Tuesday, April 26, 2016

English Language Learners: Learning beyond Professional Development (Part 3)

In my English Learner/Bilingual Methods independent study course I wanted to experience different types of learning experiences.  An Illinois Writing Project in-service day offered two sessions on EL strategies for writing, one in K-5 and the other in 6-12.  This was my first introduction to practical strategies to use with students in the classroom.  During another Writing Project event seven weeks later, I had the opportunity to revisit EL professional learning with the same presenter.  Although some of the content overlapped, the professional development presenter, Melissa*, adapted the strategies and activities to the grade levels during the in-service day and expanded the discussion of standards and assessment during the later session.

Melissa began our in-service sessions with Six-Word Memoirs.  As we tried to introduce ourselves with so few words, we were called upon to succinctly capture the essence of who we are and what we love.  In the morning I wrote this memoir: Wiser for learning words, children, faith.  In the afternoon, I tried my hand at gerunds to describe me: Reading, loving, learning, sharing, teaching, creating.  Other people wrote about children and outside interests, but I do not seem to be that creative.  NPR has a series on Six-Word Memoirs, but teachers must be careful when sharing random selections with students because of possible adult content.  Writing these memoirs shows that words have power in and of themselves without being connected to one another in sentences or paragraphs.  Melissa continued by saying that this activity could be modified with photos, word cards, and sentence frames, which are all appropriate modifications for language learners.

Importantly, teachers must consider two objectives with every lesson: language and content.  To meet these objectives, Melissa urges her district teachers to plan for reading, writing, speaking, and listening in every class.  In our PD sessions, we considered these questions:
How do writing-to-learn and academic conversations shape learning?
What compels me to read and write?
How can we support EL students?
Finding out English language proficiency levels are of primary importance.  English learner development is measured in six levels:
1. Newcomer
2. Emerging—knows and understands phrases
3. Developing—conversational understanding with lots of fillers
4. Expanding—academic language and knowledge of idioms developing
5. Bridging—students may exit the program but still need supports, especially with writing
6. Reaching—fluency
In the morning in-service session, I was first introduced to the language assessments created by WIDA that provide scores for English learners to indicate proficiency levels.  In Illinois, students may be exited from the EL program if they score a composite of 5.0 in writing and 4.2 in reading and math, which are both still at the expanding and bridging levels.  It is important to know what students’ current levels are in order to understand what supports they might need.  The WIDA website provides detailed information including Can Do Statements, helpful for determining the appropriate expectations teacher should have for students at different levels of proficiency.

Melissa cited John Hattie's meta-analysis intended to illuminate the most effective classroom strategies.  The following strategies were noted to have the largest effect sizes and can be adapted to benefit English language learners:
1. Clarity is intentional and purposeful. Teachers know the objectives for language and content and can articulately communicate those objectives to the students.  Teachers must ask, “Do students know what they need to do?”
2.  Lessons include guided, collaborative, and independent tasks.
3.  Tasks are meaningful and engaging.
4. Students can explain the purpose of the lesson and the tasks they are asked to do.
5. Teachers are authentic models.  In language arts and other classrooms, this means that teachers write.
6. Students apply strategies explicitly taught to them.
Melissa also led us in Jeff Anderson’s Power Writing activity, which is a timed writing based on words or images and sets a baseline for writing fluency and endurance.  Power writing is typically completed three times for a minute or two each time.  What is interesting is that often the second timed writing has the largest word count.  For this activity, Melissa used two unrelated pictures, but this activity could use pairs of words or phrases.  When we completed two timed writings on our picture choice, I noticed that the first image related to a memory, so I was immediately able to write.  This prompted me to consider that pictures could be content or academic related or culture related or family, etc depending on the purpose for the classroom writing activity.  These timed writings could also be included in the writer’s notebook and used for seeds for future writing opportunities (see Buckner, 2005 for more writer's notebook ideas).  Capturing writing in this way would allow students opportunities to return to their ideas and expand them.  One strategy would be to use short, timed writings at the beginning of a unit and then at the end of a unit to compare the quantity and/or quality of the writing or words.

But no matter how much knowledge and training teachers have, classrooms pose daily challenges and learning opportunities.  In last week's PD event, Melissa shared that she and a 7th grade language arts teacher have been conducting a study to document the supports students need at different proficiency levels.  For the most recent writing assignment, students were to use a folktale model and write their own "fractured" fairytale/folktale story.  However, she and the language arts teacher recognized late in the unit that they had left out some essential scaffolding.  The English learner students did not have a solid understanding of narrative structure, a cornerstone of successfully completing the writing assignment.  For example, one student had worked diligently on his piece for two weeks, but when he shared with the class, his onomatopoeias, simple sentences, and fragments lacked the essential narrative storytelling quality.  The bigger insight she shared with us that evening was that the safe classroom environment allowed this student to share his work without fear of judgment.  This student knew his writing would be received positively, and he would gain constructive feedback from his peers.

Feeling safe.  Some weeks ago, I attended an informational program about the refugee experience.  Later I learned from Melissa that if a school has twenty or more students who speak the same language, districts must provide a devoted EL teacher resource for them.  With the influx of immigrants, particularly refugees, in different areas around Chicago and the suburbs, this mandate has put a strain on several schools working to stay in compliance with the state.  And for some immigrants there may not be a choice of where or when, which is what I learned during a "walk-in-a-refugee's-shoes" activity during the refugee experience program.  As my semester progressed, my coursework was complicating my thinking in unexpected ways about what it meant to teach in diverse classrooms.  My next step would be to visit some.

Suggested resources:
Maria Nichols (2006) Comprehension through Conversation can be a cornerstone for early to mid elementary instruction.
Peter Johnston (2004) encourages teachers to speak to students in the language of literacy.  If we call students writers then they will become writers.
Stephanie Harvey and Ann Gouva’s Reading the World video series can be helpful for exploring culture; however, Amazon only lists the VHS version.
Zwiers and Crawford (2011) Academic Conversations.

*All names are pseudonyms.