Our middle school ESL begins with the eighth graders arriving early at 1:25 pm. At 1:30, the seventh graders speed-walk in, followed by a burst of sixth graders who scramble to their seats. The students greet one another with daps and saludos in English and Spanish. They comb through their bags for the homework they must place in the turn-in bin and for the notebooks, folders, and pencils that they must have ready on their desk. And precisely at 1:35 pm on the classroom clock, we commence our call-and-response:
“Good afternoon, boys and girls!”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Dines and Ms. A-P!”
“I can’t hear you!”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Dines and Ms. A-P!”
My students are highly motivated and full of energy. They understand the opportunities that follow strong English. Knowing English means college scholarships and good jobs. My students seek the American Dream for themselves and their families. Their parents expect this because they immigrated to the United States seeking a better life for their children.
Social English is an easy endeavor for my students, even the newer arrivals. In the cafeteria and at recess, they mix and mingle with their monolingual English peers and talk at length about their favorite topics—soccer, fashion, gossip, neighborhood happenings, favorite foods, and funny YouTube videos.
So, it might surprise one to learn that, when these very same students are asked to converse about academic topics or to read aloud with their peers, they become nearly paralyzed.
Our students engaged in a unit which requires them to research and write biographical pieces about notable Latinos. As a way of synthesizing research on Desi Arnaz and his significance as a Cuban musician and actor, students composed “found poems” with key vocabulary words. On paper, the poems were arranged artfully with strong verbs that popped to a beat. After the writing was complete, Ms. A-P and I led a sharing circle to engage each student in sharing his or her poem and responding to questions about the writing process. The first time around, students with spoke in mumbles with their eyes fixed on the group, and others simply said “pass”. Ms. A-P reminded the class that our objective for the lesson was for students to speak aloud, and I modeled presenting a poem with confidence and with self-assurance. The students giggled as I exaggerated the words and peppered my speech with dramatic pauses. The second time around, each and every participated as Ms. A-P and I amped up the class with positive praise and strong encouragement.
“Boom! That’s what I’m talking about, Byron!”
“Pass the piece back to Kennett. He’s gonna speak or else we’ll stay here all day!”
“Yes, Gisselle! You’re in it to win it!”
The students laughed and the atmosphere loosened up as students began to praise one another. But still, as students presented and answered questions, they were still shaky—looking at the floor, talking with their back turned to the audience, stumbling on or mispronouncing words and having to repeat themselves. It was arduous to see just how fearful our students were of speaking in English in front of the group.
And if they were so afraid to speak up in our warm and loving classroom community, how could they participate in their general education English Language Arts, Math, and Science courses? How would they navigate the communication required in universities and in the workplace? And furthermore, how will they be able to effectively talk back to inequity and oppression?
The challenge of strengthening effective engagement in academic discussions is a familiar one after my eleven years working with students learning English, but it still remains a daunting task. While I have more expertise and experience that I did at the beginning of my career, facilitating academic conversation is a growing edge in my practice, and it is also essential to fully support my students.
Byron, an 8th grade ESL student in his second year of school in the United States, recently shared with his classmates that he finds it difficult to connect in the classroom because he could easily explain his ideas when in school in El Salvador, but now he has to work very hard to understand and be understood. His brain is often exhausted by the English that whirls around him. Reflecting upon Byron’s struggle fueled my fire for focusing on oral language skills in the classroom because I want each and every one of my students to have the ability strongly and sturdily participate in academic and intellectual conversations. After reflecting on this need with my co-teacher, we developed a plan:
1. Better Language Objectives for Speaking and Listening
Ms. A-P and I teach content-based ESL. The content of our current unit is researching and writing biographies of notable Latinos, and our content objectives focus on this topic. While our content objectives have been solid, our language objectives for speaking and listening have been weak and underemphasized, using vague verbs such as listen and discuss. So, we have begun working with the WIDA Speaking and Listening CAN DO descriptors found in the Key Uses Edition for Grades 6-8. These descriptors clearly define purposes for listening and speaking (recount, explain, argue, and discuss).
For our current unit, students will be writing recounts of the lives of notable Latinos and explaining the significance of their achievements. The WIDA verbs and descriptors used for recount and explain provide more specificity to language objectives: process explanations and recounts, express time in multiple tenses, pose questions that elicit elaboration, evaluate the significance of people and events in oral presentations, compare content-related concepts. We strengthen students understanding of these objectives through visual literacy—posting images alongside written objectives to strengthen students’ comprehension of language learning goals.
2. Collectivist Project-Based Learning
In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain, educator Zaretta Hammond compares the individualist dominant culture of the United States to the highly collectivist cultures of Latin American countries. Hammond also describes the features of collectivism: interdependence, reliance on resources of the group, and learning through group interaction and dialogue. Since our students are Latino and from highly collectivist countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador, collectivist project-based learning is a cultural match for their academic learning. Well-planned and rigorous collectivist project-based learning fosters intergroup academic and process-oriented conversation.
For the final project of our unit, students must explain the significance of a notable Latino and recounting events that prove this significance. Students will work with partners and in small groups, and they have the choice of producing a Google Doc, a song, or a poster to show the synthesis of their research and their understanding of the biography genre. Our teaching will emphasize and assess partner and group communication with a focus on academic vocabulary and discourse. Additionally, whole class discussion will facilitate reflection upon intergroup communication—what’s working well and how it could improve.
As oral expression establishes a strong foundation for written expression, I hypothesize that the emphasis on oral expression will result in greater linguistic complexity and precise vocabulary in their writing and I’m excited to see the progress in their oral language skills.
My responsibility as an educator is to ensure that all of my students are prepared for college and career. My motivation to do this work is solidly rooted in social justice. I want my students to be taken seriously when they challenge others’ opinions and beliefs and when they need to stand up to discrimination and talk back to negative narratives of Latino culture and immigration. All my students need the capability to wield their English in order to fully participate in our democracy. Strengthening speaking and listening skills in the classroom allows my students to practice what they will need to stand tall in the world. I love seeing my students learn and grow, and I am eager to witness the full expression of their intellect.