Shuksan Middle School, Bellingham, Wash.
2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year
Javier walked into my room with his English assignment and said, “I’m confused. I am supposed to write a letter to my teacher about the book I am reading. The directions say to introduce my book to her first.” Then Javier pulls his book out of his backpack and politely gestures with his hand from the book to me. “Mrs. Brown, this is my book. Book, this is Mrs. Brown.” As a smile spreads across my face, Javier exclaims, “Is that right?” He knew from my laugh that we would once again dive into a discussion about the wonderful challenges of the English language. Last week he struggled with the word prove in math. The week before, justify in science. Next week it might be identify, summarize, critique, evaluate, and/or argue.
In the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we have an opportunity. An opportunity to define what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century. An opportunity for students to not only develop content knowledge, but also how to use language effectively. An opportunity for all students, even those like Javier who are new to English, to experience high-quality language instruction and participate fully in the classroom experience.
Simply put, the CCSS require classrooms to look different and sound different. So what would we see and hear? Tables and desks are arranged in groups, with students facing each other, not the teacher. More importantly, students are placed in this seating arrangement strategically. Javier is seated next to a student who is more proficient in English and enjoys encouraging his peers. Isabel, a highly capable learner, is seated next to a like-minded classmate on the right, but a student who needs a little extra support on the left. Interactions between students and within groups are closely monitored for participation and quality of student talk. Groups are flexible and change often depending on the language demands of the activity.
To get more classroom resources from ELL students, and to read Katie Brown's Teacher of the Year blog, please visit: www.mycoachkatie.com
When students are speaking, you hear these words being used. Even Javier is using the same academic vocabulary as his peers because he is provided with a sentence frame like, “_____ and ______ are similar because_____. They are different because_________.” When the class is asked to do a close reading of a difficult text, Javier is able to keep up. With a peer, he highlights the main ideas, circles key words, and writes notes and questions in margins. As students transition into a discussion about the text, you hear them saying things like, “I agree with you, however_______,” or “If you look at paragraph two, line 5, it states________.” Javier has these sentence starters on his desk to assist him in constructing his arguments. As you watch, you get an overall feeling of inclusion; every student is either listening, speaking, reading or writing. Every student, despite their language proficiency, is involved and expected to produce.
The Common Core State Standards articulate what students need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in college, work, and life. In a way, the CCSS has provided a new language for learning and teaching. A language that emphasizes literacy and effective communication in all content areas. A language that expects all students, no matter where they come from or what language they speak, to meet the same high expectations. For Javier, this could transform his education and future.
Katie Brown is an English language learner specialist at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, Wash. She is the 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year. Learn more about Katie by visiting her blog at www.mycoachkatie.com.