Saving Babies-and Moving Upstream

Untitled-2The other day I came across this thought-provoking story offered by Paul Marcus of Community Change Inc. in Boston:

Someone notices a baby floating in a river. Then another. And another. The person calls for help, jumps into the river and starts pulling babies to safety. More and more babies flow downstream, and people continue to pull them from the river-except one person who takes off at a run, heading upstream to see who or what is throwing babies into the river in the first place and what might be done about that.

“We focus on saving the babies, on individuals rather than on systems,” Marcus says. “Whoa” I said. Although I liked the catchy metaphor that would encourage us to look at systems (great idea), I had to admit that in my field, the system that sends us ESL students is really out of our control.  I thought about how this “saving babies” metaphor compares to the plight of ESL students in our school, and the resistance (more like total frustration) educators express as they attempt to make changes happen with the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards. They express to us all too frequently how their “ESL students can’t handle the rigor, don’t have the vocabulary” and they simply “just don’t know what to do”. Unfortunately in the ESL field, we don’t have any control over who is throwing babies down the river (the system), or how many, or when they come floating downstream to us, darn it. So most teachers either watch the ESL babies float down stream or they jump in and save one baby at a time and hope that the rest of the staff is on board with them.

OK, so what do we do if we have no control over the ESL students who come our way? As we can all guess, ESL students are not going away. They will continue to come into our classrooms just as each school new year begins…baby after baby will be headed our way. Never had an ESL student before? Surprise! One might show up in your classroom today. So how will you address that ESL students’ learning in your classroom?  Perhaps the answer lies in addressing those instructional practices that will affect all the students, not just one, and perhaps addressing those practices in less frightful steps, in baby steps.

The article suggests strategies called “try tomorrows”, a term coined by Mica Pollack, editor of Everyday Antiracism. “Try tomorrows” are like taking baby steps; they are “ideas, classroom practices or new approaches that are small enough to ‘try tomorrow’ in the classroom or at the next staff meeting or during the next student counseling session.”

  1. Consider your teaching methods: ask yourself whether the method you are choosing moves the ESL student closer to educational opportunities or farther away from such opportunities; ask yourself what that means for the ESL student, then adjust your choice of methods so that it continues to encourage learning rather than pushing the ESL student out of the classroom.
  2. Look critically at the instructional visuals, posters, etc. hanging in your classroom. What is helping your students, and what might be additionally helpful to your ESL students?
  3. If a colleague comes to you voicing frustration about some issue tied to the CCLS and ESL, help bring it down to a manageable level by saying “It feels overwhelming, doesn’t it? We can’t do everything, but we can do something. What can you try tomorrow?” Baby steps.

In this comparison, our own instructional practices are the only thing we truly have control over when the stream of things keeps coming down the river. So the moral of the ESL version of this story is, before we point the finger at systems, or someone or something else, and we get frustrated at those “ESL” students (babies) coming our way, let’s first take a (small step-by small step) inventory of our own effective instructional practices and make sure we are offering them everything we can.

Read more about “try tomorrows” at

Sally Doran
Mid-State RBERN

One thought on “Saving Babies-and Moving Upstream

  1. Thanks for your post, Sally. I like the “try tomorrows” idea. Classroom/content teachers are bombarded with so much that a “try tomorrow” is a good first step with their ELLs.

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