concepts or words. For instance, I will write a list of words or numbers on the board to show the difference between ascending and descending, or I might ask the class to discuss or look up words in an online dictionary, or translate the meaning of English words that might help with understanding new Computer Science concepts, such as “polymorphism.” When appropriate, I might discuss concepts in Spanish with students and encourage students to collaborate in any language that helps in and out of class.
Bachrach’s instructional methods align with the academic literature on teaching English learners: providing visuals and allowing students to use their native language to make sense of topics and concepts introduced in the classroom. This translates into more students who are successful in learning computer science and who feel a sense of belonging, which is critical if non-traditional students are to succeed.