When i would start planning a new Readers or Writers unit, or a new Math unit, I’d look at the materials given to me and ask myself, “what will be difficult for my students? Where will they struggle? Where will they find their strengths?”, and then I planned ways to mediate those challenges and build on those strengths. “The standard says they need to write for information, so I will train them on the 5-paragraph essay structure. The standard says they need to multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers, but Sandra can’t add yet, so I will give her activities where she can practice adding and connect it to multiplying 1 digit numbers. We’re reading historical fiction this unit, but there aren’t any historical novels at Lin’s level, so….” You get the point.
Now, I don’t use pre-fab units based on someone’s interpretation of the standards. I don’t hide the standards from students and hide how far from them they are. With the Learning Cultures curriculum, students have unmediated access to the standards, and the challenge is on them (in conjunction with the teacher and their classmates), to figure out where they are and they do this to engage in active problem solving and planning the actions and practices they need to reach the grade-level standard. The challenge is on the teacher to make those standards meaningful to them by not imposing them from the outside, but bringing them in to show the kids how what they’re doing connects.
So, this year, I have a beginner ESL student in ninth grade who comes from a politically volatile country and so rarely went to school before coming to the U.S. last year. She speaks two languages, one of which is spoken but not written, and she is marginally literate in the other.
Normally, in the traditional, transmission model I used to teach in, I would work with her one-on-one or in a small group (probably with some boring low-level text I’d chosen), to guide her to learn to read. I’d introduce letter sounds to her, choosing which ones she needed to learn, and choosing vocabulary for her to learn as well. I’d create ways for her to learn the things I knew she needed to learn. I’d also explain why she needed to know them, and help her see how it’d help her to become a stronger reader and language learner. Maybe I’d find out what we’re topics she was interested in, and if it fit into the Readers and Writers unit of study that month, I’d find her books that were relevant, or let her write on it.
All her learning would essentially be dictated to her, with some limited choices allowed.
This is the direct opposite of how I’m teaching now. We start with the student’s innate ability and desire to learn (which often has been so numbed and even removed by the traditions, transmission model, that just getting kids to do that is extremely hard), and we start by helping the students to use the standards to see for themselves where they are now, and where they need to be.
With this student, for example, she had chosen a novel to read which I quickly realized was way above her head; she can barely sound out new words and relies on her limited literacy in her home language to do even that. So, we sat, and I asked her to show me what she was working on. She pulled out this book and I asked her to start reading to me. She could sound out words correctly, here and there, and when she got stuck, she’d look to me for help. She couldn’t really tell me with great accuracy what was happening in the story. In my previous teaching, I’d have said (or been expected to say), “I notice you’re having a hard time reading and understanding this. Is this book your level? Does this book fit where you are right now?”, and then I’d help her choose a lower level text.
That’s not what I did this time. This time, I asked why she wanted to red the book, and then I said, “What’s hard about this book?” With this question, I’ve flipped the script. I’m no longer starting with what I think is hard for her and then moving her attention there. I want to see what she can identify as her challenge; can she identify what is troubling her? (Hint: many students can’t or for too long have learned to hide those weaknesses out of fear of being labeled or shamed). It is very powerful to put this in kids’ hands.
She shrugged her shoulders at first, and then said “The English.” I asked her to be more specific. She said she didn’t know some of the words. So, we read again, and when she couldn’t pronounce a word, I asked her, “what do you do when that happens and I’m not here?” She said she would skip the word. I then asked her how many words does she end up skipping, and she said quite a few, like 5 per paragraph. So, I said to her, “what you’re doing, trying to figure out what words sound like and what they mean is in the standards. Let’s look and see what the standards say and how to make what you’re doing stronger.” (She got to see, then, that part of this is reflected in the ninth grade standards but we had to look at the lower grade standards to find phonemic awareness, and we discussed why that was something valid for her and how it would lead her to ninth grade standards.)
So, then I started to prompt her to think through how she could learn how to pronounce the first word she had stopped on (“creep”). She had a computer handy, so she went to google translate. But, instead of just looking up the meaning, we noticed that google translate will read the word aloud to you, in English. I explained to her that this is an important step in learning English, rather than just learning what words mean. Together, we devised a plan, using other websites she found, and books I had, for her to continue this practice. I didn’t just impose this on her, from what I had noticed. I helped to guide her in identifying the problem herself and then worked with her, to devise a plan and set a goal for herself around this. I didn’t circumvent her desire to learn and use it to guide her attention to what I solely thought she needed. I used her intentions to learn, and my intention to implement standards to create joint intention by following into where her attention was already focused.
Now, she might decide that that book is way too hard to read on her own, so she may give up. Or, she may, through more conferencing with me, or through lessons, or what she sees going on in the class, discover other strategies to read that really hard book that she really wants to read—like reading with a partner, reading with a dictionary close at hand, etc. In the old model of teaching, I never would have allowed her to do that.
In recounting this story to my husband, I learned that that’s how he actually learned to read in English as well. When he first came to this country at age 16, his cousin lent him Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton. He wanted to be able to read and share this book with her, so he would sit with a dictionary and use the strategies he’d acquired learning to read in his previous two languages, as well as his desire to related to his cousin, to motivate him to read it. It took him a long time, and no doubt it was difficult, but his motivations were just as important in his success as his literacy skills. Had he been in high school and this book had been assigned by a teacher, with a two-week time limit, he might not have persevered.